Last week I talked about first and second person points of view. Today I want to talk about third person, and about switching POV.
Third Person In All Its Varieties
Third person point of view is when you refer to characters in the third person, either by name or pronouns (he/she/it). This is by far the most common POV in fiction – it’s pretty close to the default choice, in fact.
However, you may need to think about what particular variety of third person you use:
- third person limited – reporting events in the third person, but from the perspective of a particular character. This may include a window into the character’s head, so you learn their thoughts and emotions.
- third person objective – reporting just the facts of a narrative without insight into any character’s internal state.
- third person omniscient – the narrative is given from the perspective of an all-knowing narrator who may have their own voice, and who has insight into the internal state of all characters.
The omniscient perspective is I think the hardest one to pull off, because it can be so confusing for the reader – who is thinking that thought? This is a variation on difficulties with attributing dialogue without overuse of dialogue tags, except that there is no standard convention for conveying that a thought is being written (he thought/she thought is a lot more intrusive than he said/she said).
That’s not to say that it is not an attractive or potentially effective option: Dune would not have been the book it was without the omniscient insight into the characters’ motives. Of course, this constant use of character thoughts to convey critical plot development was one of the reasons that Dune was considered unfilmable for so long.
The obvious advantage of the omniscient POV is that you can tell a story succinctly because there’s no mucking about with hinting at a character’s mental state with expressions and tones of voice. However, another problem here is that the storytelling becomes too much about telling and not enough about story. There can also be issues in choosing which characters to look inside the heads of.
The objective POV is the usual perspective for journalistic or factual writing, but it has a place in fiction too – if you want your narrative to be conveyed by subtle shades of character interaction without telling the reader explicitly what the motives or effect are, then this is for you.
Third person limited is almost like first person in that you are following a particular character. You can carry the camera near to or far from the character which can help in conveying dramatic irony (where the audience knows something the character does not), but frequent insights into the character’s thoughts really need the narrative to be close to the character. If the narrative maintains a very close relationship with the character, then you can hit similar issues with first person of not being able to convey all the points of the story you need because they happen somewhere else.
Switching Point of View
It may be that your story is best told from multiple points of view. This is typical when there are multiple MCs – where more than one character has a major story arc.
An oft-quoted – even canonical – example is George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (televised as Game of Thrones after the first book), but William Gibson’s Sprawl novels (Neuromancer and its sequels) have a similar structure: each character gets a chapter, and the POV shift is strictly on chapter boundaries. The chapters themselves are generally third person limited, where you get insights into the focus character’s mind as you go.
But there is no requirement that all the chapters follow the same POV style. Two of Iain Banks’ novels which play with this are Complicity andFeersum Endjinn.
In Complicity, the POV alternates between third person and second person, part of the conceit being that it is conceivable that the different chapters are actually being written about the same character.
Feersum Endjinn is a more conventionally structured story, in that it is clear that the chapters are about different characters. However, the narrative switches between third person limited for most of the characters, and first person Glaswegian dialect for one of them, a man called Bascule. Personally, I found myself dreading the Bascule chapters because I had so much trouble following them.
In any case, whatever the merits or demerits of the specific POVs used in Banks’ books, the transition between POVs is clear: the perspective changes on a chapter break. Such a strong boundary between POVs is not just a matter of convention. As I discussed in talking about the omniscient POV, a poorly indicated perspective shift can really break the reader out of a story.
Something that can be particularly jarring is if a story has been told consistently in a particular POV and then jumps to another character mid-scene without any signal. It’s a very easy thing to do as a writer, but it’s really hard to read.
The questions I ask myself when thinking about point of view are:
- is this one person’s story? If so, consider using a first person POV unless a lot of things happen away from the character
- does the story have a small number of primary characters? If so, consider multiple third person limited narratives.
- does the story have epic scale? If so, consider whether the internal states of the characters are important or not to the story
The point of these questions is to make the story as immediate as possible.
I have a novel written from a first person POV – this is the one which I mentioned before as having a lot of meetings in it. In trying to rewrite it, I decided to try mixing third person limited and first person POVs, interleaving the first person elements in the present but using third person the MC’s past, and the stories of other characters.
Golly gee whillikers, but it was a mess after that.
There’s stuff in there I like, but it is a story best told from first person and I need to simply make the MC more active so that most of the story I need to tell happens to him.
What are your stories of POVs that worked or otherwise?