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How to use First Person, Second Person or Third Person in Novel Writing

Updated on August 16, 2009

#16 of 30 in 30 Days!

#16 of my Challenge, it began on July 25th. I now need 14 more by the end of August 24th. Wish me luck, it may be possible!
#16 of my Challenge, it began on July 25th. I now need 14 more by the end of August 24th. Wish me luck, it may be possible!

How to tell when something is First, Second or Third Person fiction!

First person shows a scene from within one character’s point of view as if the character’s telling the story about something he or she experienced. Second person is a “game master voice” describing the scene as if it’s happening to the reader. Third person is a viewpoint outside the story simply telling what happened to who without defining a point of view.

In third person, you have the choice of Third Person Close, where you’re still following a character’s single viewpoint reading about their thoughts and feelings from within, or Third Person Omniscient. Omniscient is a godlike point of view that can look into any character’s thoughts or feelings. It’s much more difficult to do well. 

Third Person Close is the most popular and effective way to write novels, with either a single point of view character or multiple characters in different scenes or chapters. Second most popular and even more easy is First Person. You can change First Person to Second Person or Third just by changing pronouns but in the process, it helps to tweak the prose and be careful about what your point of view character is aware of or not. 

I can demonstrate first, second and third person with examples:

Sample in first person.

I got out of the car. The building loomed in front of me like a sagging old cardboard box full of rotted groceries. The smell was nearly that bad. I gagged and went inside, passing the drunk who'd passed out in his own vomit on the front stairs.

First person can work very well in a novel, it purports to be a character's journal or personal telling of the story. It's the second most popular tense for novels. It gives the advantage of sympathy for the point of view character because it's very intimate. You see things from that point of view and no other. You get that character's thoughts and no others unless that character's a telepath, then you get other thoughts as overheard thoughts that may not be complete enough to be accurate. A thought of 'I'm going to kill that kid' does not always translate to child murderer, it could just be a moment's annoyance.

Same scene in second person (which is why it's rarely if ever used).

You get out of the car. In front of you is a ratty old building that sags like an old cardboard box full of rotted groceries. It stinks. You gag and notice an old drunk has passed out in his own vomit on the front stairs.

Second person is actually useful in exactly one form of story telling. If you are the GameMaster or Dungeon Master for a role playing game, then you address the players describing everything in second person, per character. "Brian, you see the building as soon as you get out of the car, etc." Interestingly enough if you have role playing gamers in your story playing, then you may be using second person in dialogue from the game master. It's also used for Choose Your Own Adventure books where each action is a snippet of a sentence or two that gives you a multiple choice that leads to another one on a different page. But it doesn't work well in any other kind of novel.

Third person example:

Brian got out of the car. The building loomed in front of him like a sagging old cardboard box full of rotted groceries. The smell was nearly that bad. The young detective gagged and went inside, passing a drunk who'd passed out in his own vomit on the front stairs.

I created the Third Person example by changing the pronouns and then I tweaked "the drunk" into "a drunk" because it worked better, a hair more formal and distant than the first person telling. It is very easy to convert First Person into Intimate Third Person by changing pronouns.

Omniscient Third Person is God's point of view. The author shares everything that's going on. You get Brian's thoughts, you get the drunk's hazy awareness of Brian passing him on the stairs that might contain a clue, you might get the point of view of a stray cat looking to get inside the building and watching Brian open the door. That's popular too. James Michener's novels are like that. It creates distance and lets you change point of view to suit what's being described.

Brian got out of the car. The building loomed in front of him like a sagging old cardboard box full of rotted groceries. It smelled nearly that bad, especially to the cat that crouched under the stairway waiting to get inside. She got up to follow Brian and nip between his legs as he gagged at the odor, He went inside. She got inside without his noticing. 

