Another Point (of View) – Part Two: Third Person
Last time, as you recall, or maybe you don’t, we looked at narration in the first-person. It has, as a writing style, many good points and some pitfalls. Well, third-person is no different in terms of advantages and disadvantages. It is different in relation to tone, information and connection. If you want to write a story in third person, you’ve got to make a decision right off the bat; what type of third-person are you to use?
First up is limited third-person. Here the author is limited to describing, seeing, reacting to the things that the character can see, know or do. They can tell the reader what the character sees and can inject that characters bias and feelings upon each and every action. But there is a distance to it. We are not in the character’s head all that often, not to say we cannot dip in, but it is not frequent. In first-person we, the reader, become one with the narrator. We see and feel everything they do.
Not so here. Things will happen ‘off-screen’ that the character knows nothing about, so neither will the reader until it is revealed. A lot of authors and readers like this, unpicking the threads and foreshadowing that has been delivered earlier in the story. Done well, the reader will be expecting one thing, only for the author to deliver something else, something unexpected yet also plausible.
You could go for omniscience. The narrator knows everything. Every single thing. Here you, the author-you or the reader-you, can enter any character’s thoughts and feelings. We can learn about the history of the world, the religion, and conflicts. And here it must be noted that it can be too easy for the author to dip into the infamous info-dump. I’d imagine using this style it might be a little easy to slip into way too much tell and not enough show (‘show don’t tell’ is mantra we are all taught, and beaten over the head with).
However, there is also the opportunity for the narrator’s voice to be strong, individual, and knowledgeable. The narrator could well be a character all of their own, dropping in little asides and comments – breaking the ‘fourth wall’. On the other side, you might run into the age-old, “Little did Roger know that later on tonight it would all come crashing down around him,” which, for me, all too often robs the surprise and power from a story.
Objective omniscience is also a choice. A bold one, but if you’re not going to take chances and push the envelope why write (it can’t be for the money)? Here, the author will never enter the thoughts of the characters. Everything is shown from external appearances and actions. The clever author will be use symbols, clues, foreshadowing, and signs for the reader to pick up upon. Think of it as if you are watching a film – it is that kind of approach.
And last, but not least, because is it one of the most popular used in epic fantasy, is shifting third-person. You’ll know this one. Recall all those tomes, the seven or eight hundred pages long books, where one chapter is about one character, we get to see all they do (right up to a reveal or cliff-hanger) and the next chapter is about a different character, and the next, and next, next, until seventeen chapters later you come back to that first character again having totally forgotten who they were and what they did (clearly I am exaggerating to make a point (just so you know that I know)). Usually, here, what we are really looking at is limited-shifting third-person.
With this style of third-person, and perhaps the reason it is so popular, the author can delve into the full scope of the world. Every nook and cranny, the rich and poor, powerful and weak can be used as point-of-views. Unlike limited third-person, nothing has to happen off-screen. We can see and revel in it all…in every minute, specific detail if the author really wants us to. Sometimes it can be hard to get the story moving at a pace if too many character’s keeping taking to the page to tell you how they cleared out the latrine, stole a necklace, or cooked the cabbage.
Which is best? All, neither, either, some or any. Take pick and take your chances. Do it well and they can all work wonders. All that matters, really, is that when you pick up that pen (or press fingers to the keyboard) you’ve already made your choice and know why you’ve chosen it. What I’d like to know, in the comments below is some great examples of each style you know about. Thanks!