Monday, March 27, 2023

Writing in the fourth person


You will be familiar with the first person point of view in writing. I use it most often here at clerkmanifesto, and it might be my favorite as it gives me free reign to be myself and express my own experience even when writing on more general themes. I also like reading novels that use this form, one where the story is told from the storyteller's perspective. It's an especially personal way of writing.

Second person writing is a far less common form of writing, perhaps most frequently used in technical writing, like for instruction manuals or guides of various kinds. You have always felt this form is underexploited, and so have I. But I think we can both see how easily it can go off the rails because presuming upon the actions and feelings of the readers can be a dicey proposition, and I myself have been driven to rages when told to insert sprocket A into gearset 3 when no one has even numbered the gearsets!

Third person is the most common authorial voice. Also known as the omniscient voice, in this style of writing the author exists outside of the story or information and presents the material from a more dispassionate remove. This is popular for its cool neutrality, but also because of writers' tendencies to have a god complex. Writers actually are gods though, in their small ways, so please don't hold this too much against them.

These have always been the only styles of writing I have ever heard of or known. But in the process of plagiarizing Winnie the Pooh, I have noticed an increasing tendency in myself to write in and notice a new form. It is a form I have used historically in clerkmanifesto without exactly knowing it was a new form, or that it deserved its own name, or even that such a thing existed.

But now it is all clear, and I have a name for it as well.

I call it, naturally enough, the fourth person point of view. Besides the obvious reason for this name, being that one through three have been sequentially taken, there are other good reasons to call it fourth person writing. One is the neat way it doubles the second person form of writing, which is what it multiplies off of. Because in fourth person writing, you the reader are not just directed, or spoken at, as in second person writing, but you explicitly take action in the text. You are introduced into the content of the narrative as an active participant.

"Me?" You ask, both taken back and yet slightly intrigued.

Yes, you.

"You should patent this!" You cry out excitedly.

I know.

But really, I just want everyone to be happy. 

Let it be my godlike writer's gift to the world.

Another good reason to call this fourth person writing, and maybe the best one, is because it references the cinematic device of the fourth wall. The fourth wall is an imagined element through which we see a work, but one we do not mention to retain the illusion of the work. By breaking the fourth wall, or by using the fourth person voice, we admit to the fiction of what we are doing. We play with the deeper truth that you (yes you) and I are collaborators. As much of the illusion work of art is done by the reader as it is by the writer. The fourth person voice is a kind of wall-breaking play at being more upfront about what's going on around here.

"What is going on around here?" You ask suddenly.

"I don't know." I frankly reply. "You tell me."

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