Wednesday, February 03, 2010

POV: Third Person

The things that serve as milestones of success or that give the big emotional reaction from writing milestones can be odd for me. I think I was mostly relieved when I sold the first book in my series, after a long dry spell. My big, emotional moment wasn't the sale, or the contract, or the check, or seeing the cover, or even seeing a copy of the book in print. It was when I saw the review Charles deLint did in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. That was when it felt real, and that was when I sobbed uncontrollably and was so keyed up I could barely eat all day. When I first got the movie option, the thing that got me was when I read the contract and saw the wording that would be used to credit me on-screen and in advertising related to the movie. That was when I wept. This time around, I squealed with glee when I got the check and enclosed with it was a document from Universal with the NBC Universal logo on the letterhead that had my name and book title on it. It was the first time I'd seen that logo in conjunction with my name and title. I do get shivers when I see the Universal graphics come up before a movie now, so it was very cool seeing the print logo near my name.

Anyway, now it's time for another writing post. Previously, I discussed first-person point of view, the "I" books. The more common POV in fiction is third-person, in which the story isn't told by a character.

There are two main ways third-person POV can be used:
Third-person omniscient is mostly external to the characters. The narrator sees all and knows all -- sometimes more than all the characters put together -- and can dip into any character's head at will. This is the kind of viewpoint where you might see something like, "She had no idea what fate awaited her," since that's something only the narrator could know. I sometimes think of this as "storyteller voice" because it's a lot like oral storytelling, where the storyteller may not be a participant in the story, but he has a distinct voice and viewpoint. You see this used in a lot of 19th century novels. Jane Austen used this in her books, where she was clearly the one telling the story but had access to the thoughts and feelings of all the characters. For a more current example, this is how Terry Pratchett writes his Discworld books.

Third-person limited viewpoint gets deep into the characters' heads, but only one character at a time. While you're in a particular character's viewpoint, you don't have access to any information that character doesn't have -- you don't know what anyone else is thinking, you don't know what anyone else has done unless they tell you, and you don't know what may happen in the future. In a really deep third-person limited viewpoint, the narrative may even take on the flavor of the viewpoint character's voice, to the point it's almost like first person, but without the "I." The book may stick with this one viewpoint character throughout, or it may move from character to character as needed, usually switching viewpoints at scene breaks or when the action moves to another location. There's a lot of disagreement among writers as to how often and when it's appropriate to switch viewpoints, but the deeper you go into a character's viewpoint, the less often you want to switch and the more careful you have to be when you switch, or else you'll give readers whiplash. Switching viewpoints too frequently results in "head hopping," which can get confusing when readers can't get used to being in any character's head before they have to switch again. I've found that head hopping is generally a result of an author who doesn't quite get the distinction between omniscient and limited viewpoint, but then I'm kind of a POV purist and can't abide head hopping unless it's done very skillfully or is a very well done omniscient voice. However, I am no authority on this and can't speak for everyone. Third-person limited viewpoint is probably the most common for modern fiction.

Third-person POV is good for providing scope and range. If you've got an epic with a cast of thousands and action taking place simultaneously in multiple locations, you just about have to use third person because there's no way a single narrator could be that close to all the action. Third person is also the most common viewpoint in romance novels because romance readers want to know what both hero and heroine are thinking and feeling, and they feel cheated if they're shut out of one of the viewpoints. Third person can be more objective because you get more than a single perspective on the situation, so it's good for exploring nuances or an issue with many facets.

Some pros, cons and things to think about with third person:
-- While the first-person narrator knows he/she is a character in a story and is consciously telling a story, the third-person viewpoint character doesn't know he's in a story. He's just living his life and thinking his thoughts, and the reader is eavesdropping. That means third-person introspection may be more honest and uncensored.
-- There can be drawbacks to being able to switch viewpoints -- for one thing, it can remove some suspense. If one character is wondering what the other character thinks and the narrative immediately switches to the other character, telling us what that character thinks, that can reduce the tension the reader feels. The reader never gets a chance to wonder.
-- When readers have access to more information than the characters do, thanks to being able to get into everyone's head, it can make the protagonists look Too Stupid To Live. If we, the readers, know exactly what the villain's plans are, sometimes it looks too painfully obvious for us while the main characters remain blind. If you're getting into the villain's head, you have to be careful to show why it's still difficult for the hero to understand what the villain is doing. Likewise the romance character who flounces off after suspecting her lover is cheating, while the readers know what he was really doing. On the other hand, you can use this to great benefit to build suspense, so that the reader knows the peril a character doesn't know about -- if there's a previous scene with the villain planting a bomb, then a later scene with the main character in that location is going to be incredibly tense for the reader. That tension couldn't be there without the villain's perspective.
-- Even if you're in a third-person perspective, if you're writing from a limited viewpoint you're as restricted in what the character can see and know as you would be in first person (maybe even more so because the first-person narrator is likely looking back on the incident and knows what will happen later, while the third-person character is in the moment and has no way of knowing what will happen later). That means you're breaking viewpoint if you're in a character's head and talk about his blue eyes widening in shock. If you're in his head, he's not going to be thinking about or noticing the color of his own eyes (this is one of my pet peeves).
-- When you switch viewpoints, you need to ground the readers in the new viewpoint so they know whose head they're in now. Just stating the character's name fairly early can help.

There are some hybrid cases where first and third viewpoints may be mixed. I've seen books where the main character's part of the story is in first person while the other characters' perspectives are given in third person. I've also seen framing stories, what I think of as "I met a man in a bar" books, where there's a first-person narrator researching something in the first chapter, and then he meets a man in a bar who tells him the real story. The rest of the book goes into third person for the flashback, and then reverts to first person with the original narrator for the ending. There are also cases where there's a first-person narrator who isn't a character in the book. Henry Fielding's Tom Jones is written in first person, with Fielding addressing the reader directly and giving his opinions and perspectives on the story he's narrating, but the narrative itself comes across as mostly third-person because Fielding isn't an actual participant in the story. In the BBC/A&E miniseries adaptation, they dramatized this by having Fielding as a character introducing the various segments of the story directly to the audience and showing up at places where the characters were, but being essentially ignored by or invisible to the characters.

And now I'm drawing a blank on future writing post topics, so please, ask questions!

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