He, She, or They

Monday, July 13, 2015

As with first person point of view, third person takes the reader into the head of a particular character. But third person is more flexible.

The first clue that you may be in third person POV? The narrator is referred to by name or as he or she. Here are the opening paragraphs of Violet Dawn by Brandilyn Collins.

     Paige Williams harbored a restless kinship with the living dead.

     Sleep, that nurturing, blessed state of subconsciousness, eluded her again this night. Almost 2:00 a.m., and rather than slumbering bliss, old memories nibbled at her like ragged-toothed wraiths.

     With a defeated sigh she rose from bed.

Normally when a book starts with a close-up on a particular individual and uses words like Paige (the character’s name), her, and she, that signals third-person POV. This isn’t an infallible test because it doesn’t rule out omniscient POV, which may use the same pronouns. As I will explain next week, however, the author who starts omniscient this way risks confusing her readers.

But it’s a good way to start a third-person narrative from Paige’s POV.

Third person has the same major constraint that first person does—the reader can only know what the POV character knows. But it is easier to get around the disadvantages of that approach.

One way to do that is by increasing distance. It’s hard to do first person well unless you are right inside that person’s thoughts. The same isn’t true with third person. If you back away, the reader still only sees what the character sees but doesn’t hear the chatter in the character’s head. And as long as the murder occurred offstage, this distance makes it easier to disguise the fact that the person is the murderer. Of course, it works with other genre as well, but murder is an easy example to understand.

If we want, however, we can still get close enough to see inside the third person POV character’s thoughts, even when they aren’t characterized that way. This passage from Violet Down occurs several paragraphs into the chapter.

     Intense yearning welled so suddenly within Paige that she nearly staggered in its presence. She clutched the towel tighter around her body, swaddling herself. The universe was so vast, the world so small. A mere speck of dust, Earth churned and groaned in the spheres of infinity. Upon that speck, mothers and fathers, children and friends laughed and cried and celebrated one another. No bigger than dust mites they were, compared with the vastness of space. Their lives, their loves—insignificant.

     So why did she long to be one of them?

I’ll talk more about distance in two weeks.

Let’s pause for a minute and consider the picture at the head of this post. Obviously, the lion on the right side of the picture has a different perspective than the two lionesses on the left. He’s up high, surveying his domain. They’re viewing things from ground level. And they appear to be very much alike, but maybe they aren’t. Maybe one is content with her lot, while the other is plotting a way to escape. So which of the three do you choose as your POV character? Any or all.

This is another way third person allows you to get around the constraint of knowing only what the POV character knows. Consider the old tale of five people and an elephant in a totally dark room. One person puts his arms around a leg, feels the rough skin, and believes it is a tree. Another grabs the tail and thinks it is a rope. It is only when the five compare their experiences that they realize they are sharing the room with an elephant. In the same way, readers gather knowledge from each of the POV characters and end up knowing more than any one of them does, at least until the end.

Readers of typical romance stories expect two third-person POV characters—the male protagonist and the female protagonist. Because the reader sees into both heads (one at a time), the reader knows that they are attracted to each other long before they actually connect.

That’s also the disadvantage of multiple POVs. Sometimes the writer wants the reader to stay in the dark with the protagonist. So you have to choose what works for you.

The biggest challenge the writer has with multiple POV is letting the reader know when the story leaves one head and enters another. Each character needs his or her own scenes because changing the POV character in the middle of one confuses the reader. Two or more POV characters can be in the same scene, but the reader should see the action through the eyes of only one of them. And each time you switch scenes, you need to start the new one with an indication of whose POV you are in now. Don’t do this:

     The pain pounded through Hannah’s head. Not again.

     Did she have another migraine headache, Dave wondered?

We must be in Hannah’s POV because we feel the pain pounding through her head and hear her internal, “not again.” Or, no, we must be in Dave’s because he is wondering if she has another migraine. Change it to this, instead:

     Watching Hannah grimace and rub her forehead, Dave frowned. Was she having another migraine headache?

Now we know we are in Dave’s POV because he is the one who is watching Hannah. And we don’t need to be in her head, because we can see the same clues Dave sees. It may not be the best-written example, but I hope it makes the point.

But, you ask, can’t a story have multiple first-person POV characters, too? Yes, it can, but first-person characters don’t think of themselves by name, so you have to put greater separation between the scenes than you do in multiple third-person POV. Some authors make the distinction by giving each POV character his or her own chapters and labeling them with the character’s name. Or it could be something as simple (and as hard) as starting each scene with an action or thought which is characteristic of that character and that character only. That way the reader will know who “I” is.

First person or third person, single or multiple, POV is the writer’s choice. Or maybe you would rather use an omniscient point of view.

That’s the subject of next week’s post.

No comments:

Post a Comment