The Beauty of Third Person

Don’t get me wrong, I like First Person as a POV. It is deep inside the head of the protagonist. You see, hear, feel, what they see, hear, feel. You are right there behind their eyes. It allows the writer to place narrative asides in the text and in the voice of the protagonist. Such a delightful choice, First Person.

But somewhat limited.

You can change the tense from Present to Past, but that’s about it. I’ve rarely read a Multiple First Person narrative that really worked. So difficult to differentiate between the voices, so hard to let the reader know who is narrating without a rather clumsy name-tag at the top of the scene or chapter. I’m a great lover of Heinlein’s work, but he never pulled off a Multiple First Person. Every character sounded like Heinlein (no matter what sex, age, or personality). Sorry, but it’s true.

One of these days I’ll have a crack at Multiple First myself, just to see if I can do it. I’ll probably fail, but I’ll be in good company when I do.

I’ve seen people attempt Omniscient First but, unless the character is a god or a telepath, it is just confusing. One of these days, I may well write from the viewpoint of a god, just to see, but it’ll an interesting experiment in humanising the divine rather than an actual attempt to find a new method of telling stories. Or from the viewpoint of a telepath, which might be an even more interesting experiment.

Second Person is best left for choose-your-own adventure stories. I’ve seen it used once, and only once, effectively, in Iain Banks’s A Song of Stone and even then the story was mostly told in First Person. To write an entire novel in Second Person would, in my humble opinion, be nigh on impossible. Mainly because, if your reader isn’t the same as your character in gender, age, and outlook, you have put a barrier between them and the story. It’s effective in A Song of Stone because it feels as if the First Person narrator is talking to his sister, as you would in the same circumstances. It sounds like a reminiscence.

(Since I originally wrote this post, I have written a short story in mostly second person. ‘The Ragged Dancers’ — under my TF Grant byline — is to be found in The Firedance Anthology: Words that Burn published by Firedance Books. Check it out if you feel the urge to see if I managed to use second person effectively. I think it works, the narrative mode grew out of the need to tell a particular story, rather than a need to see if I could do it, but you be the judge of its effectiveness.)

But Third.

Ah, Third Person.

The most flexible of POVs. In Third, you can be as close as in First: Subjective Third, Close Third, Deep Third, Limited Third (when you have so many names for a narrative mode you know it’s useful). You can be outside the characters looking at them like bugs on a plate: Objective Third, Distant Third. Or you can be above, dipping into and out of the heads of any character you choose, knowing everything, showing everything: Omniscient Third. Or the more limited version of omniscient, which is Close Third Multiple, where from scene to scene the writer moves from character POV to character POV, but only shows a single scene from a single viewpoint at any given time.

And (and this may well be sacrilege in these “this is the only way to write” times) you can use all of these narrative modes within the same story. (Iain (M) Banks does this all the time…my admiration runneth over for what that guy does with prose [Edit: RIP to one of the best writers of his generation. I’ll miss your work, man, but at least I’ll always have the Culture])

You can skip from Close to Distant to Omniscient and back again, you can stick like glue behind one character’s eyes for one scene and then head-hop to your heart’s content in another. You can insert narrator voice asides into the text or write everything in the pure voice of the POV character. In Third you can do whatever the story demands and, more importantly, whatever you have the skill to achieve.

Because don’t get me wrong, the very flexibility of Third is dangerous for a writer. The question is not, can you do this? But should you do this?

The thing is (and the reason why writing sites written by dogmatic writing teachers, jaundiced agents, and exasperated editors are so pedantic about their rules) that when you write your first story you probably will head-hop, slip into Omniscient, drop into narrator all the time. I know I did. The problem being of course is that you don’t know you’re head-hopping, you don’t know you’re in Omniscient, you don’t know you’re writing narrator asides.

Which means you are writing a confused mess of barely digestible prose nuggets. There may well be grand lines in there. You may well have fine grasp of character, of plot, of narrative drive, but your writing, quite frankly, stinks.

That is why the admonishments not to head-hop come down thick and fast, because you have to have control of POV. You have to know what you are doing. In my humble opinion, the best way to gain control of POV is to use Close (Subjective, Limited, Deep) third for a while and nothing else. This will teach you that your protagonist can’t see what is behind the door unless they look. They can’t know what another character is thinking but have to rely on supposition based on what the character does. This will teach you that you are stuck behind the character’s eyes and you have to stay there.

This is not something you can learn by any other way than doing (normal caveats apply).

But that doesn’t mean that all the other versions of Third Person are somehow wrong. It just means they are difficult to get right.

The beauty of Third Person is that when you have control of POV, you can do whatever the hell you want.

I like that about Third.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’:


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Filed under Narrative Modes and POV

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