In fiction, there are two main forms of story narrator: first person and third person.
In first-person stories, the person telling the story is the main character. Everything readers know about the story comes from the protagonist’s thoughts, actions and observations. First-person stories are quite common in mystery and urban fantasy novels
In third-person tales, an outside narrator is relating everything that is going on. This is the more common type of storytelling, and can be found in most fictional genres.
There are some other types of stories as well. Some authors choose to mix first- and third-person storytelling by alternating chapters between what the protagonist is experiencing and what is happening in other parts the story world. There is also a less-utilized storytelling device where the story is told in second person as in “You went outside and couldn’t believe what you saw.” (As this is quite rare, I’m not going to be dealing with this storytelling tactic.)
Let’s explore the differences in first- and third-person storytelling. Take the sample scenes below. In the first paragraph, the scene unfolds through first-person narration. The second paragraph is the same scene told in third person.
I started walking down the stairs. As I did, I worried about what I would find. How would I handle the crowd of people? What if they asked me questions I couldn’t answer? My chest felt as if there were rocks piled up on it. I used all the techniques I had learned in yoga and took a deep, cleansing breath. I did it again and again, until I felt steadier, lighter. I can do this, I told myself.
She took the steps with slow deliberate movements. She didn’t want to be here. Didn’t want to know what she would be facing when she reached the last step. Each step took her closer to the ensuing chaos. Her chest felt tight and it was getting harder and harder to breath. She forced herself to breath and tried to reassure herself that she could face whatever was waiting for her.
While the main difference is in the pronouns (I, he, she or we, they), the tone of both scenes is also different. Which of these scenes speaks to you?
In many cases, choosing whether to go with first- or third-person storytelling is a personal choice. You as the author are free to choose whichever style feels most comfortable. Understand that there are limitations to each.
In first person, you are always in the mind of your character and you never know anything other that what she knows, sees and feels. You experience the story with the protagonist. You discover clues, insights and more as she does. The world is narrowed through her lens only.
In third person, the reader is slightly removed as they are not experiencing through the protagonist’s own eyes. Instead, the reader is told what is happening. The benefit, however, is that additional information can be conveyed to the reader that the main characters are not privy to, which may make for a richer story.
Like your word choices, story setting and character names, deciding which form of narration you will take is highly personal. It will impact how your story unfolds. For big sweeping views, a third-person narration may be best. For small, intense views, first person may work better.
Only you as the writer will be able to say which one is best for your story. Good luck!
Your Homework: Take a scene you are currently working on and try writing it in both first and third person. Does one way flow better? Is one of the styles providing you (and your reader) stronger insights into your character? Are you feeling limited by one type of narration? Use these questions to guide you to deciding which narration is right for you and your story.