Why the Third Person?

Posted on April 29th, 2013 in advice, process, The Inquisition

Inquisitor Joseph asks, presumably while fingering his glittering instruments in as menacing a manner as possible:

When writing, what made you decide to use third person? Because its easier? Would you recommend writing in third person, or do you think it’s more of a personalised choice? Also, when describing things, do you think it is better to write to much or too little?

An interesting set of nested questions indeed.  The method I tend to use is what’s sometimes called the Third Person Limited, or tight point of view, so it’s third person ‘he said, she said,’ rather than the first person, ‘I said’, but everything is told from the point of view of a single character – relating their thoughts and experiences, trying to give a vivid sense of what it’s like to be that person – although you might move between several different point of view characters at different times.  This is very different from Third Person Omniscient, in which the authorial voice is much more general, describing the action as a whole, relating the thoughts and opinions of different characters as it suits.  You might say in third person omniscient the author tells the story, in first person the character tells the story, while third person limited is somewhere between the two.

So George RR Martin very successfully uses third person limited in Song of Ice and Fire, titling each chapter with the character whose point of view it’s written from.  James Ellroy is another writer whose use of that approach was very influential on me.  Third person limited doesn’t have quite the level of intimacy first person can provide, but it can still be very visceral and involving, while giving you much more flexibility to shift between characters, and perhaps to vary the degree of focus on the point of view character if you want – you can stick very close to their own thought process and experience or take up a slightly more detached position should you so desire.  Being able to shift between characters also allows you to clue the reader into things the individuals might not independently know, or to contrast the way characters see themselves with how others see them to great effect.  I also try and vary my style as widely as possible depending on the point of view – so a Logen chapter instantly has a different voice, a different vocabulary, a different rhythm and feel from a Glokta one, and the style hopefully communicates something about the nature of that character right away.

As far as recommending a certain approach, well, my advice, such as it is, would be to read widely and get a sense of what you like, then experiment a lot and get a sense of what works for you and the story you’re telling, so you can develop your own style.  I don’t know that it’s easier than any other approach, exactly, but I find third person limited to be highly flexible.  Third person omniscient allows you a very free hand but it can be a little uninvolving, perhaps seeming somewhat archaic to the modern reader.  First person can be very powerful but needs to be used with care.  Funnily enough, when I first wrote the First Law the Dogman’s chapters were written in the first person.  And they were great (or I thought they were, at least).  But my editors felt that they unbalanced everything else, giving a sense that this character was somehow THE central one of the series.  In moving to third person limited those chapters lost perhaps a little immediacy, but they sat much more harmoniously with everything else.

On description, everyone’s going to have a different take on what is too much or too little, and it all depends on the style and atmosphere you’re going for, not to mention the particular circumstances.  If you’re writing in third person limited, the description needs to be rooted in the experience of the point of view character.  So in a combat scene you wouldn’t necessarily pause to talk about costume but details and thought about the weapons might be a pressing concern for the people involved.  You probably wouldn’t want to interrupt an impassioned conversation to blather on about the furniture and what it said about its owners, but a scene in which an investigator looks at a crime site could reasonably involve a lot of considered forensic detail.  My own taste is for a relatively light hand on description, especially when a character is in familiar surroundings.  Exhaustive description of the bedroom a character sleeps in every night does not get across the experience of routinely waking up in it.  Perhaps when a point of view character encounters a person or place that’s new and particularly exceptional to them is the time to do some more in-depth description.  Personally I find description one of the least important elements – usually the thing I do last once the dialogue and action is in place.  But where possible I try to bear in mind a character’s emotional reaction, rather than just to literally describe – so that even description becomes about character to some extent.  Better to communicate a few telling details than to bury the reader under unnecessary blandness they can easily supply themselves.  Is hair and eye-colour important, or is it better to use that space to get across something unique about a person that will really stick in the reader’s head and truly says something about their personality?  Also description doesn’t have to be three stodgy paragraphs about a room before breaking into dialogue, there are ways to much more artfully drip things through as they become appropriate.  Better to involve the reader then allow them to update their impressions with new details.  So rather than lovingly describe a bottle along with a room at the start of a scene, describe the room briefly, then have a character interact with that bottle in a way that maybe advances our understanding of that character, their relationship with another, and so on, hence killing two birds with one stone and preventing the description seeming info-dumpy.  Dialogue can be a superb way to get across the nature of a character while still moving other things forward, and in general the more work you can do with dialogue the better.  Elmore Leonard is a master at this – he can set up a compelling character with an off-hand line and a sentence of description.  One good exercise is always to ask yourself with every sentence – is this really needed?  If not, cut, and see how things feel.  Often a stripped down scene which asks the reader to fill in the detail is much more compelling and involving than a hugely detailed one that does all the work.