George wasn't quite unconscious, though he was in so much pain he didn't want to move. He'd vomited and fallen into his own vomit but the stroke left him completely paralyzed. He screamed silently, wishing the man who walked past could hear him shout Call 911! I've had a stroke and I'm paralyzed! Then Mrs. Scaggs' cat stepped on his head on her way in. It was just too much.

You can convey more information in Third Person Omniscient but run the risk of Head Hopping, which is changing point of view so fast that people get confused about who the story's about. It's tricky to do well. When using first person or third person close, it's easier to build suspense and avoid giving away clues to the reader. If the narrator doesn't know the clue, the reader doesn't either. This makes it, say, harder to tell who the killer is in a mystery. 

It's very hard to describe a character within his or her own point of view. It's going to be awkward. How many times do people describe themselves in their journals or in their thoughts? They look in mirrors and that's about it. Depending on the character it could be plausible -- but even at that, they aren't paying attention to general descriptives. They're paying attention to whether their tie is straight or makeup is running. That only tells you he wears a tie or she wears makeup.

If you want to show that the character's a short blonde, then describe her from the point of view of someone else in a different scene. Or have characters make blonde jokes and short jokes, then let her get mad about them. There are ways around the description problem even in First Person or Third Person Close.

The most common voice for novels is Close Third Person, which is easiest to get by writing the rough draft in first person as if you were the character, then changing the pronouns in the editing stage. You can change whose point of view you're using to show the story per scene or per chapter. Changing within the scene like I did for Third Omniscient is more difficult to do well -- which is why this popular Close Third Person style is so popular. It's familiar to readers and helps give both sympathy and continuity while letting you use more than one character's point of view to show what's going on. Doing the villain's point of view can show a lot of thoughts and feelings.

Otherwise to show emotion in characters not the main character -- let them emote! Smile, groan, sigh, make faces, use body language, move closer, wrinkle their nose in apparent disgust... describe how people show feelings and they're definitely emotional enough.

If you are a beginner novelist, I would suggest rough draft in first person whether you stick to one narrating character who sees all the scenes or change characters between scenes and chapters. Switch to third in editing by changing the pronouns before trying anything more complicated. This is the most common point of view style for novels and it will always pass muster with a publisher, while first person may get too sticky in plotting, second person sound too stilted or third person omniscient get too confusing. 

Deciding what "person" to do the novel in its final draft is a style decision. As such, it's entirely up to you. So explore these different modes but remember -- first person makes it easier to write close third and changing the pronouns is easy.

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    • profile image

      Carnelian Robert 

      17 months ago

      Thank you . This is very helpful

    • profile image

      Gavi 

      3 years ago

      i'm grateful for the smotoh connection in hk subway after getting a taste of the weird, eerily built systems in kuala lumpur. each of the lines are operated by different companies. to hop from one line to another, not only you have to get off the faregate, but to walk a block or two for connection. consider the stifling heat of kl, you can imagine my turning into a sweaty mass.-matt

    • profile image

      Alie 

      3 years ago

      Thanks for the great info dog I owe you bitgigy.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 

      4 years ago from Missoula, Montana through August 2018

      Thank you for these very helpful examples. I did write a flash fiction story which began in the first person and switched to first and second person toward the middle. I liked it, but then I wrote it. It was an experiment anyway.

    • profile image

      StKing 

      4 years ago

      i really appreciate your description and the time you took to write this. i have always had a tendency to write my shorts in third person as i could never figure out an effective way to describe my characters. Your ideas fit seamlessly into my latest attempt.

    • profile image

      sikander 

      6 years ago

      bakwas hais sab all is wrong ...... come i wil teach u all english u raskles

    • profile image

      Mohan Kannegal 

      6 years ago

      Thanks so much. Helped me start off!

    • profile image

      Jared W. 

      6 years ago

      you seem to have avoided more descriptive information with second person. and considering there are full length novels out in the world used entirely of it. So, i did not find this as helpful as i had hoped it would be.

