Friday, July 25, 2014

Tight Third Person

Walking a fine line on point-of-view

For me, writing from a tight third-person perspective is the most rewarding way to tell a story – I also think it’s the most difficult.

Omniscient and first-person POVs have to be the easiest, because they’re largely unconstrained.  The all-seeing narrator who can describe anything that’s going on anywhere or anything anyone is thinking allows the author to freely pick and choose want he wants to show the reader.  First person, on the other hand, is immersive – the writer has stepped into the skin of a character like an actor who’s free to improvise the part.

The omniscient perspective is supposed to be completely reliable, since it’s basically the author telling you what the characters are doing, saying, and thinking.  And first person is unreliable – you’re getting the story as the character wants you to see and hear it, a biased account.  I can and do enjoy reading stories written from either POV, but I still prefer third person, as it gives you the best of both worlds – objectivity and intimacy at the same time.  That’s probably why it’s more challenging for the writer.

There’s a range of third-person perspectives though.  On one end is the limited or ‘camera eye’ point-of-view (I think of it as the director’s POV.)  It’s relatively easy to write because it’s the most constrained.  You simply show what can be seen and heard from any given perspective, without access to what any of the characters are thinking – that has to be suggested by what shows on the outside.

In the middle of the range you have a kind of telepathic camera that rides over the shoulder of a given character.  So you see what they see and hear what they hear (and sometimes what they think.)  This is more complicated, offering a closer connection to the POV character, but still keeping the point-of-view well defined.

Tight third person is trickier.  The narrator is actually inside the character’s head, feeling what they feel, experiencing the story first-hand.  It creates the immediacy and intimacy of first person, but allows the author to remain objective.  The character’s biases are there, but you can see them, because the narrator tells you what they’re really seeing and hearing, and what they’re really thinking.  In other words, you’re getting the objective version of what’s really going on inside the character.  I find that the most fascinating way to experience a story, both as an author and as a reader.

The benefits of tight third person also come with pitfalls.  For example, in third person there are two ways to show what a character is thinking.  One is indirectly reporting it, and the other is directly quoting their thoughts (usually in italics.)  For example –
    He wondered why she was there.
    I wonder why she’s here.
But in close third person, the thought can also be expressed directly (and without italics) by the narrator, who’s right there inside the character's head.  Like this –
    Why was she here?
So the writer needs to be careful of the grammar, because both the pronoun and verb form uses differ depending on the context.  But that’s not the only trap for the unwary – a tight third-person perspective is so close to first person (it’s often called first-third) that the writer can slip too much into the character’s point-of-view and forget to portray them objectively.

Trying to walk that fine line, really getting inside a character’s head while maintaining objectivity, may be difficult, but I believe it’s more than worth it.

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