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  1. Have you considered writing a First Law universe novel in first person? I know you like switching between multiple characters, but you could either have several first person views between chapters, or do something really crazy and just have one first person.

    Personally, I’d like to know what exactly is going through the mind of Bayaz….

  2. I doubt Bayaz’s mind would be a very pleasant or interesting place, frankly. He is obsessed with power – getting it, hanging onto it, crushing or controlling anyone else who wants it. Such a mind must be the dullest, dreariest thing imaginable.

    To quote Fr. Brown, “To be clever enough to get all that money, one must be stupid enough to want it.”

  3. I’d like to read a first-person short story from Friendly’s POV. You could frame it as Friendly relating events to Sworbreck or some other chronicler – maybe recounting one of his adventures with Cosca?

  4. I hadn’t heard of Elmore Leonard before so I popped his name into google only to discover he’s the guy behind the book that inspired “Justified”. I also found out he has written a metric fuck-ton of novels. Any suggestions on where to start?

  5. ^ +1
    He is an underrated character. It would be really interesting to see a first person PoV of him.

    Barring this, would you release the earlier drafts of chapters with Dogmans PoV’s ?

  6. @Misti I’m not Joe, but if you like Justified and want to read Leonard, why not start with Fire in the Hole?

  7. It was a nice tidbit to get thrown our (the loyal readers) way that Dogman’s chapters were originally first person. Amongst our still frozen tundra dwelling, rabid, alaskan Abercromb(ites?, ians? oids?) he has always been the personal favorite from the First Law. His character’s point of view was the easiest to get. I for certain would certainly be overwhelmed with a sensation to piss if I was surrounded by sword wielding lunatics. If its possible he is your most “human” character. Did this come from thinking along the lines of “Hmmm…let’s see what would I be thinking, feeling if I was thrown into this horror show of blood and terror ?”

  8. @George, I would’ve agreed with you if I hadn’t read Martin’s Feast for Crows (almost typed “Storm of Crows. Been playing an animated scarecrow in a video game too much lately). Anyway, while I felt the book paled as a whole in comparison to the previous books, Cersei’s chapters were fantastic. She was also a power-hungry character.

    What made Cersei interesting was how she viewed events and people. Everything was tinted dark and twisted obliquely from her point of view. Characters that were factually dangerous were dismissed in her mind, and characters that she perceived to be a threat to her were insidious liars/traitors/etc. No one was an ally, an admirable adversary, or even equal to her, at least in her own mind.

    I for one would like to experience what exactly Bayaz thinks of his fellow Union citizens, its King, the Northmen, and if Joe would get around to writing her again, Ferro.

  9. @Slogra,

    Funny, I was also thinking of Cersai’s chapters from FfC, only I hated them. I couldn’t summon up a shred of sympathy for her, which made being inside her mind not only disgusting, but boring. Jaime, a previously unlikable character, was much better because he became more complex when you saw things from his point of view. In my opinion Cersai didn’t.

    I think the genius of Joe’s POV characters is that in spite of their flaws, they have genuinely sympathetic characteristics – Logen’s tragic attempts to be a good man, Glokta’s suffering and his wicked sense of humor, Calder’s affection for his family. I can’t imagine what would make me sympathize with Bayaz. He’s an (apparently) immortal and invulnerable monster, in control of half the world, without friends or family or any motivation aside from his lust for power and his hatred of the equally monstrous Khalul. It’s certainly possible that Joe could somehow make his POV sympathetic – but I wouldn’t bet on it. (I can hear Joe thinking now “Them’s fighin’ words!)

    Not that I’m saying YOU ARE WRONG! De gustibus non est disputandem.

    Also, damn your crow-loving soul-sucking abomination. Damn him straight to hell.

  10. Another advantage of 3rd person limited is that you can plausibly portray ignorance and the duplicity of others by keeping it within the character’s frame of reference. You get around that by the character eavesdropping (Ferro listening to Yulwei and Bayaz in the House of the Maker comes to mind), which allows you to drip information to the reader that makes no particular sense to the character in question…

    FWIW, the Glotka chapters with their internal monologue bits felt very 3rd person, which contributed to the sympathy we were able to feel for his character, despite him objectively being a bit of a … well, yes.

