Nitpicking Narrators – Part II: He gazed into the sunset

While I’m busy with grad school, I’ll be replaying some of the most-read posts from my old blog.

Some people instantly gravitate to one particular narrative style. The story they’re writing just naturally lends itself to one Point of View (POV) in particular. After all, who would want to read “That guy over there? His name is Jake,” as the intro to one of the Animorphs books? The same goes with Terry Pratchett’s stories– they just don’t work if you were to squeeze the whole story into a single person’s head.

Other stories, though, get a bit fuzzier, and we writers can get iffy on what POV works best for what stories. Hopefully, though, I can clear up a bit of that fuzziness. 

Third Person

This is the standard fairy tale narrator. It’s an all-knowing, all-seeing, omniscient being that intimately knows the thoughts, feelings and intentions of everything. The Third Person uses words like ‘he’ and ‘she’ and ‘it’ and ‘they’, rather than ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘us’ and ‘we’. As with the First Person, a lot of its pros are cons, and vice versa.

On the positive side

  • Because of the emotional distance, we can take a look at the thoughts and feelings of characters that we would otherwise shy away from– the cruel, the callous, the crazy. Most of the time people won’t admit that they’re any of the above, but a Third Person can give it to you clean without having to worry about their own ego.
  • The reader is privy to the bigger picture, even if none of the characters are. The only limitations that bind the writer are imagination and the constraints of what the reader can follow without drawing a chart. When the reader knows things the characters don’t, it creates a lot of dramatic irony and tension.

On the other hand

  • This is by far the most emotionally distant narrator. The events are removed from the reader, who is intimately aware that at any moment he or she can shut the book and grab a hot chocolate.
  • Many writers abuse the freedom to see from all perspectives. We like to call it head-hopping, while How Not To Write A Novel calls it The Democracy. Every switch in perspective yanks the reader out of the action and forces them to figure out where they are and what’s going on, so they can get really annoying really fast.
  • It’s easy to abuse dramatic tension. You’ve all seen that movie– you know the one– where the people walk into an obviously haunted house. You’ve probably thrown as much popcorn at the screen as I have.
  • The Third Person probably isn’t the POV you want to use if you want to conceal anything from the reader. In unskilled hands, it’s often awkwardly obvious that one element of the story is metaphorically off-screen.

Suggestions 

  • Try to avoid clinical descriptions
  • Find a voice that you like and stick with it, and make sure it’s fun
  • If you’re focusing on a character, try to focus on them throughout a particular scene, instead of hopping into multiple heads in rapid succession
  • Try to keep dramatic tension in short bursts to maintain the reader’s interest. We’ll accept the teenagers denying their house is haunted– but only until the first or second supernatural phenomenon happens. After that you’ve got to let them deal with the new reality, or else the character’s written off as being too dumb/unlucky to live.
  • If you’re going to hide something from the reader, be subtle. Like any good detective story, the bit that’s wrong has to be on the page, but you can draw the focus to something more immediately consuming.

Variations

  • I mentioned it before, but the First Person Omniscient is going to show up again. It’s got all the perks of an omniscient narrator, with the added bonus that they’ve got a name and personality. This opens up all kinds of avenues for voice and quirks. Your biggest problem will be finding someone to fit the role.
  • Third Person Omniscient: This is a favorite of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, among many others. These narrators know everything, and every character’s thoughts and feelings are fair game. There’s more opportunity for seeing the big picture, but less for obscurity and plot twists.
  • Third Person Limited: You’ll recognize it from Harry Potter series, where we only see Harry’s thoughts, and must guess about everybody else based on their actions and spoken words. It’s more personal and there’s more opportunity for obscurity than with Omniscient, but it’s incredibly jarring when a limited perspective head-hops.
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