Writing in Third Person Point of View
Most authors today write their novels in Third Person Subjective. What on earth is that, you ask? Actually, it's easier to say what it's not. It's not the Omniscient Narrator - the kind of Third Person used by Jane Austen. The Omniscient Narrator doesn't get inside the characters' heads and involve us in their thoughts and feelings. Instead, the author describes everything as if through a movie camera, and may even step outside the story to talk directly to the reader. Very few authors write like that any more, because modern readers like to get involved with the characters.
Why First Person is Limiting
The easy way to get inside a character's head is to write in First Person - pick your character, and make him tell the whole story ("I did this" and "I did that"). But there's a snag!
When you write in First Person, your reader sees all the action through that person’s eyes. If you start writing about things your character can’t see, you shatter the illusion and confuse the reader.
So, if you’re writing in First Person, you can’t describe events that happen when they're not there – you have to invent other ways to relate those events, such as getting other characters to report on them, or have your hero/heroine read a letter or newspaper about them.
Another important restriction is that your First Person character also can't see inside the heads of the other protagonists. That means you can’t report on other characters’ thoughts or motivations – all you can do is interpret them based on what your character sees, (“I could tell by his eyes that he didn’t believe me” rather than “he thought I was lying”).
There is one way around this problem – you can use a style which clearly sets your character up as a narrator, constantly making asides to the reader - saying things like, “Unknown to me, while I was cheerfully planning my holiday, Sadie was planning to ruin it”. However, it's still limiting, because it still isn't believable to recreate unseen scenes in vivid detail - and that can affect the overall colour and excitement of your story.
Why Third Person Subjective is Useful
The great benefit of Third Person Subjective is that you get inside the head of more than one character, just as thoroughly as if you were writing “I” - and you can then swap your POV (point of view) to another character when you need to, to describe an event that they witness, or explore their feelings about it.
Apart from being able to bring all the action vividly to life, regardless of who’s there, the other advantage of Third Person Subjective is that it provides a choice of characters for your readers to identify with. Some of your readers may want to be the heroine, whereas others may identify better with the hero. By including scenes or chapters “inside” both heads, you appeal to both sets of readers instead of just one.
The crucial thing when using Third Person Subjective is that the reader must always know who's telling the story. That's easier if you keep the number of different POV's to a minimum. Your hero and heroine are obvious choices, plus you may want to include the villain, or another key character - but any more than three or four, and the reader's going to lose track of who's who! That's why, if you are going to use Third Person Subjective, you should never be tempted to slip back into Third Person Omniscient at any time - because it's adding another POV.
It's important to really get into the heads of your characters when writing in Third Party Subjective. Think of it like this - YOU are not writing your novel any more. Your characters are! Become an actor: before you start each scene, decide who you're going to "be" in that scene. Picture the scene through that character's eyes. Really imagine yourself as that person. Now write the scene from their perspective, including their innermost thoughts and reactions. Describe what he sees, smells, tastes.
"Rules" for Writing in Third Person Subjective
When you start out with Third Party Subjective, it's a good idea to set yourself a rule - only change POV when you start a new scene. Again, the goal is to avoid confusing your reader. For instance, say you're writing a scene between two lovers. You're telling the story from the woman's POV and you suddenly feel you need to let the reader know what HE is thinking - so you switch into his POV. Oh, but now you need to show HER feelings - so you switch again, and so on. This is called head-hopping and to the reader, it's rather like watching a tennis match. It's hard to keep your eye on the ball!
By barring yourself from changing POV's mid-scene, you're going to force yourself to ask two things - "did I choose the right person to tell this scene?" and, "How can I convey the other person's reactions without switching?". By asking these questions, you'll learn how to choose the right POV more reliably, and you'll also discover ways to hint at a character's feelings by their movements or dialogue.
Once you've gained confidence this way, you can relax your guard and allow yourself to change POV once - but only once, please! - in each scene. Of course you'll find authors who break that rule and get away with it: however if you're tempted to switch more often, you need to be sure you've examined your reasons for doing so, and that it's definitely the best way (not just the laziest way) to achieve your goal.
The ability to switch POV can make you lazy: it's very easy to start hopping into different heads all over the place, to let the reader know something important - especially if you're writing a suspenseful plot. You know your characters well, so you have no trouble working out whose head you're in: but your readers will get very confused if you hop around too much. And if you think about it, you'll often find a better way of conveying that information than introducing yet another POV.
More Point of View Tips
Finally - each time you switch POV, make sure the reader knows by leaving an extra line space between your paragraphs, then using the new POV character's name in the first line. To make it more obvious, combine that with a thought which obviously belongs to that character. For instance:
"Paul picked up the vase. It looked like something from a junk shop - surely she didn't believe it was valuable?"
Once you're in a POV, remember that the character doesn't think of himself by name. So don't use his name again while you're "in" that character's head (you may need to drop the name in occasionally to distinguish him from another character, but that should be the only time you use it). Your POV character is just "He" or "She" as much as possible. Don't be tempted to use their name just because you want to vary the first word of your sentences - there are plenty of other ways to do that!
Used well, Third Person Subjective can really enrich your novel, imbuing it with all the thoughts and emotions of your characters and making them very real to your reader. It takes practice, but it is worth it!
Text copyright Marisa Wright. Photo thanks to Sabrina Campagna on Flickr.
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