Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Third Person POV

I had a problem with posting today. This post showed up yesterday on the blog, thanks to this program I'm trying out called Blogjet. You're supposed to be able to write in Blogjet, then post a "draft." Well, this ain't the first time the "draft" ended up posting for real--all by itself. And I was very careful to click the right thing, so I know it's not my error. I had to delete the post and repost it for this morning. Unfortunately, as a result four comments already posted were also deleted. One was a question. Lynetta, if you'd like to re-post your question, I'll try to answer it.

If anyone has any words of wisdom for me regarding this Blogjet business, I'm all ears.

As I said yesterday, the comments regarding my post last week on “big words” got me thinking. Many of you said an unknown word here or there wouldn’t bother you, or may even cause you to run delightedly to the dictionary. Others said (my paraphrasing), “You dictionary types need to get a life. I don’t want to be pulled out of the story by an unknown word.”

As much as I wish I could use all the unusual words I wanted, I don’t—because I see both sides of the argument. I’ve tried to stick to a few per book, and sometimes even have to fight for those. In light of this topic, I’ve been thinking about what my editors tend to flag in my track changes edits—and why. And I realize that the flagging of unusual words is the result of the editor’s concern over the same thing—that the reader will be “pulled out of the story.”

It’s easy to see why a reader may be pulled out of a scene if the story is written in first person, and some high-falutin’ word is used that the character wouldn’t know or would never think to say. But the lines become blurred in the more commonly-used third person POV. When might a “pulling out” be more likely to happen?

It depends upon the type of third person POV.

There are three types, or levels, of third person POV. Using my non-erudite, not-rocket-science terminologies, I’d label them: (1) Close, (2) Removed, and (3) Omniscient.

Close third person is as near to first person POV as you can get. The reader is placed completely within the character’s head, seeing and perceiving the world as the character would. Words, phrases, terminologies, odd ways of speech, etc., all reflect the character’s personality and the way he/she would describe the situation. Close third person is all the rage these days, and what we’ve grown accustomed to reading. It’s become the norm for good reason, because it has a lot to offer. (A) It’s very intimate, and therefore highly characterizing (if used effectively). (B) Because of its intimacy, it adapts itself to that ubiquitous “show, don’t tell” rule. Readers “see” what a character is thinking, for example, as opposed to being “told” what he’s thinking. (C) At the same time the reader is afforded this intimacy with the character, the third person aspect allows the author to show various viewpoints within the story, unlike first person POV, in which we have the intimacy at the expense of other viewpoints.

Removed third person steps outside the character a bit, inserting some psychic distance between the action and the reader. The reader can still feel somewhat in the character’s head, but not as completely. This POV is less warm, less emotionally intense, but can be very effective in the hands of a skilled writer. For in this POV, the author’s narrative voice is often louder than the voice of the character. In this POV, we’ll find more “telling” than in close third person. But here, the telling—again, if it’s done well—will seem appropriate, and even compelling. Far fewer contemporary novelists write in removed third person. But one author who comes immediately to my mind does it extremely well.

Omniscient third person pulls the narrative voice way back, inserting the greatest amount of psychic distance between the reader and the action. This is the old classics modus operandi, a la Dickens and Chekhov and the like. Readers don’t feel that they’re in the characters’ heads at all. It feels more like hovering in the corner of a room, watching the action. As a result, the author’s narrative voice has full control, all the time. In the classics age, this POV also resulted in a very formal, stiff-sounding use of words.

So, you see how this fits in with the unusual words issue? In close third person, the author has to pay attention to what words the character would use. In removed and omniscient, the author is more free to use his/her choice of words. Therefore, “bigger” or more unusual words can be used more often in the removed and omniscient voices without making the reader feel pulled out of the story.

More tomorrow. We’ll spend some time thinking about all this, and how it affects us as readers and writers. Your thoughts so far?

Read Part 2


M. C. Pearson said...

Hi! I'm one of Bonnie Calhoun's friends. She told me about your new book coming out. Wow! If there are any advance copies of your book left, I'd love one! my email is dkpnc@aol.com

Stuart said...

hehe,I wondered about that deja vu i was having this morning...

yes third person and odd words. very tricky to balance sometimes.

Great post as usual.

One thing I've always been a proponent of (and sometimes wonder if it is a dying idea) is defenition through context. Where the word can be defined at least generally through the way it is used.

