Friday, February 6, 2015

Third-Person POV

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Woo-hoo! It’s Word-Craft Wednesday on a Friday! Since I totally didn’t get my third-person POV piece written in time for Wednesday, I decided to post it today instead. Don’t worry, though – just because it’s Word-Craft Wednesday on a Friday doesn’t mean that your weekend is delayed. (Thank goodness!)

By the way, if you find any typos in here, I am blaming them on my cat, who decided that my lap belongs to her, not my laptop. I am typing with the cat pretty much on my hands, and she is purring quite contentedly.

So, let’s talk a little about third-person POV. You already know the basics – you use third-person pronouns. But let’s break it down a little further. There are three types of third-person narrative: omniscient, objective, and subjective.  Since subjective is a lot like first-person, and we just talked about that last Wednesday, let’s do a quick comparison and contrast between the two.

Third-Person Subjective (Limited)

I will just straight up admit that this is my favorite narrative POV to use and to read. For whatever reason, writing first person doesn’t come naturally to me, and I tend to have a harder time getting into books written in first person. This isn’t to say that I dislike first-person narrative, it’s just not my natural inclination.

A lot of the ‘rules’ of first-person narrative apply to third-person limited as well. A lot of the reading that I have done, however, seems to indicate that third-person limited allows for a little more leeway when describing your character. It’s easier to slip that kind of stuff in there without disrupting the narration – the reader is already in a mindset of observing this character rather than seeing through his/her eyes, so it won’t seem jarring.


It won’t seem as jarring, but it is way, waaay to easy to abuse this. You only get a tiny bit more leeway than you do in first person. Character description is like an energy drink: it’s awesome in just the right amount, but too much will make people want to steer clear of you (yes, I speak from experience here).

If you want your narrative to be rich in description (and why wouldn’t you?), the key is not to focus on the POV character. Focus on landscapes and rooms, focus on the other characters, focus on the sounds and sights and smells and sensations your POV character is experiencing. This is what will make your narrative seem more real to the reader.

The benefit of third-person limited, as I have said before, is that you immediately give the reader a person to latch onto – sort of a companion that they can follow through the story. The drawback? It’s…well, limited.

Third-Person Objective

This is the narrative point of view that almost all theatre and film is told from. It’s sometimes called “camera lens” or “fly-on-the-wall” narrative. I say ‘almost,’ because any film where you ‘hear’ the thoughts inside the character’s head is not strictly fly-on-the-wall. Plus, some movies and shows have the main character narrating them (such as the excellent show Burn Notice).

Basically, when you write from this POV, you have to write the narrative like it’s a movie. No peeking into people’s heads. You don’t get to know how the character feels. All you get from your character, in order to indicate that, are facial expressions. Think of how actors portray characters. That is what your narrative voice needs to do. This mode of storytelling, more than any other, relies on showing, not telling. You can’t say, “She was sad.” You have to say, “She frowned,” or “She wept.” So, it’s definitely one of the more challenging ways to tell a story. Now, “show, don’t tell” is really important no matter what, but it’s crucial for third-person objective.

The benefit of third-person objective is that you really allow your reader to draw their own conclusions. Books intended to be very thought-provoking work well with this type of narration. It’s an artful form of storytelling. The drawback? It’s hard to write.

Third-Person Omniscient

Have you ever taken an open-book test and discovered that it was almost harder than taking a multiple choice test?

That’s kind of what third-person omniscient is like. You have so much freedom, and so many things to cover, that sometimes you have to pick and choose what to relate. This can be really challenging, sort of the way that when you take an open book test, there are a couple of things that might answer the question, but you’re not sure which one your teacher is looking for.

On the other hand, because you get to choose what to tell or what not to tell, you have to ability to make your reader think one thing when something else is the way things actually are.(This is known as the untrustworthy narrator.) It’s actually pretty fun, but it requires a lot of planning to pull it off.

One of the most important things to remember is that your narrator still is, in a way, a character of the story. This means that your narrator needs to have a consistent voice. Just the way that in first-person or third-person limited POVs you need to use a consistent vocabulary and style of telling things, this applies for an omniscient POV. This means that if you do explore people’s feelings and thoughts, you need to do it in a way that sounds like the unique voice of the narrator, not the voice of the character whose mind you are exploring. (Unless you have the thoughts in italics or quotation marks. Current style favors italics, but both are acceptable.) If you just slip into something like third-person limited anytime you jump inside somebody’s thoughts, you are no longer following an omniscient POV. You are doing something called ‘head-hopping,’ and it’s considered a rather egregious error by the writing industry.

That being said, third-person omniscient really has the benefit of freedom.  While you can’t get away with everything, you don’t have limitations the way you do for the other narrative POVs. The drawback? You need to be careful. Your readers don’t want to know every single detail, and some details will just bog the story down. As with real life, freedom frequently comes with its own set of limitations. The tough part is that you have to set them down.

So, there’s your crash-course in third-person narrative POVs. This is far from comprehensive, but it’s a little bit deeper of a look into the concept. If you’re enjoying this series of Word-Craft Wednesdays (or Friday, as the case may be today), you’ll probably really like Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. It’s a comprehensive look at this very topic, and he really tackles the nitty-gritty details.

Next week’s Word-Craft Wednesday will touch on tense in storytelling (and yes, it still has to do with POV and narrative). I mentioned this briefly when I talked about first-person POV, but it’s certainly worthy of its own blog post.

What thoughts do you have on third-person narrative forms? Sound off in the comments.

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