First, second, and third person: choose your style

I’ve been intrigued by two recent trends. One is an increase in stories written in the second person. The other is the discussion of whether it’s OK to write in the first person. Both of these surprised me, and I thought it would be useful to explore what these devices do for readers, and how to use them.

When I was an editor I read an awful lot of novels in an awful lot of styles. There is wondrous variety in fiction. In general, I take the position that all rules can be bent or broken, but to do so well, you need to understand the reason for the rule in the first place.

Third-person limited is a generally accepted norm for fiction writing. Over the past three decades, first-person perspective has become more accepted. Second-person perspective is relatively rare. None of these is inherently good or bad as a writing style, but it’s worth thinking about why you choose the perspective you do.

Here’s my perspective on the first, second, and third person.

Back to basics

Stories are acounts of events, delivered by one person to an audience of one or more people. Sometimes the audience is the same person as the narrator, but usually there’s at least one other person you’re talking to. Nowadays, a lot of our stories are written down, or performed by actors in TV or film. There are a lot of different ways to deliver a story. But the oldest kind of story is oral.

One person telling a story to another, with their voice*.

Our written traditions of storytelling still owe a lot to oral traditions. There are differences. For example, oral story telling relies on tropes – like repetition, meter, and verse structure – to help the person telling the story remember it. That’s why Shakespeare is written in iambic pentameter  – not because he’s trying to be poncy, but because before the printing press it was very laborious to write down stories to deseminate them, so most stories were written in verse. Shakespeare was following that tradition. Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and The Blazing World (1666) are some of the earliest examples of long-form prose fiction. The printing press had spread across Europe about a century earlier (the first European printing press being invented in 1440), causing an explosion of literary innovation, but it still took a while before people started the think that long-form stories didn’t have to be written in verse.

Those restrictions of form really only existed to help people memorise very long stories that could be passed from storyteller to storyteller across distance and time. Even older forms of storytelling didn’t require it. Things like recounting an event that happened to you (“I says to him, I says…”), things that happened in the past (“You know that old standing stone, out in the field, well, that’s there because…”), spooky stories told round the campfire, (“There was this couple driving down a dark country road, and they heard this news report on the radio…”). So many different, every day kinds of story.

When I choose whether to write in the first or third person, I think about it in terms of those ancient, oral forms of storytelling. And I think that, consciously or unconsciously, that’s how most readers understand those forms, too.

First person

When you choose to tell a story in the first person, you tell the story as though it happened to you, the narrator. Whether the narrator is presented as the same person as the author depends on the external framing of the story.

If you frame your story as an autobiography, you present the story as something that literally happened to you. The narrator and the author are presented as the same person (even though sometimes that might not be entirely true – you may have hired a ghost writer). Sometimes, fiction writers also frame the narrator as the author, even though the story is clearly not autobiographical. For example, Lemony Snicket is both the narrator and a character in A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Lemony is presented to readers (framed) as the author. But Lemony Snicket is clearly not a real person and the unfortunate events clearly didn’t actually happen. Daniel Handler made up both Lemony and the events.

Comedians also sometimes frame stories as autobiographical when they’re not, because the joke seems funnier if it happened to them.

But usually, in the realm of fiction, if you choose to tell a story in the first person, you frame it so that it’s clearly about someone else. The narrator and the author are not the same person. This is a bit of a departure from the oral tradition. While an oral storyteller might make themselves the same as the narrator in telling a story, if it’s clearly fiction, they’ll do so at a bit of a remove. “I’m telling this to you as my grandmother told it to me, and her grandmother told it to her. When my great-great-great-great grandmother was a very small girl, as you are now…” Or they do it with a bit of a wink or a nod, in the manner of the comedian, indicating that this event may not be quite as true as it’s presented as being.

This is because, when you present something in the first person, you automatically imply to your readers that it’s closer to the truth, to reality. This can be a great way to make a story more compelling and more immediate. The reader feels closer to the action because the narrator presents themselves as closer to the action. To the turth. To the idea that this really happened.

There used to be more hesitency about telling stories in the first person. A thought that if one did so, one had to get the framing right. To tell a story in the first person in which the narrator died was a big no-no, unless you managed to frame it in such a way that the character didn’t have to write “And then I died.” Because how could they have written it if they died?

This is because the reader is still tacitly imagining another human being physically telling them a story. A thing they can’t do if they’re dead.

Stories that found a way to do this were lauded as especially clever. The first story we read for my English Literature A-level was a first-person story in which the narrator died. It was told as a series of diary entries by a scientist who was experimenting on animals to make them super-intelligent. At the end, the entries abruptly cut off. “What happened?” our teacher asked us. “The animals killed him,” I answered. Because the storyteller had woven in enough information, through the diary entries, for us to work the ending out. A neat trick, if you can pull it off.

