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.