You enter the tavern. Beyond a smattering of tables—some occupied, some not—a boy in grubby attire kneels by a hearth and pokes at a well-stoked fire. You feel the warmth of the blaze on your face and rub your hands together, glad to have found shelter from the night’s chill winds. You are led to a table by a serving girl whose fluttering hands distract you from the suspicious, even threatening, glances of those seated around you. You take your seat and are handed an envelope. The serving girl fixes you with her eyes but hurries off before you can question her. You open the envelope, remove a letter from it, and begin to read.
I apologize for the manipulation, for having second-personed you. But I had to sit you in this room. Would you feel more comfortable in the third person? I’ll even render you in third-person objective, to be less intrusive.
The individual at the table by the fire held the letter with trembling hands and cast furtive glances about the room, then continued reading the letter.
Ah, I’m afraid that objective view just won’t satisfy. Let me try limited.
The individual began to fear those seated about the tavern but couldn’t remember anything of life outside the tavern or even a reason for being there.
Do I make you uncomfortable? Do you not enjoy being written of, or, should I say, being written? I can do third-person omniscient, too, but I don’t think you’ll like that at all.
The serving girl cursed the new arrival, knowing that person wasn’t wanted there. The boy by the fire harbored thoughts of thievery. A heavyset man well into his cups thought of something far darker. Two women whispered hateful gossip, and in a dark corner, mostly unnoticed, the author smiled, thinking that everything, having fallen into place, was just as it should be.
Ah, you don’t care for talk of the author, do you? You, the “individual,” must have thought yourself the center of the narrative. But it’s always been about me. Look around you. Behind every face are my thoughts. Cast your gaze into a mirror and see my thoughts behind your eyes as well. It seems you’re not an individual at all. You’re me, and I am you.
In this narrative mode, the story is told from the point of view of a person within the story. This narrative mode is marked by the use of “I” and lends itself well to a favorite of mine: the unreliable narrator. The laudanum-quaffing Wilkie Collins of Dan Simmons’s Drood is a good example of a first-person (and unreliable) narrator.
Second-person narratives employ “you”: You enter the room. You fly into a rage. These are difficult to pull off and have a tendency to feel gimmicky. (Putting it that way makes one want to give it a go, though, doesn’t it?)
This narrative mode is the real workhorse of literature, and readers will readily recognize its “he/she” style. Third-person objective relates actions but not the thoughts of the characters, while third-person limited relates the thoughts of one character and third-person omniscient floats among characters. War and Peace is a good example of third-person omniscient.
In third-person narrative, the narrator is usually invisible, but my favorite stories are those in which the narrator seems invisible but gradually bleeds his or her way into the tale—this produces a wonderfully creepy effect.