In the decades since then (bah, I’m getting old), both writers and readers have loosened up a bit.

I think that’s partly to do with the huge success of authors like Robin Hobb, who has masterfully written nine books in the first person perspective of Fitzchivalry Fareseer. As well as several others in the first person from the perspective of other people. And even in Hobb’s works, the tightness of the framing has loosened. In the original Farseer trilogy, Hobb is very specific in her framing, using Fitz’s obsessive writing about his own life as a device, and his abuse of a specific drug to explain the depth of detail in his memory. By the final trilogy, although Fitz’s continued writing about his own life remains a motif – a habit he passes on to his daughter, that we might have her perspective too – it isn’t entirely clear how we, as readers, have access to all that is written. Without giving too much away… I have questions.

Perhaps I attribute too much to Hobb, as I value her work so specifically, but it seems to me that as writers like her showed it was possible to write the first person well. As a result, many more writers have adopted the habit without any attempt to provide a frame that explains it. We have moved a little further away from the camp fire and the oral tradition.

The third person

The third person has long been more common when writing fiction. This is for obvious reasons. Many tales in the oral tradition were about myths and legends – larger than life characters and events that could not possibly have been witnessed by the storyteller themselves.

It also offers the valuable opportunity to present events that could not all have been seen by the same person. Or multiple perspectives on the same event.

A skilled writer, like Hobb, can introduce a second character who also writes from the first person. But if everyone calls themselves ‘I’, it can leave the reader wondering who is who. Again, I think that without some framing that explains it (as when Bee takes up her father’s habit of extensive journaling) the reader is still tacitly imagining a single person telling them the story – the narrator – as they would have been in the oral tradition. A single story teller can easily tell the story of many different people, but only if they don’t claim that each of those people was themself.

So, most stories are still written in the third person.

Intriguingly, we have seen a shift away from the oral tradition here, too. It did not used to be a very great issue to write in the third-person omniscient. That is to say: to write in the third person, but from whoever’s perspective you like, whenever you need to.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is written in the third person omniscient, along with many other great works from the twentieth century. It can be a great tool for irony to say with full confidence what one character thinks is going on, and then immediately undermine it by revealing another character knows the complete opposite is happening.

Yet most writers today will tell you that third-person omniscient is terrible, lazy writing, that’s confusing for readers – even if half an hour ago they were praising a work you know was written in third-person omniscient.

What’s going on?

Changing fashion, for the most part. But it’s not entirely without reason. Writing is not and should not be treated as a monolith. That wondrous variation I mentioned before still exists. But there are trends. Some of them are caused by editors and agents who want concrete, categorisable things they know how to market. Some are less artificial. What I see is a general trend, across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, towards realism and naturalism in most forms of media, and a drawing closer to immediacy and the emotions of characters.

I don’t mean that our stories have become less fantastical. Quite the reverse, as CGI has improved, our ability to present the unreal as though it were real has increased, and endless CGI superhero movies have been the result.

Rather, with the advent of film, and especially television, our ability to present stories has become increasingly immersive. The proscenium arch of the theatre remains a significant metaphor in how we describe and think of storytelling. It’s still a big deal that Deadpool frequently breaks ‘the fourth wall’. Nevertheless, I watch most film and TV on my laptop. I take TV with me from room to room. All the stories of the world live inside my phone, which I can hold a few inches from my face, in bed.

You can see in early film that actors perform as though they’re still on stage, and how that shifts across the twentieth century as directors, cinematographers, actors, and set designers all start figuring out new ways to interact with the audience, bringing not only the actions, but the emotions, closer. Dialog can actually be whispered, not merely stage whispered. In 2011 we get Lie to Me, a whole show premised on the idea that you can read the truth in microexpressions – imagine trying to perform Lie to Me on a stage. It wouldn’t work.

So, we’re telling different stories now, as well as telling them in different ways.

When people praise Game of Thrones for its realism in a fantasy setting (I know, we’re in a new phase of critique for GoT now, but it was a big deal at the time) it was a very shallow response to point to the existence of dragons. We were talking about how up-close-and-personal we got with the emotions, as well as the in-depth consideration of politics and the horror of war.

The omniscient narrator is often felt to be slightly more detached. If we use omniscient narration for humour and irony, that’s a form of detachment, too. The deeper I am into the emotions of one character, the more jarring it is to switch to the perspective of another without warning. That’s why so many people advise to stick to third-person limited perspective. Not because third-person omniscient is inherently wrong.

And the more I see advice become prescriptive about this, the more I want to resist. People are starting to say that if you’re going to change perspectively in third-person limited, you have to do that in separate chapters. That you have to have a specific number of point-of-view (POV) characters and distinguish your POV characters from other types of characters.