  11. Edit: For previous commment read: “Glotka chapters… felt FIRST person.” Have only had one coffee today. Must rectify.

  12. @ Slogra and George :

    Having Bayaz in a PoV would not work, IMO. The basic premise of Joe’s world is that ordinary people dont know that they are pieces on a chessboard, with invisible godlike players using them for opaque reasons. Much of the history, and myth, and “reality” of the land is opaque, with the chess pieces being told only what they need to complete a job. This sense of mystery ignorance is what makes Joe’s work unique. When we see mention of Yoru or one of the Eaters, we feel the existence of a bigger picture in hints and pieces.
    If we are given a PoV of Bayaz, most of this is lost.

  13. Also, i suspect Joe hasnt really worked out all the details of origin and continued history of Euz, Juvens, Khalul , Bayaz et al , to give us a PoV of Bayaz/Khalul.
    (mostly because his books arent about them, but about the ordinary people of the world.)

  14. Great read, Joe.

    I would just add that I think the odd concise piece of description can be hugely valuable when seeking to bring a scene to life. It’s the details – just the odd detail in the environment (a cup, a knife, a pen) that the characters then interact with.

  15. @George: Point well-taken. Perhaps a viewpoint from Bayaz earlier in life, with the daughter of the Maker might work. Surely he was once a sympathetic character before going completely “dark side”. Or maybe Bayaz has secret insecurities or sympathetic desires that he keeps on the downside. But as you say, it comes down to taste, and what Joe wants to do (Joe, where are you! :D)

    Also, save a stun for the soul-sucking abomination, but feed corn to the poor crows; it is not by their hand… wings, rather, that damage is dealt to you!

    @bobbby: Perhaps there is more mystery to the First Law universe beyond Bayaz’ understanding. I’m reminded of the few but extremely enjoyable times that Bayaz was caught with his pants down… but that’s dangerous spoiler territory, so I won’t say any more. I’d also suggest that it would be a great surprise if Bayaz himself turned out to be some sort of pawn… and that would be the most satisfying de-pantsing scene ever. Again, it comes down to what the author wants in his larger scope of things, and what you as a reader find gratifying. Personally, I like comeuppance, and while the good and the bad routinely get theirs in Joe’s books, I think Bayaz’ is long overdue.

  16. @Slogra

    Fully agree with Bayaz having it coming. Everyone else has their plans blown up in their faces and their lives ruined -there’s no reason but sheer bloody-mindedness to exempt Bayaz and Khalul from the law of universal failure.

  17. @Slogra :

    The only way Bayaz can be made to look foolish is either Ferro or Shenkt.

  18. These blogs really help me with my story. The description for The First trilogy was great. All night i kept dreaming of Frosts pink emotionless eyes.

  19. I guess the graphic novel’ s square text-boxes represent the third person limited style. And that rest is dialogue in the roundish textboxes. The short narrative on the first page works really well. It is going to be interesting to follow to follow theese 3 forms in a what already looks to be a super must-have graphic novel. Maybe there will even be a 4th form?

  20. @Brad Thanks, that’s the obvious choice. Just wondering if there was a better place to start, since I already know Raylan Givens in another context.
    You don’t need to be Joe Abercrombie to recommend books. Though I’m sure it helps :)

  21. I second Misti’s request for an Elmore Leonard recommendation.

  22. Thanks for the piece Joe, this is good stuff.

    Interesting that Stephen King is another author that strongly recommends paying attention to Elmore, IIRC, in terms of his ear for dialogue – I picked up that recommendation from Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’.

    (Unfortunately having tried ‘Be Cool’ as a starting point I was completely disinterested in the story, which made it a bit hard). :)

  23. On Elmore Leonard, it’s mostly his western stuff that I’m familiar with as I read a fair bit of it recently. You can get an edition of his Complete Western Stories for $15 that has 798 short stories in it. I kid. But there’s 30, and some are great. I actually preferred the short stuff to the couple of western novels I read (though they’re very short novels).

  24. This is a very interesting piece.

    Do you plan to write any books in the first person (either entirely or in part)?

  25. I’ve been trying to write a book for a while and this piece has helped me immensely. I much prefer writing dialogue to describing pointless rooms or items and I love the way you mention how to use small sentences of description to really enhance the readers view on a character.

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