1. Ask A Triceratops


By Susan Triceratops

This week an aspiring author asks:

“Dear Susan,
I can’t decide whether I should use first person or third person for my new novella. I’d like to try second person but I’m told it is really difficult.

What would a triceratops use?
Firstorthird Cantdecide”

Great question! I’m going to have to get technical here!

Typically there are three and a half choices.

  • First person – typified by the word “I”. The story is narrated directly by a character involved in the events and at the centre of the story (or part of the story).
  • Second person – typified by the word “you”. The story is told as if the reader is being addressed as if they were a main character in the book.
  • Third person – typified by she, he, they or other pronouns. The story is narrated as if by an observer who can knows what is happening but is not actually involved.Third person can be split into two further types:
    • Limited point of view – third person is used but in a way that follows a particular character and limits what we are told by what that character knows or experiences.
    • Omniscient – the story is told as if by a person who knows everything relevant that occurred.

Human writers like to use first and third-limited these days. I guess they suit mammal brains.

What would a triceratops use? Well grammatically and stylistically we like to use the FOURTH person.

The fourth person is characterised by the word “apparently” and is the perspective of somebody discussing events indirectly.

The fourth person comes in two basic forms:

  • Fourth person incidental – the story is told in the form of describing indirect events and occurrences from which the main story can be inferred. The closest I’ve seen a mammal use this is Tom Stoppard’s Rozencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead – which doesn’t really capture the full triceratops literary style but gives you a sense of it.
  • Fourth person retelling – the story is told as somebody re-telling a story they heard from somebody else. This is seen as a lesser, more populist style by triceratops. However, it can stack recursively to make quite complex perspectives when the fourth person is used to tell a story that was already fourth person. To translate into mammal, imagine a film of an interview of a director of a documentary about the staging of a performance of a dramatisation of a novel that was of a woman watching the film version of the play of the Frost-Nixon interviews.

The fourth person is modified by noting the perspective which is being used for the incidental account or retelling.

  • Fourth by first person – “I was told that it was the best of times and the worst of times.”
  • Fourth by second person – “You were told that it was the best of times and the worst of times.”
  • Fourth by third person – “They were told that it was the best of times and the worst of times.”

In addition the perspective of the incidental or retold story may need to be noted. This is done by adding “via”. ““You were told that it was the best of times and the worst of times.” would be classed as Fourth by second via third omniscient in a triceratopian writing class.

The most highly regarded approach in triceratops society is the fourth by fourth by third via second. It is a highly traditional perspective used in both contemporary forms and classic poetry. Original it was used to describe the incidental aftermath of what occurred in a retelling of doctor explaining what happened just before a triceratops was accidentally knocked unconscious by a drunken t-rex trying to climb a tree (a recurring theme in classical triceratops poetry).

Personally, I’d opt for Fourth (incidental) by second via third. This may sound super difficult but it is an easy introduction for a mammal to have a go at the triceratopian way of writing! Just imagine you are telling somebody what happened to them when they were watching a movie of the main story that you originally had in mind. Note a common mistake by mammals is to add in to many sundry events that aren’t in the ‘movie’. Your fourth by second protagonist should only be experiencing events and emotions that arise directly from the ‘movie’ (i.e. your third person narrative).


20 responses to “1. Ask A Triceratops”

  1. Human writers like to use first and third-limited these days. I guess they suit mammal brains

    The most notable second-person narrative of recent years, of course, was written by a stone-eater.

    (Some of Plato’s dialogues are fourth-person retellings, though.)

    Liked by 3 people

  2. This is hijacking your clever jeu d’esprit (French phrase meaning “You done spit”), but this:

    Second person – typified by the word “you”. The story is told as if the reader is being addressed as if they were a main character in the book.

    is not at all how I experience second person. I never feel that I, Jim, am being personally put in the position of the main character. I experience second-person narration as me observing the address of a god-figure (omniscient perspective) to the main character. Depending on context, I may sense the narrator is an aspect of the protagonist’s consciousness, or I may take for some disembodied separate intellect. But when reading second-person I feel much less “in the shoes” of the main character than I do when reading first person. If anything I experience myself as occupying the narrator’s place and outlook rather than the protagonist’s.

    Am I unusual in this regard?

    This response may be an accident of biography. The first sustained second-person voice I recall was the Roy Thomas and then Christ Claremont narrative captions in early Iron Fist stories. Since I was literally looking at pictures of Iron Fist that were integral to the narrative it was just obvious that I was not he. Most of the other places I’ve encountered second-person is in poems and songs, where almost always it serves as a distancing mechanism: I’m really talking about myself, but I need to pretend otherwise for a bit, even if neither of us are fooled. (Elvis Costello’s song “Man Out of Time” is one of a zillion examples.) I actually can’t think of a second-person non-illustrated prose story off the bat. I know I read something.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that is both normal and how it is used. As The Fifth Season has already been mentioned, the second person use is directed at the central character rather than reader – and clearly the reader knows that they aren’t the character in the book.

      This is distinct from using second person in something like a text adventure game – where the reader is supposed to see themselves playing a role.

      I don’t know if I’m correct to say second person is common in eulogies but I associate it with them i.e. the speaker addressing the person who has since departed.

      So, yes – one side of an overheard conversation makes sense.

      I hadn’t though about song lyrics – but as you said Elvis Costello I immediately thought of Alison, which has lyrics addressed second person to the eponymous character, who clearly isn’t the listener. But is it distancing or intimate? I guess it can be both if it is something overheard.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Alison is one of the more straightforward examples since it works straightforwardly as a real man addressing a real woman (with the silent “addressing in my head not in real life” qualifier that’s also common to songs and poems). In other cases, Costello deliberately futzes with pronouns to protect the guilty; e.g. Accidents Will Happen was inspired by a real extramarital encounter, and he swapped some “You’s” and “I’s” around because, as he put it in his autobiography, “This is pop music, not confession.”

        For fiction, I have seen people express their objections to second-person in terms of feeling like the author is trying to too hard to make them be the protagonist.

        Is Fifth Season second-person present? It occurs to me that, rare as second-person voice is in prose fiction, second-person past seems even more rare.


    • My go-to for second-person is If on a winter’s night a traveller which I think works to put you in the shoes of the “you” pretty well. Calvino (I think) intends us to be the “you” because in the opening paragraphs he describes you finding the book on the shelf at the bookstore. At least in part, the effect of second person is down to the intent of the author and the willingness of the reader to go along with it, I would imagine.


    • I actually did write a story once that was combined first and second persons, basically the events of an evening as narrated from the writer to the reader.

      I think it worked out, but then, it was also a story being written for a particular friend of mine, and not intended to be for the general public.


  3. I feel weird a lot of times about second person because the majority of them are written about men (just as the majority of books in general are written about men). And as a not-man person, I keep getting thrown out of the story, thinking things like, Hell, no, I would never do that in a million years.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I thank Susan for introducing us to the various forms of fourth person. Some of them are too complicated for my mammal brain, but I think I could handle fourth by third, no incidental, no via.

    And I’d like to hear the classic story of the t-rex knocking out the poor triceratops. Even if you have to dumb it down to mammal third person.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Close – but you should really feel you are the character but also feel like you’re the triceratops that gets injured at the same time. It is a subtle thing – a thing about being one with the herd that I don’t think mammals would get. Maybe a rhinoceros would.

        Liked by 1 person

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