Don’t get intimidated by the terms. It’s all smoke in mirrors. Keep reading to learn the difference between novels written in the first, second, and third person perspectives.
What does it mean to write in the third person?
Writing in the first, second, and third person refers to the point of view that the narrator takes on in telling a story.
What’s point of view?
A story’s point of view describes the perspective or viewpoint from which the story is being told. Point of view responds to the question ‘who is telling the story?’
To distinguish between points of view, look to see which person is speaking to the reader and describing the story’s events.
The three main types of POV
There are three main categories of points of view:
- First-person point of view.
- Second person.
- Third-person point of view.
First-person point of view
Think about how we communicate in our day-to-day lives. We speak from our own personal experience and point of view. When we talk to our friends, we speak in the first person, using first-person pronouns, such as, I, me, my, myself, we, us, ourselves, and so on.
It works the same in writing.
When writing is in the first person perspective, the main character speaks to their experiences personally or from a personal point of view. They describe their own experiences almost as though they are conversing with the reader.
From the first person, readers are invited into the character’s head, it’s as though we listen to them narrate the events directly. In this way, the first-person perspective allows more intimate access to a character’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, opinions, and so on.
When novels are written in the first person, they are often told by the main character in the story themselves. They could also be told from the perspective of a character closely observing the main character. An example of the latter is in the classic novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nick Caraway, the narrator of the novel, is not a central character in the story but instead observes the main characters (such as Jay Gatsby) in close proximity.
Other novels written in the first person are narrated by the main characters themselves, detailing their direct experience of the events as they unfold throughout the novel’s length, or in hindsight, through recollection.
A classic novel that exemplifies this is The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. The novel’s protagonist and main character, Holden Caufield, tells the story entirely from his character’s POV.
See the following examples of writing in the first person POV.
Examples of writing in the first person POV in literature
I was glad of it; I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.—from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.—from Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
The widow she cried over me, and called me a poor lost lamb, and she called me a lot of other names, too, but she never meant no harm by it. She put me in them new clothes again, and I couldn’t do nothing but sweat and sweat, and feel all cramped up.—from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.—from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
In the second-person point of view, the speaker or narrator of the novel addresses the reader directly by using second-person pronouns, such as you.
The second person perspective is the least common perspective used in fiction writing and storytelling.
Second-person pronouns refer to the person or people being addressed in the sentence or writing. Pronouns that are in the second person include you, yours, yourself, yourselves.
Examples of writing in the second person in literature
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice — they won’t hear you otherwise — “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything: just hope they’ll leave you alone.—from If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino.
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.—from Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInnerney.
This was the last thing you and I talked about while you were still alive. After, only your email with a list of books you thought might be helpful to me in my research. And, because it was the season, best wishes for the new year.—from The Friend by Sigrid Nunez.
Third person point of view
The most common narrative choice in literature is the third-person POV. The dictionary defines the third person narration as:
The grammatical person used by the speaker of an utterance in referring to anyone or anything other than the speaker or the one (third person singular) or ones (third person plural) being addressed. (Dictionary.com)
When a story is told in the third person, it’s from a third person concerning the events taking place within the story. The third person perspective reports the events to the reader from the outside, as though from a bystander’s perspective, removed from the story itself.
Writing in the third person narrative uses third person pronouns, such as: he, she, it, they ; his, her, it’s; him, her, it; himself, herself, itself; they; them; their; themselves.
Third person omniscient vs. third person limited
The third-person viewpoint is the most common in fiction writing and storytelling. There are two main subtypes of the third person POV: the third person omniscient point of view and the third person limited perspective.
With first person limited, the narrator closely follows the perspective of a single character, usually the main character or protagonist of a novel. Third person limited uses third person pronouns such as he, she, his, hers, etc.
This viewpoint gives the author both flexibility and intimacy by allowing them to enter the character’s head and inner thoughts while still being able to write in third-person pronouns.
That said, the limited aspect of this point of view is that the speaker can only access the mind of a single character as opposed to all of the characters in the story; as in the case of third person omniscient.
The readers are therefore limited in this way to view the main character’s viewpoint and personal account or understanding of things. The central character offers the widest lens through which to understand or see the story. The other character’s thoughts and feelings are unknown unless they come out throughout the course of the novel in other ways or through inference and speculation on the part of the viewpoint character.
Examples of writing in the third person limited POV
“Harry sat up and examined the jagged piece on which he had cut himself, seeing nothing but his own bright green eye reflected back at him.”.—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Stepan Arkadyevitch was a truthful man in his relations with himself. He was incapable of deceiving himself and persuading himself that he repented of his conduct. He could not at this date repent of the fact that he, a handsome, susceptible man of thirty-four, was not in love with his wife, the mother of five living and two dead children, and only a year younger than himself.—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina.
Third person omniscient narration
The third-person omniscient is the most common view of all the narrative options in fiction writing. The third person omniscient gives the narrator an all-knowing or ‘god’s eye’ POV.
It’s a tricky concept, but with the third person omniscient, the narrator is already aware of the main character’s thoughts, along with everyone else in the story. This does not mean each character becomes the narrator themselves, but rather that the narrator observes each character and decides what to reveal to the reader.
When stories are narrated not by one of the main characters themselves but from an outside observer looking in, or an unidentifiable narrator, this is in the third person omniscient POV. The third-person omniscient point of view gives the writer creative liberty to entirely create an entire world of developed and dynamic characters of their choosing.
Third-person examples in literature
Occupied in observing Mr. Bingley’s attentions to her sister, Elizabeth was far from suspecting that she was herself becoming an object of some interest in the eyes of his friend. Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty: he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticize.—from the novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
“Rupunzel, Rupunzel” the Prince called, “Let down your hair!” Rupunzel unbraided her hair and slung it out the window. The Prince climbed her locks into the tower.—Brother’s Grimm fairy tales
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning—fresh as if issued to children on a beach.—Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf.
“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
“We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.
The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly, “We haven’t got Father, and shall not have him for a long time.” She didn’t say “perhaps never,” but each silently added it, thinking of Father far away, where the fighting was.—Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Stories told in the first person narrative recount the events of the story from the character’s own personal perspective of the events that are taking place around them. In the first person narrative, it’s as if the reader gains access to the character’s internal mind, thoughts and feelings. They use personal pronouns such as I, me, my, ours, we, and so forth.
In the second person the speaker directly addresses the reader in the second person pronouns, you, yours, yourself, yourselves. This perspective makes you the main character, and is least common in writing.
Third person is most common, and gives the narrator an outside position from the story events. There are two main types: first person limited and omniscient.
- Definition of first person narration
- Definition of second person narrative
- Definition of third person narration
- Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf 1925
- If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
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- Abstract Noun
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