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In several third person (usually limited) stories that I've read, there comes a time when one character shares some of their backstory to one or more other characters. This backstory is always (or almost always) shared with the reader in third person. I tend to find this irritating immersion breaking.

The story is in third person, but I always feel that a backstory told by one character about themselves to other characters would be in first person in the story, and therefore the writer should share this backstory as told by that character, not from the third person narrator.

Question: In a third person story, should a backstory told about a character, by that character be shared with the reader in the first person point of view that the character is giving it in, or would it be better for the author to stick with the previously established third person point of view that the rest of the story is told in?


Note: Please don't use any visual medias in your answers. I get why it would be a bad idea for them to tell a first person story.

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Are you changing narrators?

Think of your Third-Person story as being told by a single narrator. Now when you get to the back-story, does the character who is being talked about take over the narration or is it still the narrator? In most cases it would still be the narrator.

For instance, If I am telling you a story about some people that I know. As I introduce those people to you I may tell you some of their back story. Unless they come and personally deliver that backstory I am going to tell it to you in third person.

Most people don't change narrators during the story. In fact it is usually an omniscient nameless vehicle for delivering everything.

If you want to change POV you can. Rules are made to be broken. Just do it well. If you deliver a backstory in First Person give the reader a reason why the narrator changed.

  • In the most recent example that I can remember, it was (probably) the same narrator, but it constantly switched between at least two characters, one of whom "told" the backstory to the other and their friends. – Artsoccer Jan 14 at 1:35
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Who is telling this backstory?

Is it a separate section, set apart from the rest of the book? Or does the narrator tell the story?

It's fine to use first person for an entire novel, or for a piece of it, if it suits your purpose. One advantage to using both is that it's very clear to the reader that the narrative point of view has changed and there's no confusion over who is speaking. I've seen novels with multiple first person narrators and sometimes it takes a while to figure out who is who. That's something you want to avoid.

Sometimes sticking with third person (with or without a different narrator focus) is what works best. But if the original narrator uses third person for the regular story and then is also telling the backstory, stick with the third person for both.

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This is "writer's choice." If you tell it in first-person, you are presenting it in the voice of the character, as being told, in-world, by that character, out loud. So you'll need to treat it as an extended monologue by a character, and present it in a way that makes sense in that context.

If you tell it in third-person, you're telling it as an omniscient narrator. Typically this means that your narrative isn't closely following the POV of a single character, but is able to freely jump between characters, and to tell things they don't know.

If, on the other hand, your third-person narrator is otherwise over-the-shoulder of the main character, telling an additional character's story in third person requires the understanding that you are retelling something the main character would have heard, but in the narrative voice, not the (other) character's voice. This is a bit of an extra stretch for the reader, which is probably why you personally find it vexing. Given that, if you don't like this technique, don't use it. There's nothing inherently wrong with embedding a first-person narrative in a third-person narrative --it just comes with its own challenges and best practices.

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For me, it depends on whether the backstory is completely true or not.

Swapping to first person (almost a monologue) permits the new story teller to lie. Holding it in third person makes it 'true'.

Changing narrator may not be common now, but has been used in the past (Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins that I know of).

Fundamentally, whatever works for the story you are telling.

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