Narrative points of view and how to use them

First, second, and third are the most common but these can be split into different types of narration depending on their usage. Further still, there are unreliable narrators, interviewers, and secret characters. All of which are valid forms of narration when it comes to storytelling.

Most articles only cover ‘the six’ types of narration, but more than six exist. I’ve included the most commonly used in this article, but there are more out there. Some are rarely used, whilst others like objective narration focus on telling a story through a series of facts, and lets face it, this isn’t ideal for fiction writing. Nobody wants to read ‘he did this…and then he did that…to which she did this…so he said…then the neighbour knocked on the door…’ So I’ve excluded objective from this list due to it focusing predominantly on telling and not showing, which we all know as fiction writers, is a big no-no.

So, without boring you any more than I already have. Here’s a picture of an old man with a dusty book, followed by the actual article.

First person

First person is incredibly common and its popularity is on the rise. It uses the perspective of a single character to tell the story which offers us writers plenty of room for twists and character growth as the reader only knows what the narrator has experienced. This POV is used by a range of writers but is popular amongst novice writers as it is often considered the easiest form of narration to write.

1. The Protagonist

The first narrative point of view on this list is one of the most popular. It’s used by writers of every calibre and is particularly popular with YA novelists. This narrative style consists of the hero telling the story from their perspective. The hero’s voice dominates the narration as the entire novel is written as if the reader is inside the main character’s mind. This allows the writer to express the hero’s thoughts, opinions, and feelings, which in turn, allows the reader to relate to the character quicker than with a story written in third person. This can give the story a sense of urgency and an emotional punch due to the readers closeness to the protagonist.

2. First Person Peripheral

Everything above applies to this character, except the first person account is not from the hero but a side character. That means the focus is not on the actions of the narrator but the actions of another, more prominent character. This also means that there are events and thoughts the reader is not privy to as the reader experiences the story through an onlooker rather than the hero of the story. This allows the writer to shock the narrator and reader with what is thought to be uncharacteristic actions from the hero.

Second Person

Second person point of view is when the reader becomes a character in the story. This is done through the use of ‘you’, instead of ‘I’ or ‘they’. The actual narrator of this POV is a character in the text as they are telling the reader what it is they should be or are doing.

3. Second person

This is generally used in instructional writing and create your own adventure books. The narrator of this style can be involved in the story and can even participate as they are telling ‘you’ about everything that is happening. But much like first person, the narrator cannot tell you what they don’t see or experience directly. This POV is incredibly rare in literature but when done well, the reader will feel as if they are a part of the story.

Third person

Third person is when the story is told from somebody outside the story looking in. This means that the narrator is not a part of the story itself, and thus, is not usually a character within it. This approach allows the writer to follow several characters actions, emotions, and thoughts all at once.

4. Third Person Limited

Third person limited is when the narrator only follows one character, meaning they can only tell you what this character sees, thinks, and hears. This allows the narrator to view the action from inside the protagonists head or from further away which allows the reader to know more than the character does about the story. This viewpoint is more restrictive than other third person POVs but can help to increase the tension as the story is only revealed when it happens to the hero. 1984 by George Orwell is written in this manner.

5. Third Person Multiple

This style of narration allows the story to follow more than one character. It works the same way as third person limited in the sense that it only follows one character at a time, but there can be multiple characters all having their story told in the same novel. The important thing to remember with this style is method is that the change between characters has to be clear to the reader. The best way to do this is to swap characters with a new chapter, or by using obvious section breaks. A great example of this format is the Song of Ice and Fire series by G.R.R. Martin.

6. Third Person Omniscient

Much like a god, in this style, the narrator is all knowing and all seeing. This means they are not limited to one character’s perspective. They follow all characters at all times and will know things that others don’t. This means that when telling a story about a group of heroes, the narrator can see inside their minds and follow their actions even if they split up. This isn’t limited to the heroes though. If the villain has a particularly evil monologue that needs to be heard, the narrator can quite easily jump halfway around the world and tell the reader all about the antagonist’s evil plot. Knowing what’s going to happen to the heroes can create more tension than having it just happen. For another prime example, Lord Of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein is written in third person omniscient.

Somewhere in Between

The narrator doesn’t always have to be strictly third person or even first for that matter. The narrator can surprise the reader by revealing that they are in fact a character in the story. Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk (check out our review here) is the perfect example of this.

7. The Interviewer

In this type of narration, the details of the story have been collected by the narrator and are now being retold to the reader after the story has taken place. This offers up a sense of reality to the story as the account is being told by a narrator that knows the subject well. Sometimes, it’s revealed that the narrator was actually involved in the story. They could be the hero, the villain, a side character, or even a young child that witnessed some part of it and was inspired to tell the story of the greatest hero they’d ever seen.

8. The Secret Character

This is when the story is told in present tense, and usually third person so that the big reveal is an even bigger surprise. In this case, the narrator pretends to be separate from the story. They will even refer to themselves in third person right up until the big reveal. In this case, the narrator will need a strong voice, possibly share opinions, and be a well fleshed out character in the reader’s mind for them to make a believable shift from narrator to character. For an example of this, a group of heroes could be making their way through a series of trials. They talk about the main villain and his evil plot but it’s not until they finally reach his lair that the reader realises that the villain is

, in fact, the narrator. So, in this case, the villain has been watching the heroes, describing their every move and action, and when they finally meet, the perspective shifts as it is revealed that the villain is the narrator, making the last few scenes of the story first person from the villain’s perspective.

9. The Unreliable Narrator

This type is usually written in first person, but it can occasionally be written in third. It is where the narrator is telling the story from a warped perspective. With this style, the narrator is intentionally written to be crazy, misinformed, or even biased. This ensures the story is told to the reader wrong, so when the truth comes out, it comes as a big surprise. The narrator may have even told the story wrong on purpose so when all is revealed, they are called out by another character for twisting of the truth.

Originally published at www.cult-fiction.net on July 19, 2018.

J.A. Palmer is a writer who ran a creative writing website for two years and is now the joint editor of www.onedge.uk