Writing 3rd Person: Maintaining Limited POV

Writing in first person presents the challenge of maintaining a voice that sounds like a distinctive character instead of that of the author, but third person narration comes with its own set of issues and these can be less clear. Writers need to determine whose third person point of view they are going to use. Are they using a single character? Rotating between two or more characters? Or will they zoom way out and use an omniscient narrative style? Once a writer makes their choice, they need to guard against slipping between them.

Omniscient narration has fallen out of style, but when done well it offers the advantage of not keeping secrets from the reader. However, close third-person POV — either of a single character or several — has become much more of the norm for third-person narratives, in part because many writers like the way it puts the reader right into the action. The trick with this point of view is to maintain that strict closeness and not slide into a more omniscient viewpoint. Some aspects of close third are obvious, and simply a matter of keeping track. Who knows what? Who has learned what facts, been present for a given discussion, overheard which secret? When it comes to plot points, it’s not difficult to determine if a character should know about something.

The tricky part of close third-person POV comes with description. There is a tendency to think of third person as the writer setting up their movie camera where the character stands, and writing as if they were filming from that specific spot. It’s logical — the description consists of whatever that camera “sees” from that position. But close third provides more than the view from the character’s eyes — it’s the view from that character’s brain, as well. Descriptions from a character’s POV must be both what they see and what they think about what they see, and here is where things often slip from the character’s POV to the writer’s — or from close third to omniscient.

In close third person, a character should see and observe in a way that makes sense for them, not just as a way to inform the reader of what a room looks like or what is going on in a scene. A wealthy society matron or an interior decorator might walk into a well-appointed living room and recognize the rug as a French Aubusson, but most characters probably would not. An actor who spends a lot of time on the red carpet and with stylists might identify his date’s dress as Armani, but an accountant for a computer company would be much less likely to make the same observation. A writer needs to know their characters, and understand how they see the world. Does the protagonist stick their head out the third story window and see a Porsche coming up the block or a red sports car? The reader must see what the character sees, and nothing more.

This distinction also comes into play in smaller details, such as how other characters are referred to within the text. When the protagonist walks into a room full of strangers, it makes sense to differentiate with physical details, such as the redhead, the woman in the black dress, the taller of the two men. But these vague descriptions should end the minute specifics are assigned. Once the POV character meets the beautiful redhead and knows her name is Susan, they should stop thinking of her as the redhead or the knockout or the beautiful woman, because people don’t reverse their thinking process in that way; she’s Susan.

Similarly, if a male protagonist is speaking to another man, and they are the only characters in the scene, the second character should never be referred to as the other man. Doing so pulls the reader out of the protagonist’s head, out of the room, to a place hovering above the scene where they are aware of two people talking. The protagonist doesn’t think of the person he’s speaking to as the other man — he just thinks of him as Joe or Dad or whoever he is. These sorts of errors often come into play when writers are looking for a way to avoid using a name or a pronoun too often, but it’s much more important to maintain the established POV than to avoid using he or him a few times in a paragraph.

Writing close third person involves really getting into the characters’ heads. When reviewing a scene, a writer needs to consider whether all of the details coming through make sense given the character’s POV. If vital information needs to be relayed, it’s important to determine how the character will know or discover it before it can be presented for the reader, and to keep the author’s voice from sneaking into the narrative.



Playing with POV

A few weeks ago, I posted some thoughts about point of view, where I talked about how many first-person narratives were finding their way into my in-box. The interesting thing is that while I see many projects where the POV isn’t working for me–where the voice does not sound distinctive or the choice of POV in general rings false–I see very little in the way of experiments with POV. Most genre novels stick to fairly traditional points of view, depending on what is most typical for similar books. Romance novels tend to alternate between the hero and the heroine, much of the young adult work out there is still in first person, and so on. The experiments come from more literary writing, where playing with different aspects of the writing process seems to be more welcome.

That does not mean you can’t learn a great deal by playing around with point of view for your own project. Even if you will ultimately produce a story that adheres to the traditions of your genre, switching things up can be a great exercise, especially early on in the process. It helps you to find your characters’ voices or determine how deeply you want to delve into a given area of the narrative. Sometimes you’ll discover entirely different avenues you wish to explore, broadening your book and adding layers of interest. Also, certain narrative voices lend themselves to specific books by echoing genres or styles that may no longer be popular but still help set the mood for your reader. Think of the sounds of a fairy tale, of a noir detective story, of a spooky gothic tale–and the voice of the person telling those stories. Playing with point of view, even temporarily, may give you a narrator that conveys the perfect atmosphere.

