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Posted on May 24, 2024

Fourth Person Point of View: We Are the Narrator

Fourth person POV is a narrative style that uses a first person plural voice. It has slowly been gaining traction over the years, providing writers with a unique, memorable way to tell a story.

In this post, we’re going to investigate this underused narrative perspective and look at some examples of it in popular works of literature.

Think of it as “first person multiple”

The fourth person POV is a narrative perspective that tells a story with a collective voice. It uses “we,” “us,” “our,” and “ours” to represent multiple characters speaking as a single narrator.

Here is an example from A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner:

We believed she had to do that. We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will.

Note that a group of characters is speaking 一 they share the same feelings and memories and speak in a collective voice. Importantly, it differs from the first person plural POV… 

1st person plural POV vs. 4th person POV

The first person plural POV also uses pronouns like “we” and “us” when describing group actions, but it always only refers to the internal thoughts and feelings of the narrator. For example: 

As the ghosts materialized from the shadows, Raul grabbed my arm. We scurried behind the closet, our legs quaking with terror. I clasped my hands together and prayed to God for help.

The narrator uses “we” and “our” to describe what he and Raul are going through, but only from his individual perspective, not Raul’s (otherwise, that would be “head hopping”). On the other hand, with the fourth person POV, the narration always refers to the shared, collective experience of a group of people.  

Just like other narrative perspectives, fourth person POV can be used throughout an entire book or in addition to at least one other POV. For example, Chang-rae Lee’s speculative fiction novel On Such a Full Sea is entirely told in the fourth person POV, while Sophie Mackintosh’s Booker Prize-longlisted novel The Water Cure uses both the first person POV and the fourth person POV.



Understanding Point of View

Learn to master different POVs and choose the best for your story.

Now that we’ve got a sense of what the fourth person POV is, let’s look at how some authors have applied it in their work, and how you can do so in your own stories.

It can be the viewpoint of a community

Stories can use the fourth person POV to show the shared life experiences of communities, especially those often underrepresented in literature. Instead of learning about certain feelings, thoughts, and events through a single narrator, the reader finds out new information through a collective voice.

For example, Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades uses the collective voice of characters with shared everyday experiences to give the reader an insider’s look at immigrant girlhood in Queens, New York.

We live in the dregs of Queens, New York, where airplanes fly so low that we are certain they will crush us. On our block a lonely tree grows. … In our front yards, grandmothers string laundry lines, hang bedsheets, our brothers' shorts, and our sneakers scrubbed to look brand new. Take those down! our mothers hiss. This isn't back home.

Andreades shared in an interview that she wanted to write about Queens because “it’s a place that — unlike Williamsburg in Brooklyn, or Chelsea in Manhattan [pictured above] — isn’t particularly glamorous, affluent, or white." (Source)

This perspective can also help authors create a sense of “psychic distance” from the narrator… 

It can add a sense of mystery and dissociation

Depending on the theme and mood of your work, using the fourth person POV could prove very effective in conveying a specific emotional tone. For example, if you’re writing a dystopian novel and want your reader to feel like an outsider looking in, using “we” and “us” can make them feel a sense of unease and distance from the narrative voice, as someone who is outside of the group.

Let’s take an example from Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, which explores the life of a woman from a labor settlement in a future America colonized by China. The speculative fiction novel starts with the following lines:

It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore. We think, Why bother? Except for a lucky few, everyone is from someplace, but that someplace, it turns out, is gone.

Through this mysterious, vague beginning, the reader is instantly plunged into the story, not knowing who is speaking or where “we” come from. They’ll have to keep following along to slowly unravel the various layers of Lee’s well-crafted story.

You can also consider using the fourth person POV as a way to indicate trauma or dissociation. If your protagonists have witnessed a horrible event, using a collective voice could be an effective way to show their shared pain and shock.

In Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure, for example, the main characters — sisters Grace, Lia, and Sky — find out their father has died without them knowing.

