Writing in Fourth Person

Writing in 4th Person

9/18/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

It has become more or less assumed, in most circles, that three distinct ways exist to narrate a story: first person, second person (used mainly for direct addresses), and third person. It has always appeared a comprehensive list, more or less, given that there are only three pronouns—I, they, and you—to work from.

There is, however, another way of looking at the question, though I do not presume to be the first to have come up with it. It’s not an entirely new way of narrating a story, but instead a blend of first and third person that creates depth and mystery when done correctly.

For now, we’ll call it fourth person.

 

Third person narrators, by convention, are given no intelligence or thought of their own. They go at great lengths describing scenes and events; omnipresent versions can see inside every portion of the story; yet authors rarely give them a distinct voice of their own. They are nothing more but stock tickers reading the ups and downs of the plot.

There’s some advantages to this convention, of course. Having a bland, thoughtless narrator means nothing gets in the way between the characters and the reader; one can assume that the third-person narrator is an honest, objective fellow who’s simply there to relate the events of a story.

But what if one were to assign the third person narrator a part of their own? What if they were given dreams, thoughts and motives along with the other players in the book? Having a “Fourth Person” narrator, one who is disconnected from the story but conscious and engrossed in it, gives pieces a whole new dimension. The author has all the conveniences of a 3rd person voice and a 1st person narrator at their disposal.

To better explain the concept, I will write two paragraphs dealing with the same event. One of them is written in the orthodox 3rd person sense; the other, narrated in the 4th person. The difference, hopefully, will be easy to recognize.

 

Melissa walked down the aisle with a throng of admirers behind her. She threw the bouquet in the air; but before the roses and daisies could reach the floor, the flowers separated in the air and drifted down in hundreds of pieces. Above them, a bell rang.

 

Melissa walked down the aisle, never bothering to look back at the only person in the church wearing a frown. The bouquet went skyward, coming apart midair, but she only laughed, and announced to the crowd that everyone now had a chance at marriage. Except for one person, one whom she had forgotten before the wedding even began.

 

The first version could easily have been written by a journalist. The narrator watches the bells and listens to the flowers with perfect detachment, offering no opinions or thoughts of his own.

It is the second piece that embodies the idea of fourth person writing. There is no usage of “I” or “You,” no pronoun to give the narrator away; and yet, reading it, there definitely is someone describing the wedding from their own perspective, someone who seems remorseful about an otherwise happy event. It is no great revelation that the narrator is simply the person in the back of the church.

    The second version, in my opinion, has a good deal of potential going for it. The narrator may choose to detail the newlyweds’ life from his ex-boyfriend perspective. Or, he move the story 10 years into the past and lament the days he spent with her. Wherever the author wishes to go with the piece, he has the opportunity to focus both on the characters depicted in the story and the character “writing” the story at the same time.

    There are many other ways to play out the concept. Someone with a poor farmer’s persona could detail a Wall Street board meeting. A compulsive liar could give their own take of a high school chess tournament. A son could give an account of his father’s day; the father, likewise, could give an account of his son’s day.

    It should be repeated that “I,” “We” and “You” are not used in the fourth person concept. Rather, the identity of the narrator is revealed through their use of opinion and allusions to their own life inside the story. (The 4th person narrator in the wedding example, for example, used a depressed tone and references to a sad character to help define the narrator’s identity.) It may be frustrating at times to abstain from using a first person voice, but keeping out direct references to the narrator maintains the mystery and extra depth that fourth-person writing can provide. The concept is all about showing—not directly telling—the audience who the narrator is.

    This is not a novel concept, of course. Plenty of writers have given their narrators powers of emotion and independent thought to match their powers of observation. All I sought to do here was define the concept and introduce it to anyone looking for a new take on the millennia-old 1st, 2nd or 3rd person question.


 

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