You’ve heard of first-person point of view, second-person point of view, and third-person point of view. But what about fourth person? This often underutilized and still-emerging perspective and narrative style comes with unique traits and, when used effectively, can take your story to an entirely new level. Here’s everything you need to know.
What is fourth-person point of view?
Fourth-person point of view is a narrative technique that tells a story through a group of characters narrating as one. The narrator of the story uses the pronouns “we” or “us.” This point of view style is particularly popular in poetry and short fiction with a social message, using a single narrative voice to represent a larger collective.
You can easily identify when an author is using fourth person point of view by the pronouns used by the narrative voice (with a few caveats).
How does fourth-person point of view differ from other points of view?
Beyond just pronoun usage, these four types of narration come with other differences as well.
If you’re working with a first-person character, that narrator—just a single person—is telling the story through their own words and viewpoint, just one perspective. This, of course, comes with its pros and cons.
First-person POV is going to have more limitations than third-person omniscient point of view, which is when you have an omniscient narrator who knows everything about every character. A first-person narrator only knows what’s going on in and around them, exclusively. However, a well-written single character POV can make for a more intimate and immersive reading experience.
Second-person point of view, or the “you” perspective, is far less common than first-person point of view or third-person point of view, but is becoming more popular in experimental settings and is more common in short stories than novels. Second-person point of view is also more limited than omniscient narration, but can be equally intimate and immersive for your reader—if they’re willing to take on the mantle of your character and put themselves in their shoes. In many ways, second-person point of view tries to tell your reader a story about themselves, which can be a difficult task.
Third-person point of view is a favorite because it allows you to talk about a wide range of main characters—as many as you want!—and, meanwhile, have a separate narrative voice telling the reader about all the things the characters are doing. Ordinary third-person forms give the writer a bit more freedom and multiple perspectives, to work with, though it does require careful use to avoid mistakes such as head hopping (head hopping is all too common in third-person point of view!)
Fourth-person perspective, then, stands out because you’re talking about multiple characters—like you might with third-person pronouns—but you’re also talking through the viewpoint of those characters, they way you would with first person. As such, you get the intimacy of the first person, but you get to group your characters together and represent multiple voices at once, similar to how you might with third person.
What’s the difference between fourth-person narration and first-person plural?
If you’re a grammatical person, you may have already started wondering what exactly the difference is between fourth-person and first-person point of view plural—and that’s a great question.
Plural first-person pronouns include “we” and “us,” the same pronouns that fourth-person perspective uses. So why is this narrative choice a totally different thing?
It all comes down to your narrator.
If you have a first-person narrator, they can use first-person plural pronouns to describe actions happening to both them and another person. However, they’re still only describing what they personally feel and think—another character just so happens to be along for the ride.
Here’s an example:
I called for Joe. We climbed the hill to our left and found a mess waiting for us at the bottom. The smoke billowed from a car crashed into the old elm tree. I covered my nose to block out the atrocious smell.
In these few sentences, you have examples of both first and first-plural pronouns, but you never leave the first-person perspective. Your singular narrator is describing the actions of themself and Joe, but you’re still in just the narrator’s head. You have no idea if Joe found the smell “atrocious”; we only know that the first-person narrator thinks that. If you suddenly inserted one of Joe’s thoughts, it would be an instance of head hopping.
Sometimes, these instances of first-person plural POV aren’t as obvious, as is the case in Ayn Rand’s Anthem. For part of this story, the narrator only uses first-person plural pronouns, but this is crucial to the plot. In the story, society has forbidden the use of first-person singular pronouns. Despite this, the narrator is an independent person and, as the story unfolds, begins using singular pronouns.
This marks the big difference between fourth-person perspective and first-person plural. With fourth-person POV, you’ll never have a singular narrator. The narrator will always be a group of multiple individuals. Every detail, every insight, every thought is that of a collective consciousness.
Fourth-person POV examples
To better understand fourth-person viewpoint, here are a few examples of books and stories that use this POV effectively.
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Freshwater is a multi-POV story that features a cast of narrators all existing within one specific character. The magical realism book centers around Ada, a young woman with multiple spirits and gods living inside her. Most of these (and Ada) narrate their chapters from first-person POV, but there is one character that narrates its chapters from fourth-person point of view.
This identity is a group of spirits that is simply referred to as “We.” The first chapter of the book goes as such:
“The first time our mother came for us, we screamed. We were three and she was a snake, coiled up on the tile in the bathroom, waiting.”
Throughout the course of the book, we hear these spirits’ collective experiences. The narration makes it clear that, even though this is a group, they’re not always in alignment. Sometimes, the spirits disagree or differ. However, the narration always comes from the collective group, “We.”
“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner
This short story by William Faulkner is told from the point of view of an entire town, observing the life and death of the titular character Emily.