It’s wrong to say that we don’t notice. We are just absorbed in ourselves, that afternoon when he dies. … We spend some time lying down with lengths of muslin over our faces, trying not to scream, and so he dies with none of us women bearing witness, none of us accompanying him. It is possible we drove him away…

The novel’s beginning hints at the remorse and guilt the sisters might be feeling following their father’s death. They were not there for him in his time of need, and it is possible that their actions prior to his death might have pushed him to the point of no return.

The Water Cure, described as The Handmaid's Tale meets The Virgin Suicides, takes place on a nameless island in the future.

The inherent flexibility of this point of view allows authors to craft intriguing and multi-layered stories...

It can create a layered mix of narratives

One of the best things about the fourth person POV is that you can alternate it with the first person perspective to create a unique and layered narrative

For example, in Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel Freshwater — which tells the story of Ada, a young Nigerian woman who’s possessed by various spirits — the author includes several chapters that are narrated by the communal voice of the spirits:

We came from somewhere — everything does. When the transition is made from spirit to flesh, the gates are meant to be closed. ... By the time she (our body) struggled out into the world, slick and louder than a village of storms, the gates were left open.

The novel also has chapters in which just one of the spirits serves as the narrator. In the excerpt below, we get to see the story unfold through the eyes of a spirit named Asughara:

“You’re hurting people I love, don’t you understand?” Ada said. “I can’t just fold my hands and watch you do it.”

“You’re doing this for them?” I put out the cigarette. Maybe she didn’t understand. “They deserved it, Ada. All of them deserved it for what we went through.”

The result of this mix of narrative perspectives is a layered, disturbing tale that makes a lasting impact. Details provided in each chapter are limited to what the narrator(s) choose to share, so the reader must piece together their own understanding of the events that slowly unfold throughout the course of Emezi’s novel.

So, should you use this POV?

New writers should use it sparingly

With thousands of new stories being published each year in the first and third person POVs, using the fourth person POV could help make your book stand out from the crowd — as long as it’s fitting to your genre and subject. 

But using the fourth person POV can be tricky to implement, and it might not be the best narrative perspective to choose if you’ve just started your writing journey. It could be a good idea to initially try working with first person POV so you can get the hang of creating an immersive, intimate reading experience for your reader with a strong, memorable voice. 

If you’re still keen on trying it out, here are a couple of tips to keep in mind:

Work your way up

Make it a goal to complete an entire short story first before tackling something as long as a novel — you can look up different prompts and writing exercises for guidance. The fourth person POV is often used in science fiction and literary fiction, so we suggest writing in one of these genres first as a testing ground.

If, however, you’re keen on composing a longer project, you could try writing a few of the chapters in the fourth person POV, or experiment with alternating chapters (for example, have a mix of the first and the fourth person POV in your book).

And once you’re done with your piece, you can share it with your family, friends or even a professional editor for feedback. If you get mostly positive comments, that could be a sign that you’re ready to move on to a bigger project.


Short Story Template

Write a tightly-plotted short story with our step-by-step guide.

Avoid overusing the pronoun “we”

Just like with second person POV and using the pronoun “you,” it’s important not to use “we” several times in a single paragraph. Think of creative ways to structure your sentences so that they don’t become too repetitive. 

Let’s take a look at these two short paragraphs:

We were fractious and we were overpaid. We thought our mornings lacked promise. We agreed that at least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen.

We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen…

In the first paragraph, more instances of "we" were added to the opening lines of Joshua Ferris's novel Then We Came to the End, making it appear clunky and monotonous with the repetitive phrasing. Meanwhile, the second paragraph consists of the original first lines from the book, which is arguably stronger writing as Ferris uses "we" only once and varies the sentence structures, giving his opening rhythm and a unique voice.

While not for everyone, fourth person POV is worth trying out if you’re looking to challenge yourself or experiment some more with your writing. Now that we've wrapped up our pitstop of the fourth person POV, let's finish off our POV grand tour by looking at what happens when you have multiple viewpoint characters. 

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