    • Ania L profile image

      Ania L 

      6 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thanks a lot! The advice just in time for coming poetry and prose contest :) It will be a big challenge for me as English is not my first language but should be a bit easier now with your advice.

    • profile image

      jesse 

      7 years ago

      why don't u write about why we use a first,second or third narrative story??

    • profile image

      7 years ago

      Thanks for this. I am currently editing someone's novel and explained to him that he was "headhopping", so many characters were expressing their thoughts in once scene that i became confused. I convinced him to limit this as much as possible and allowing only one character per scene to voice their thougts. This is what i was taught, and after i did the edits and showed him what i meant, he was pleased. But i still wanted to do more research to be sure. Thank you for this article it helped to clarify what i was thinking.

    • LC WARD profile image

      LC WARD 

      7 years ago from Rochester, Washington

      The clarity of your examples has helped me in understanding the Third Person Close. Thank you for your insight!

    • profile image

      imm3T 

      7 years ago

      Hi your article was very usefull but i still having trouble sticking to one style i have the tendancy to jump from one to the other would really apperciate any advice or books to read to help me stop this

    • profile image

      akexodia 

      7 years ago

      THE most simplified yet descriptive info on narratives i ever found! Made my job very easy!

      Thanks a bunch!!!

    • profile image

      KLeichester 

      7 years ago

      Thanks for this. Very helpful.

    • Jeremey profile image

      Jeremey 

      7 years ago from Arizona

      You've got a style of simplifying what some of can easily mess up ! Nice, informative, useful and well put hub. I will learn some more from you for sure. Thanks!

    • dusanotes profile image

      dusanotes 

      8 years ago from Windermere, FL

      Robert Sloan, thanks for the tutorial. I am doing a novel in first person and was torn. I wasn't sure, before reading your fine article, if I could get away with changing from first person (for the protagonist) in the first chapter and then changing to third person for the antagonist and others in other chapters, always coming back to my main character in first person. Do you think that works? And do you have some examples of novels you've read that do that? I'll bet there are a lot of them, when you think about it. I've taken a sabbatical from Hub Pages to write my novel(s) for five months, but when I come back I'll become a regular fan of yours and you can check my site out. Thanks, Don White

      aka dusanotes

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR

      robertsloan2 

      8 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Hi Mr. Joe,

      I deleted your second copy of your post, don't worry about it. What I would say is to try it and see how it comes out. I would do that easily in Close Third Person, but it's so easy to draft in first person and then change to close third with a pronoun change that it would probably come out more powerful your doing it that way. Absolutely limit point of view changes to chapters if you're doing that, it can be very jarring to a reader if "I" means someone different.

      Some authors who do this will put whose point of view it is at the top with the chapter heading. "Chapter 3: Harris" or "Chapter 8: Mary" so that readers don't get disoriented. This would be particularly helpful with what you're doing.

    • profile image

      MR.JOE 

      8 years ago

      THANKS FOR THE INFO ROBERT VERY INFORMATIVE BUT I HAVE ONE QUESTION, OKAY I HAVE TWO MAIN CHARACTERS THAT I REALLY WANT TO DO FIRST PERSON ON, SO CAN I DO FIRST PERSON ON THEM INLIKE DIFFER CHAPTERS? WHAT WOULD BE THE BEST WAY TO DO THAT WHEN THEY INTERACT WITH EACH OTHER? I ALSO WANTED TO KNOW WITH THE OTHER CHARACTERS WHAT WOULD BE THE BEST WAY TO DO THEM?

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR

      robertsloan2 

      9 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. I'm glad I was able to write it up in a good short essay, sometimes I go on at length about these things.

    • skye2day profile image

      skye2day 

      9 years ago from Rocky Mountains

      Hi Robert, Thank you for your wonderful info. I am truly grateful. Your examples were prime. Sharing your gifts and talents blesses many, I am sure of that. Cheerio for now. I will return. Your friend.

      Bless Be Blessed

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