A STUDY IN THIRD PERSON POINT OF VIEW
Lessons and Readings Necessary To The Creation of a Competitive Commercial Manuscript
By Michael Neff
Let's get right to the point on this issue. Yes, we know that CATCHER IN THE RYE and HUCKLEBERRY FINN could never have been the famous novels they were without the engaging first person voice of their protagonists. And yes, first person seems to be in vogue with paranormal YA and some fantasy here and there, however, third person point of view is the best way to relate a dynamic work of fiction, hands down. Unless the first person voice is so remarkable, unique and/or compelling that the novel could not exist without it, third person is strongly advised.
For purposes of this study, we define four levels of third person point of view (3POV) as follows:
- 3POV Distant
- 3POV Close
- 3POV First-Close
Let's look at three samples of what we're talking about from my novel-in-progress, co-authored with Kevin Reilly, entitled THE YARROW STICKS OF CATHAY.
APOV to 3POV-D to APOV
The following never quite makes it into 3POV-C, but verges on it. Note how the APOV returns at the conclusion:
(APOV) WHEN ONLY A CHILD OF NINE, ONE OF EARTH'S most powerful kings, Zolo Bold, did something that haunted him the rest of his life. He sniffed a bee up his nose.
But no ordinary bee.
(3POV-D) After a night of howling steppe winds and falling stars spilled from The Big Dipper, he saw a white flower, like one of those stars, stemming out the next morning from a vendor’s cart in Samarkand. While his mother strained to subdue him, Zolo nonetheless hopped and hummed with delight. Much to his surprise, he could smell the mind-softening scent of the blossom even from many feet away, competing bravely with the loud odors of the city market. In his mind, it seemed so radiant and mysterious that it overshadowed all the other flowers, even the enormous Silk Road orchids rumored by Christian monks to be death robbers, and the many and exotic blooms whose seeds came from Ulaanbaatar in faraway Mongolia.
When the flower merchant, a man with an ox-sized stomach, no nose, and the thinnest head Zolo had ever seen, turned to heckle a customer, Zolo Bold--whose name means Crazy Fox--saw his chance. He gently slipped from his mother’s hand and took a few steps, leaning forward to smell the rose. He could not help himself, for never before in his life been in the presence of such a sky born flower. But just as his nose brushed the soft white petals and the scent filled his head, something else did too: a sharp and crawly thing.
It followed the air up his right nostril, and once lodged, began to squirm.
Zolo shrieked and jumped into the air!
His entire nose buzzed and the sound of it curled into his throat and out of his mouth. A nearby child, smaller than him and holding his mother’s hand, heard the bee voice and pointed, yelling “It’s bee boy! Bee boy!”
(APOV) In the years to come, Zolo Bold, the great enemy of the dark feared from Istanbul to Cathay, would remember that boy’s terrified face and always attach to it all mention of the word "bee" ...
APOV to 3POV-FC to 3POV-C
Note how sometimes the lines between levels can be somewhat blurred, but once the reader accepts the reality of the 3POV narrative style, it all seamlessly blends:
(APOV) After what seemed like hours, the two of them drew near their tent. (3POV-D) Zolo broke away from his mother and ran towards it as fast as he could. Once inside, he dove onto his sleeping place, made of quilted blankets, and thrust his arm beneath them. Groping around, he soon found the object he searched for: a tiny stone statue of an ancient warrior known to him only as Alexander.
He gripped the figure tightly and whispered his own quick prayer for protection. Many years before, a wandering Kazakh traveler, late of Istanbul, had given it to him as a gift and told him that Alexander once possessed the good fortune and power to rule many nations at once, that he was beloved of all gods-- (3POV-C) and little Zolo imagined that a being of such power would make a formidable ally. He mumbled prayers to Alexander only on special occasions, not wishing to upset Allah, or his parents.
(3POV-D) But at the moment, his mother paid no attention. She stared out the tent into the desert, her body unmoving, as if something she saw paralyzed her.
(3POV-C) to (3POV-FC) While his mother stood in the corner of his eye, facing away from him, Zolo held Alexander close and whispered a prayer in his head:
Help my mother find my father.
I implore you.
Make my family whole again
And I will make sacrifice
To you for all my days.
(3POV-C) He held Alexander for a few more moments, staring at his soft profile and face and wondering how such a soft-looking god could rule so many nations. But he believed it to be true nonetheless. The wanderer from Istanbul had appeared like a man of wisdom and iron, and in his eyes, Zolo saw the truth.
[ NOTE: if the narrative had described the prayer rather than having us see the thoughts in Zolo's head, we would have stayed in (3POV-C) ]
3POV-D to 3POV-FC
Note the transition from 3POV-C to 3POV-FC. The narrative narrows down to the actual thoughts of the 3POV character, also using italicized lines which directly mimic first person interior monologue:
(3POV-D)The old woman stared at Senna, her eyes fixing on her, never straying until she walked to within a few feet of the table. Her two escorts, still masked, let go of her and returned to the performance. The old woman's eyes dropped to the floor and Senna looked her over. (3POV-C) There was nothing special about her. Her face resembled a water-starved desert of lines and cracks, as one would expect. But suddenly, Senna heard someone speak to her: Sing the body young.
