November 6, 2017

Mini Lesson: First-Person vs. Third-Person Narration

Mini lessons have been getting a bit long lately, but luckily this one is short & sweet!

I've been seeing far too many advice posts for writers that incorrectly define first-person and third-person narration. So I'd like to clear things up.

First-person narration is narration that—unsurprisingly—uses first-person pronouns, meaning the narrator refers to themselves as "I." So you'll be seeing words like "my," "we," "our," us," etc. in the narration. It's how, most often, you would speak to a friend about your life experiences:
  • I went to the store.
  • My backpack fell on the ground.

Third-person narration uses, appropriately, third-person pronouns, meaning the narration describes all characters (including the perspective character, if any) as "he," or "she," (or "ze," or other pronoun preferences) or by name. So you won't see words like "I" or "my" outside of direct thought and dialogue. For example:
  • Alex went to the store.
  • Her backpack fell on the ground.

So, where does the confusion come in? Well, I keep seeing people refer to subjective narration as "first-person." These are not the same thing! In fact:
  • Both first- and third-person narration can be subjective (limited to the narrating character's point of view; also sometimes called "close" narration).
  • Both can also be objective! (All-knowing, or unlimited.)
    • The caveat here is that objective first-person narration is extremely rare. It is usually told in hindsight to explain how your narrator could know everything that happened and what other characters thought or felt. Often, the narrator turns out to be unreliable. 
      • Look out for a future post on subjective vs. objective—and unreliable—narration!
    • Some examples:
      • Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverk├╝hn As Told by a Friend by Thomas Mann
      • How I Met Your Mother (TV show)
  • Both can be written in either past or present tense. 
    • Or future, in theory, though I haven't seen that. If you have, please share an example in the comments!

Bonus: It's also possible to have second-person narration, addressing the reader directly using the second-person pronoun "you." This is rare, especially in longer forms like novels, but it does happen and can be quite powerful. Examples:
  • You walk to the store.
  • Your backpack falls to the ground.


So there you have a quick overview of pronoun options for your narration. Remember: the pronouns you choose do not affect whether your narration is subjective or objective, which is a separate choice you have to make for your story.

Still have questions? Ask in the comments!

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