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Narration Clarification
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.

First Person

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.

Third Person

There are several variants of narrators who refer to everyone in the third-person (he, she, etc.).

Whose mind can they read?
Omniscient — 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)

Limited — 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)

Objective — 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?
Personified — 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...

Transparent — The narrator has no opinion or personality. Let’s call them a Transparent narrator, completely unseen. This is most common.

Character — 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.

How 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.
Reported Thoughts — 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.

Inner Monologue — 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?

Channeling — 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?

Head Hopping

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.

For Limited, 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.

Switching Narration

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.

Verb Tense

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.

Past-tense narrators may optionally foretell or hint at future events in the storyline, but some stick strictly to the storyline’s present and past.

Pros & Cons

First Person 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. A 2016 study shows first person and limited third both evoke the same amount of empathy from the reader, contrary to some claims.

Omniscient 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).

Objective also distances the reader since they can’t read thoughts, or it requires contrived reasons for the protagonist to speak their feelings.

First Person 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.

First Person may optionally be an unreliable narrator to intrigue the reader with a skewed perspective. Third Person is almost always a reliable narrator. (Note: Both 1st and 3rd person may withhold information for surprise reveals.)

Forget Realism

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.

Risk Taking

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 and Channeling since those are rarer and harder. Or self-publish and take your own risks.

Third Person Questionnaire

When starting a story in Third Person, ask yourself these questions:

Narrator Pron. Perspective Psychic Personality Usage
First Person 1st one/some no yes common
Omniscient 3rd all yes optional declining
Limited 3rd one/some yes optional common
Objective 3rd any no unlikely rare