(3POV-FC)A voice? From the old woman? ... No.
The voice belonged to a man, though it sounded a bit strangled ... Sing the body young. Again! Was it in her head? She looked around. Nothing. Only Hermine and Théodo acting witless as usual, and not even seeing this old woman. Why are they not paying attention? Do they not realize how odd this all is?
O poder é a vida ea morte, Princess Senna.
She knew that language. Galician, yes. A rare language of Spain, heavily influenced by Roman empire. It translated to "The power is life and death."
Her fingers pricked for a moment and she realized the source of the voice: Mirza Yesun Temur. It must be him!
Meu segredo está oculto.
My secret is hidden. She strained her eyes for him. Zolo, Willie, or whoever was right. Tricks, illusions. And what did the words mean? And why? ... Sing the body young. The words intruding into her mind forced her to look at the old woman again. Now her eyes lifted and bored into Senna, and Senna's face began to burn and felt as if dozens of small fingers walked lightly over it. What in Beelzebub's name? The woman's eyes implored Senna to act, as if a terrible thing were about to happen. But what?
A Summary of Plus Points and Arguments for 3POVs
- 3POV can be just as immediate and intimate as first person (see 3POV-FC example above), but without the usual constraints of being always boxed into what the first person narrator sees/experiences, sans their personality as a continuous filter. 3POV allows for multiple filters and tones, as well as first person intimacy with more than one character (multiple first person can achieve the same thing, but with more difficulty).
- If you as the author need to deliver exposition or other critical information you will have more hoops to jump through if you are confined to the viewpoint of a first person narrator who may or may not logically be capable of delivering said information. While Jodi the first person narrator is talking to Mary, Bobby has just lit the fuse a mile away. How can Jodi tell us this?
- Related to above, you can effectively describe events via the APOV and other 3POV characters even though your protagonist isn't present.
- Allows a universal or authorial voice to more easily and quickly, under a wide variety of circumstances, to define reality for the reader. The reader suspends disbelief and accepts what the author narrator is telling them, whereas first person statements and observation run the risk, in certain situations, of sounding more like opinion.
- Advantages of dramatic irony. The reader learns about upcoming circumstances that will adversely affect the protagonist before the protagonist realizes this fact. This creates suspense and heightens reader concern.
- Allows for establishment of "epic perspective" (see the opening above with little Zolo).
- Cinematic advantages. For example, in THE ALCHEMYST by Jonathan Stroud, we witness a scene of violence taking place in a book store. We see it through one characters viewpoint, in the store, as it plays out, then we switch to a second character outside the store, witnessing the effects of the violence from outside. Like a film, the author is able to cut back and forth and give far more dynamism to the depiction of the scene.
- Another cinematic advantage is that the APOV can start the action sometimes more readily than the first person who may get mired in TELL TELL rather than SHOW SHOW.
- Ability to jump into the heads of other characters enables author to quickly and efficiently switch settings and circumstances and thus add more variety and energy, as well bring a different tone and interpretation to the work as needed, e.g., consider the difference between the POV of a child and an elder experiencing the same circumstance.
- It's easier to physically describe the 3POV view-point character(s) - the author can simply just say straight out how they appear, or even use the camera angle of another 3POV character to render the image.
Notes on Character Viewpoint
The nature of any given 3POV narrative is dependent to a large extent on the personality of the 3POV character engaged in filtering and interpreting the fictional environ. The 3POV narrator chooses to focus on things which interest her or him, comments on behavior she or he finds odd or objectionable, reveals fantasies, etc. Therefore, by placing a specific character with well defined traits at an event, or in the presence of something which must be described or experienced, you render that event or object in such a way as to reflect the character’s mindset, biases, emotion, beliefs and perceptions.
Thus, different characters employed as 3POV cameras or interpreters will yield different results when placed in the same circumstance. A superstitious individual might imagine a dark hand of God blotting the sun in anger, falling rain as tears; whereas the less superstitious, educated observer might focus on the sadness of a small child, her bright clothing soaked by rain, or the frantic motions of the staff attempting to clear food off the table before it is all spoiled by rainwater. The superstitious character might suffer more cognitive dysfunction, interpret smiles as wolfish or manipulative or death-like, the more educated character marveling at light and youthful appearance of the person smiling, the crinkles around the eyes, the cause of the light mood.
Characters by virtue of their personalities will therefore interpret the same phenomenon differently.
A must to keep in mind when juggling your 3POVS.
Michael Neff of Algonkian Writer Conferences