Point of View – Part II:
Third Person Narrative – Indulging Your God Complex
“…you’ve lost perspective? Well, get it back ―
God alone has the third person point of view in this life …”
― John Geddes, A Familiar Rain
Cool nights and rainy days. Time to give thanks to the New England weather gods, and continue our discussion of literary point of view with a clearer mind and an eye to third-person narratives. Simply put, where first person is inside the story, third person is out. It is the realm of ‘he’ and ‘she’, where the use of ‘I’ is limited to dialogue. The author is the storyteller in the old sense of bards and Once-upon-a-time, painting pictures, populating landscapes, mapping quests, choreographing battles and love scenes, but always from the wings or the orchestra pit, never setting foot on stage.
The main decision one has to make with a third-person narrative is how knowledgeable you want it to be. There are three degrees of omniscience: Objective, Limited Omniscient, and Omniscient.
“Show, don’t tell!” – three words spoken by every writing teacher and editor in the world, are at the heart of Objective Narrative. This is a cinematic point of view, with the author serving as the camera or proverbial fly on the wall, recording without judgment or comment. You can’t get inside your characters’ heads or hearts, or write about anything that cannot be inferred from your characters’ words and actions. Major constraints used, for example, in Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” and Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” to great effect. Objective point of view naturally makes for spare, action-driven prose in which attention to detail is essential. Like present tense, it seems to be increasingly found in modern fiction. Not for everyone’s taste, but if it suits….
Perhaps I’m nurturing a latent God complex – I leave that to you armchair trick cyclists to discern – but, for myself, third-person POV is most attractive when laced with a dram or three of omniscience. I love to get inside characters’ heads, explore their thoughts, motives, history, even take flights of authorial fancy, like expounding on everything from the philosophy of a Vogon Construction Fleet captain to the language and passions of unicorns.
Limited omniscient is, as the words imply, limited. You crawl under the skin of one of your characters, often your protagonist though it can just as well be a minor character or villain, and limit your authorial wisdom to that one character. This is a particularly effective point of view in sprawling epics where having access to the thoughts of thousands becomes so much white noise after a while. You have to filter and discriminate in order to bring order to the chaos. J.K. Rowling used limited omniscient to great effect in her Harry Potter septet. She let us know what Harry was thinking and feeling, even what he surmised others thoughts and emotions, but direct knowledge of the inner lives of the other characters was shielded to us. When it became essential to the story for Harry to know what was in, say, Tom Riddle’s mind, J.K. would invoke magic – the Memory Bowl, e.g. – and so convey the information without breaking POV.
One pitfall with limited omniscience is the tendency to forget whose story you’re telling and start head hopping. Not that you can’t switch POV, but make sure you are clear. No bouncing about, willy-nilly. One chapter, one character’s POV. If that doesn’t work for you, consider jumping into the deep end of the pool and embracing hard-core omniscient narrative in all its glory.
Omniscient narrative means what it says: the author/narrator knows all about all, past, present, and future, inside and out. You are the puppet master and you can play dice – or not – with your universe at your will. If you have a penchant for going dissecting character, exploring backstory and internal dialogue, this is the path for you. You can stand on the outside but still look deep, deep within. Your authorial voice can shine!
Of course, there are drawbacks, even to playing god. First, remember that while third-person omniscient glorifies the art of telling a tale, you don’t want to become so enamored by your own meanderings that you lose sight of your story’s needs. The driving thread of the narrative needs to remain compelling and strong. Be wary of getting so lost in the layers of the tell that you forget the show.
You will also have to learn to filter your knowledge. Just because you know everything doesn’t mean everything is worth sharing. Now, you may know that the Queen’s second gardener suffers terribly from anthophobia. He wants nothing more than to take a lawn mower to the royal flowerbeds but, for the sake of his father and his father’s father, palace grounds men for generations, he tends the lilies and lavender and grits his teeth through it all. Now this is fascinating if you are telling the gardener’s tale or if his fear of flowers causes him to take a shears to the royal retinue and frighten the horses. But if it’s a detail that doesn’t advance the story, keep it to yourself – or file it away for when you reinvent Lady Chatterley’s Lover as Panic and Passion Among the Peonies.
Finally, when you choose your point of view, remember that you are not only choosing a narrative tool but framing your work in a manner that impels the reader to follow where you lead.
So, experiment, have fun, find the right point of view for your work. But, if you elect to mix things up, do it with purpose, conviction, and an honest desire not to lose your audience or give them whiplash from gratuitous head hopping.
If you have missed any past editions of Editor’s Corner, they are easily accessible at the Editor’s Corner Archive.