THIRD PERSON POINT OF VIEW
Third person—he, she, it, they—is the most popular point of view for a novel, primarily because it offers the most flexibility.
It used to be that writers stuck with one narrator at a time, mainly because readers tend to feel closer to that character and closeness creates an emotional connection, the goal of every writer. But these days, it’s not unusual to see a chapter of first person POV alternate with a chapter of third person. You may break the rules if you understand them and if you don’t confuse the reader. The rule you must never break is clarity. If the reader has to stop and read the passage more than once, you have a problem.
Third Person Point of View comes in five variations, each with its advantages and disadvantages:
3. Alternating characters
In this blog, I’ll discuss the first three.
With Third Person Limited, the novel has only one narrator, usually the protagonist. The reader is privy to whatever the narrator sees, hears, touches and feels. The writer can probe the character’s brain, express his internal thoughts and observe the action through his eyes. So what’s the main difference between first person and third? With first person, you can establish a unique voice, such as that of a five-year-old child, or create an unreliable narrator, which by its nature requires first person (see my previous blog).
Laurence Gonzales uses third person limited in his 2010 novel, Lucy, and it works because his characters are extraordinary, his protagonist Jenny is active and we see the half-ape character, Lucy, from Jenny’s human perspective.
Here’s an example from Gonzales's novel:
Jenny woke to thunder. There was no light yet. She reached into the darkness and found a tin of wooden matches on the ammunition case beside her bed. She selected one and struck it on the case. The flame flared red then yellow and sulfurous smoke rose. Newborn shadows danced on the walls of the hut. She touched the match to the wick of a candle and a light grew up from it like a yellow flower tinged with blue.
In a novel told entirely in Third Person Limited, you had better like the protagonist because you’re going to spend a lot of time with him or her.
Third Person Objective is known as the “fly on the wall” POV. The depersonalized narrator shows only what is seen from the outside. The narrator doesn’t describe or evaluate the characters’ thoughts. Characters reveal themselves only through action or dialogue.
I can’t think of any reason why a writer would choose this POV. It’s distancing, and to pull it off, the events have to be so dramatic they speak for themselves. The style reads more like a newspaper article than literature.
Ernest Hemingway, who was a journalist as well as a novelist, used Third Person Objective for his short story, “Hills Like White Elephants.” Here’s an excerpt:
The two of them followed the elephant until he came to an opening in the trees. He stood there moving his huge ears. His bulk was in the shadow but the moonlight would be on his head. David reached behind him and closed the dog’s jaws gently with his hand and then moved softly and unbreathing to his right along the edge of the night breeze, feeling it on his cheek, edging with it, never letting it get between him and the bulk until he could see the elephant’s head and the great ears slowly moving. The right tusk was as thick as his own thigh and it curved down almost to the ground.
Third Person with Alternating Characters is popular because it offers plenty of flexibility. The reader can follow the action even if the protagonist isn’t in the scene, and you don’t have the tediousness of sticking with a single character through an entire book.
Here’s an example from Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Olive Kitteridge:
To this day he does not know what he was thinking. In fact, much of it he can’t seem to remember. That Tony Kuzio paid her some visits. That she told Tony he must stay married, because if he divorced, he would never be able to marry in the church again. The piercing of jealousy and rage he felt to think of Tony sitting in Denise’s little place late at night, begging her forgiveness. The feeling that he was drowning in cobwebs whose sticky maze was spinning about him.
The narrator also writes from the point of view of another character, Denise.
Who was to help her? Her father lived far upstate in Vermont with a wife who was an invalid, her brothers and their wives lived hours away, her in-laws were immobilized by grief.
It’s common but not mandatory for an author to use a new chapter when she changes POV. It’s also perfectly acceptable to change POV in the middle of a chapter or scene but, again, clarity is paramount. An awkward transition can stop the reader while he figures out whose head he’s in.
The point of view a writer chooses can have a profound effect on a novel. Emma Donoghue's novel, Room: A Novel, is narrated by a five-year-old boy who has been trapped all his life in one small space:
Ma lifts her sleep T-shirt and makes her tummy jump. “I thought, Jack’s on his way. First thing in the morning, you slid out onto the rug with your eyes wide open.”
I look down at Rug with her red and brown and black all zigging around each other. There’s the stain I spilled by mistake getting born.
“You cutted the cord and I was free,” I tell Ma. “Then I turned into a boy.”
“Actually, you were a boy already.” She gets out of Bed and goes to Thermostat to hot the air.
I don’t think he came last night after nine, the air’s always different if he came. I don’t ask because she doesn’t like saying about him.
The point of view is first person but the important element is the boy's distinctive voice. Think about how the narration would be different if Jack were twenty-five years old or if the story were told in third person, alternating between the boy and his mother. Their perspectives would be poles apart.
When I wrote The Starlite Drive-in, I considered my options carefully. If I wrote it from the point of view of the agoraphobic mother, Teal, I would have been trapped inside a house with her for most of the book. If I told it from the POV of the husband, I would have to share his anger. I decided to tell it from the POV of the twelve-year-old girl, Callie Anne, because I knew how her first crush would affect her and how her innocence would make her an unreliable narrator at times. Also, it’s more acceptable for a girl to eavesdrop on other characters than it would be for an adult. In retrospect, it turned out to be the right choice.
When you choose a point of view for your novel, think hard about the advantages and limitations of each. The narrator determines how the story is told—and every narrator is (or should be) different.
In my next blog, I’ll write about two other variations of third person: Third Person Omniscient and Third Person Deep (or Close-in).