If you want to do that, that’s fine. It does work for George R R Martin. But the idea that you must do this is utter nonsense. Stephen King hops minds as he pleases, with no more than a scene break, and it works exceedingly well.

I’ve also seen it argued that how you approach the thrid person should be determined by the genre you write in. I resist that too. Third person omnipotent may work particularly well for irony, but that doesn’t mean it should only be used for humour. I know that Hitchhiker’s Guide is a funny book, but it’s also science fiction, and I’ve cried at parts of that series. When I read it, it does pull on my feels. I very much do inhabit the character of Arthur Dent. I read the story, it just so happens that it’s often very funny too.

Play with genre. Play with style. Mix them up. Rigid rules stifle creativity, and honestly they just make me sad. It is worth understanding why people tend to do one thing over another, but that absolutely does not mean that only that one thing will work.

Second person

“But Ro, why are you talking about the second person last? Why wasn’t this second?”

Yeah, well, I’m gonna be up front and say that I do not like this one. And I think it is because I tacitly think of storytelling in terms of that oral tradition.

A person telling a story in the first person is presenting it as their story.

A person telling a story in the third person is telling a story about something that happened to other people.

A person telling a story in the second person is an accusation.

“You went to the standing stones, performed the ritual, and released the Ancient One, didn’t you?”

No, I fucking did not. Wow.

And yet, very recently – just the past few years – I’ve seen people telling stories in the second person more and more. It seriously confused me.

I first noticed it in fanfiction. Specifically, Detroit: Become Human (DBH) fanfiction. And that made me wonder if it’s because of the first-person persective of the game. You play three different characters (androids) and decide what to do in various situations. Were people in the fandom more likely to think of the player as a character, taking actions, because there was one person effectively puppeteering three people? And did that make them more likely to literally insert themselves, the reader, as a character, instead of doing the old-fashioned thing of writing a self-insert original character?

But I’ve seen it pop up elsewhere, too. More self-published stories are being written in the second person. I’m not really seeing it in tranditional publishing yet, but I wonder if it may spread.

Is my visceral negative reaction to second-person storytelling how some people feel about first-person storytelling?

Another author recently mentioned that when he reads a story in the first person, he feels like he’s being told the story is about him. This was a real eye-opener for me, as it doesn’t fit into my paradigm of tacitly thinking of stories in the oral tradition, as of a narrator telling a story to you. For him, a story in the first person behaves exactly as a story in the second person does for me.

This is not the criticism of first-person storytelling that I’m used to hearing. Not the objection I was raised with and slowly learnt to unpick as I saw just how well and how powerful first-person storytelling can be.

But perhaps, as writers use framing less and less to explain how a story came to be told in the first person, younger readers approach stories without thinking about how they relate to a story’s narrator. Maybe the shift away from explicit framing of first-person stories could also explain why the question of whether first person stories are OK is coming up again, when it seemed to me that we’d adjusted to simply considering them another storytelling device.

I’ve also noticed an increase in interactive storytelling over the past few years. Some authors have successfully built a platform on Twitter through telling stories where readers decide the next story via Twitter poll. In fanfic, and platforms like DeviantArt, I’ve also increasingly seen Choose Your Own-style stories, where an author posts a chapter, and asks commenters to choose from a list of options about what will happen next.

Computer role-playing games (like DBH and Dragon Age) also increasingly allow players to create very different stories and outcomes in the game based on the choices they make, not simply whether they succeed or fail in combat.

Perhaps the rise in second-person storytelling is linked to a rise in interactive storytelling, in which readers do see themselves more as part of the story.

Perhaps the paradigm is shifting, and there is no longer just one storyteller anymore.

For myself, I still cannot bring myself to read stories in the second person. But that doesn’t mean people are wrong to tell stories that way.

I would encourage writers to think – when they choose first, second, or third person perspective – about why they want to write that way. The answer can be, “It just feels right to me and I like it,” – any story should first and foremost satisfy you the writer. But if you want other people to read your story, it does help to think about how they are likely to read it.

At the moment, most people are most likely to get on with a story told in the third-person limited. You’re more likely to get pushback on a first-person story if there’s no framing that explains why it’s told in the first person, but that’s still a lot rarer than it used to be. In general, second person stories are going to be a very hard sell. A lot of people are going to read that as being told that they themselves feel a certain way when they don’t.

That doesn’t mean don’t write it, it just means… think about your audience.

*Of course, there have also always been other ways to tell stories so as to be accessible to people who can’t hear or speak. Oral traditions predate writing, but one must assume that people have always been telling each other things with their hands and other kinds of body language. I focus on oral tradition as the most influential, and as something we have a record of.