Hans Ness, Feb 11, 2024
Countless guides abound on the different types of narration, but to me, they’re either oversimplified or verbose ... or both. And they usually overlook some observable patterns. So here’s my take on a more complete condensed guide.
A character tells the story, referring to themselves in the first-person (I, me, my). Chapters may alternate between two or more characters. Easy enough.
There are several variants of narrators who refer to everyone in the third-person (he, she, etc.).
Whose mind can they read?
— The narrator knows everyone’s
thoughts and feelings; or more precisely, they show two or more characters’ thoughts within the same chapter/section. And they may know details that none of the characters know, like a deity everywhere all at once.
(Short for Third Person Subjective Omniscient)
— The narrator knows only one
character’s thoughts and feelings, or each chapter/section may switch to a different character’s perspective. Like a ghost, the narrator is in only one place at a time. They might strictly
stay on the character’s shoulder and know only what the character knows. Or they may loosely
take flight at times to objectively see what others see (without reading their minds) and tell histories.
(Short for Third Person Subjective Limited Omniscient; also Close Third)
— The narrator never
reads anyone’s internal thoughts or feelings. They might be a dumb fly on the wall who can only describe exactly what they see, or they might be insightful enough to interpret how characters feel, just like any normal person could do.
(Short for Third Person Objective)
Do they have a personality?
— The narrator has their own opinions and personality. I’ve found no official term for this, so let’s call them a Personified narrator. They may break the fourth wall to address the reader directly and refer to themselves in the first person. They may add commentary throughout, or just occasionally and otherwise stay transparent for most scenes. They may be conversational or formal. They often add humor, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide
, Charlie Changes Into a Chicken
, and Catch-22
, but any genre can have it, like The Hobbit:
The mother of our particular hobbit — what is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us.... Now you know enough to go on with. As I was saying, the mother of this hobbit...
— The narrator has no opinion or personality. Let’s call them a Transparent narrator, completely unseen. This is most common.
— More than just personified, the narrator is an actual person in the story, often revealed in the end as a surprise. Or they may be a spirit-like character, like Death or an angel.
Some readers are put off by personified narrators, especially when they break the fourth wall. There’s no objective reason for this, just a preference. However, personified narrators do risk being too intrusive and adding too many voices, so they must be handled with skill.
linkHow to Read Minds
There are three ways a Limited/Omniscient narrator can read minds. You may use all three in the same story, but for style, use just one or two.
— When the narrator describes characters’ thoughts, this is called reported
or normal indirect speech
He knew he was too late and realized he was foolish to delay.
— When the character thinks in actual words, this is called quoted
or direct speech
, which can use quote marks, italics, or neither:
“I’m too late,” he thought. “I shouldn’t have delayed. Why am I so foolish?”
I’m too late, he thought. I shouldn’t have delayed. Why am I so foolish?
I’m too late, he thought. I shouldn’t have delayed. Why am I so foolish?
— When the narrator speaks for the character, this is called free indirect speech
. It usually starts with reported thoughts, then the voices of the narrator and character merge, like an inner monologue but in the third person and narrative tense without quotes.
He knew he was too late. He shouldn’t have delayed. Why was he so foolish?
This is sometimes confused with omniscient narration, so let’s clarify. Omniscient
narrators may freely hop into multiple characters’ heads as often as they want to read their minds.
Pam thought it was stupid, and Sam thought it was confusing, but Tam thought it was hilarious.
, the narrator stays with the same character throughout the chapter or section. Hopping to a different character’s head within a section may be jarring, and you lose intimacy with each character.
But there is a compromise. Limited narrators sometimes switch to Objective
to see what other characters see, but not read their thoughts, so they’re shoulder hopping, not head hopping. And switching to Omniscient
can work for action and comic scenes because intimacy with the character’s deep feelings is not needed there. But pedants would still object to this.
While you are generally advised to stay consistent with one type of narration throughout the story, there are exceptions. Sometimes introductory chapters are Omniscient
for world-building, then switch to Limited
for the rest of the story, like in Harry Potter
. And Limited/Omniscient narrators may go whole chapters without reading minds, temporarily Objective
Most stories are narrated in Past Tense
, while few are in Present Tense
I tasted the porridge. It was too hot. | She saw a wolf.
I taste the porridge. It is too hot. | She sees a wolf.
narrators may optionally foretell or hint at future events in the storyline, but some stick strictly to the storyline’s present and past.
linkPros & Cons
and Strict Limited
make it easier for readers to connect with the protagonist(s) because it stays so close to their point of view. The disadvantage is this sometimes requires contrived scenarios to witness/overhear other characters to relay information they would not know otherwise.
and Loose Limited
make it easier to relay more information, but since they spend less time in the point of view of the protagonist(s), readers have less opportunity to connect (though it’s certainly still possible).
also distances the reader since they can’t read thoughts, or it requires contrived reasons for the protagonist to speak their feelings.
limits the wording to how the character would actually talk or write, which is often casual. Third Person
gives you the freedom to use heightened language.
There’s nothing realistic about any narrator. A third person narrator is like a ghost or deity, breaking all laws of physics. And even a first person narrator has impossibly accurate memories, quoting conversations verbatim and recalling the most trivial details. And for present tense, how are they narrating everything in real time? And it’s rarely established why the narrator is even telling you the story. So don’t bother debating which narration is more plausible.
Many publishers and agents don’t want to take risks on writers who take risks. So new authors seeking traditional publishing may have better chances sticking to a strict narrative style, also avoiding Personified
since those are rarer and harder. Or self-publish and take your own risks.
linkThird Person Questionnaire
When starting a story in Third Person
, ask yourself these questions:
- How many shoulders does the narrator sit on? The main character? A few characters? A secondary character/witness? Unlimited?
- How many minds can the narrator read? The main character? A few characters? A secondary character/witness? Unlimited? No one?
- Does the narrator need to explain histories and details that the characters might not know?
- Does the narrator already know the future outcome of the story? Do they hint at it?
- Do the characters think in words, like an inner monologue? Can the narrator speak for the character, or do they just describe their thoughts?
- Does the narrator have opinions and a personality? Do they ever address the reader directly? If so, how often?