In an interview over at Writer Unboxed, Erin Morgenstern discusses the POV shifts in her debut novel, THE NIGHT CIRCUS, showing that it’s possible to do something different with a first book if you think it through and it works for your story.

Who’s Talking? The Perils of POV

I spent a good portion of the last few days reading submissions, and whenever I do so in a concentrated period of time, I start to trip over writing patterns. In this case, the pattern emerged almost immediately, as it only served to solidify a suspicion I’d been forming for months: First person POVs are all starting to sound the same.

This is an exaggeration, of course, but not much of one. First person seems to have become the point-of-view of choice, particularly in young adult fiction where I rarely see anything else, and in some cases it is brilliantly done. There’s always a shining star of an example, a project where the voice is distinctive and consistent and draws you into the story. Unfortunately, these instances are few and far between.

First person narrative offers the writer a very specific set of challenges, the most obvious one being to come across sounding like the character and not like oneself. With young adult fiction, the second most common problem is capturing the teen voice—sounding like the young adult in question rather than a grown up struggling to remember their own teen years. Unfortunately, what seems to be happening is that writers stop there. They appear to believe that sounding unlike themselves and/or like a teenager is sufficient, and they move on to address other writing issues, from plot to pacing. But those challenges are only the beginning.

Who is your character? Who is this person telling the story? What makes them different, unique, worthy of taking the role of storyteller? First person protagonists are more than their actions within the story, they are the voice that welcomes the reader into the world, and as such the writer’s job is to know exactly how that character sounds. Who are they, and how is that reflected in the way they speak?

Speech patterns are a vital part of characterization, whether you write in first person, second, or third. Word choice and rhythms convey everything you wish to tell, or conceal, about your characters, and this is especially important when you are focusing on the voice of your story. What part of the country or world is the narrator from? You don’t need to spell out a heavy-handed, hard-to-read accent in order to make it clear that your speaker is from the American South or Asia or Eastern Europe; word order and vocabulary choice, along with a few facts, can put that voice firmly into the reader’s mind. Is your narrator well educated? From a wealthy background? Or do they come from a rural, poverty stricken locale where most kids stop going to school by the time they’re sixteen? How would each of these individuals sound?

Even characters who come from an average background—suburban teens whose main concerns are boys, grades, and parents—need to sound like individuals. If the character is interesting enough to become the focus of your novel, they are interesting enough to have a specific voice. The average teen narrator crawls out of my submissions pile sounding whiny and self-involved. The teen years can seem to be a selfish time anyway, but adding on a poorly written first person POV makes the entire opening of a manuscript sound like me, me, me. Even if that is your character’s persona at the start of the story, it cannot come across in a generic manner.

So how do you make your character sound unique? You need to get to know them, and often this happens in the process of writing your book. As the story progresses, most writers learn more about their protagonists than they did when they began, discovering how they react in various situations and what that says about who they are and how they come across to the reader. The key is to go back to the beginning once you’ve made these discoveries and incorporate them into your character’s opening voice. Don’t just revise for plot consistencies—make sure your character sounds consistent as well. This is important for any point of view, but with first person any deviation in personality or voice is much more obvious—and much more jarring.

Also, ask yourself what your character would be willing to share. Just because the thought might go through their head, does not mean it is something that needs to be voiced within the confines of the story. Restraint can sometimes be a good thing. In the same way that you should not include every bit of research you’ve uncovered while preparing to write your book, you should not have your protagonist blurt out every fact about themselves or idea to cross their mind simply because you, as the author, know that it exists. Information can inform the character’s personality without being included in the narrative itself.

First person POV can be an exciting, wonderful way to draw a reader into a story, but, if poorly done, it can also bore them to tears within a matter of pages. With first person, a reader knows almost instantly that this is the voice they are going to be following, this is the character who will lead them on their journey, and your job as the writer is to make that character a compelling one—someone with whom the reader wants to spend some time. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be likeable—they can be intriguing or fascinating without being nice or loveable—but they do need to sound distinctive and to make the reader curious.