“So we were not surprised when Homer Barron—the streets had been finished some time since—was gone. We were a little disappointed that there was not a public blowing-off, but we believed that he had gone on to prepare for Miss Emily’s coming, or to give her a chance to get rid of the cousins. (By that time it was a cabal, and we were all Miss Emily’s allies to help circumvent the cousins.) Sure enough, after another week they departed. And, as we had expected all along, within three days Homer Barron was back in town.”
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Similarly, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides tells a story about a group of girls, but the narrator actually telling the story is a group of boys who are working through their feelings about the girls and their deaths. None of the boys are ever singled out as the narrator and they all speak as one group.
“It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.”
Why write in fourth-person point of view?
So now that you know what the fourth POV is, and you’ve seen a few examples, why would you choose to write in it? Fourth-person perspective offers certain benefits that you just won’t find with other narrative styles. Here are just a few of the benefits.
It allows you to easily portray group think or “the establishment”
While not every book or story will deal with the ideas of “the establishment” or “group think,” for those that do (think George Orwell’s 1984), using fourth-person POV is a way to portray the all-inclusive, all-encompassing nature of that group or establishment. Unlike a traditional third-person limited perspective, this POV lets you into the minds of many people at once.
It can set a mood for your story
This POV choice takes the narration from individualistic and singular and creates a narrator in its place that suddenly seems larger, overwhelming, and thought-provoking for the singular reader (or other characters) to combat or contradict. For certain genres, this mood just works.
It can open up unique character choices
While you may think your character options are just the basic adult, child, animal, or, in some cases, an inanimate object, fourth-person POV might inspire you to use all sorts of different groupings as characters. Your character could be a group of office workers. Your character could be a group of cult members. Your character could be a herd of cows.
Tips for using a fourth-person narrator
While fourth-person perspective can come with a lot of benefits, it can also come with challenges. Here are a few tips for overcoming those.
Break your collective narrator into parts
Okay, so this might seem a little contradictory. We just spent paragraphs telling you that the term fourth person differs from the first-person plural perspective because there are never any individuals talking, thinking, reacting, etcetera, on their own. It all comes from the group. However, you can recognize that your group is made up of parts, while still keeping the group intact.
For example, when we discussed Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi above, we mentioned how sometimes the collective group of spirits would have internal disagreements, before acting as a group. This is an example of breaking your collective narrator into parts.
Here are a few more sentences that show this:
We knew we needed to convince the others to come with us, but we weren’t sure how to go about it. Some of us said threats were the best option, but some pointed out that you can always catch more flies with honey than vinegar. We eventually decided to go with the honey.
In this way, you can show internal conflicts (just as you might show an internal conflict in a singular main character) without breaking your collective narrator down into individuals.
Choose your topics and themes carefully
Because fourth person is a new emerging point of view, it can be pretty unfamiliar to most modern readers and they may find it difficult to relate to your group character. As a result, there might be some emotional distance in your story or book as a whole.
To help mitigate this, choose your story or book topics and themes carefully. Look for themes that will resonate with a large majority of readers and cause an emotional reaction.
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi does this by focusing in on themes of abuse, addiction, mental illness, identity, and religion—often in dark and powerful ways that require the reader to self reflect.
Try on fourth-person POV in small doses
As you’re getting accustomed to the ins and outs of writing fourth-person POV, consider exploring it in small doses, before you jump straight in to writing a 100,000-word novel from a fourth-person perspective.
Instead, maybe try a short story or poem written in fourth person. If you prefer to work on longer pieces, maybe write a novel in a first- or third-person viewpoint, but intersperse your work with fourth-person perspective sections. For example, if your book deals with politics, you could have a primary third-person narrator and a few chapters told from the viewpoint of the political party as a whole.
Picking the right POV for your story
Thinking that fourth person might be the perfect pick for your story? It’s not a decision to take lightly. As you’re considering what might be the best perspective from which to tell your story, consider…
Which characters’ viewpoints are crucial to your narrative
Is it important that your readers really see the plot through all the characters? Or will just one viewpoint do?
How much information and insight you want to give your reader
If you want to be able to convey information that your characters may not immediately know, you might want to opt for third-person omniscient, for example.
What kind of mood you want to set
If you want to create an immersive experience for your reader, you might go with first person. If you want your reader to have a little bit more distance from the narrative, you might go with a third-person limited POV.
Every narrative style has something to offer
Whichever POV option you end up going with, the right choice—whether that’s the fourth emerging point of view or otherwise—will effectively immerse your reader in your story in a way that any other narrative choice just couldn’t.
For more tips on narrative choices and POV, check out our guide to second person POV, with a full definition and examples, as well as our guide to third-person narration and all things third person POV in our academy.