I almost never reach for a dictionary, even when I come across a word I don't know. Instead I focus on where it is being used and the context around it, and that almost always provides me with a good enough defenition to figure out the sentence.

That's what I try to do with my own odd words (most of which won't be found in any dictionary laying around your house). But it can be frustrating to get the right ammount of context around the word to convey the meaning of a word without people complaining that you haven't explained it in detail. *sigh*

For example, people could never figure out what a blite was when i had this structure (admitadly the sentence doesn't exactly flow smoothly):

Among the seething clouds the dark forms of blites, the giant plants riding the air currents, were held aloft by giant egg-shaped gas sacks. Their feathery tendrils whipped in the wind, capturing the water and minerals from the smoke clogged air.

Interestingly, I have got less complaints about the word in this context:

Among the seething clouds, dozens of blites rode the volatile air currents, held aloft by egg-shaped gas sacks. The plants’ feathery tendrils whipped in the wind as they leeched water and minerals from the smoke-clogged air. Blites were a familiar sight to Rathe. He had spent his early years not far from an active volcano whose eruptions drew the great plants.

Maybe it was just from stating that a Blite is a large plant twice that finally cued readers in. ;) But then again, some of it comes from readers who are used to reading sci-fi/fantasy and those that aren't. :)

Anyway, that is probably why you see a lot of sci-fi and fantasy written in removed to pseudo-omnicient third persion. So the author has more leeway to define terms without breaking character.

Domino said...

I love this discussion. Writing preferences can be so different from author to author. It's what the author does well that actually makes all the difference.

When I started writing I set out to write in first person, but at a critique I was told I should write in third person. So I did. Now when I start a story, I automatically write in third person present tense. Then, after three or four pages, I change everything to third person past.

Third close is my favorite. If I want to use high-falutin words, I put them in the mouth or thoughts of a high-falutin character. When my characters get sarcastic, it'll show in my third close pov narrative.

Unknown said...

This is one of those topics we've batted back and forth in our crit group. It's a challenge to keep in your POV character's vocabulary while not using the same old words.

Another issue, somewhat related and kind of piggy-backing on Stuart's comment, is the use of "jargon" or any kind of specialized terms or knowledge in close POV. Obviously, the character isn't going to think or say the definitions, so I'd love some ideas on how to get meanings across while remaining true to the character.

Anonymous said...

Hi Brandilynn. First time poster here, but I've been reading your blog for a few months now and finding it enjoyable and informing.

Just wanted to comment that in my current WIP, an historical, I have two POVs. One is a white Bostonian male, the other a southern female slave. Very different in their education, vocabulary and dialect, obviously. I started out writing both POVs in close third person, but had trouble capturing the voice of my female MC. So... I began writing her scenes in first person. She immediately came alive for me. So, for now, I'm working with both 1st and 3rd person POVs in one novel. I wanted to mention this in case there are other writers struggling with capturing, and differentiating, two or more 3rd person POVs. Try writing one or more of them in 1st person, even for a scene or two as an exercise, and see if that distinctive voice is easier to capture.

Lynetta said...

Hi- That was a great post to read again. I should probably revisit it often as I finish my first novel.

My question is semi-related and hopefully not too much of a bunny trail. I'm writing my WIP in close third POV. My protag is a young woman who often says the opposite of what she's thinking. She thinks sarcastic and proud thoughts but speaks in a more formal tone with exaggerated politeness and humility, as she was taught.

The story, I think, is much better if I can sprinkle in some thoughts as she's thinking them (in the present tense). I've seen this done sometimes,where the author puts the thoughts into italics. However, I've also read editors frown on italics. Do they make an exception in the case of present internal thoughts?

I appreciate any advice you can give. I want to help my readers get as close to this character as possible.


Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

I WONDERED how POV fit with big words. I wasn't thinking writerly enough.

For me, I am pulled out of the story when I don't understand and can't continue because of it.

"The jorbal wibbled to the next tree." The who did what? This drives me to the dictionary, (though you won't find these made-up words there--LOL) pulling me from the story world back to my own, because I need to understand in order to grasp what is coming next.

With a good book, I joyful dive back into that world and have little trouble becoming lost within moments. Frequent repeats of that process, however, prevent getting lost ever, I think.


Pammer said...

I was one of the ones that got deleted. I thought it strange that you posted two posts in one day, but hey, others do it, lol. I didn't have much to add. I had never thought of the connection between the words we use in connection with the POV other than the obvious that an auto mechanic isn't likely to know what a plie (with the little French accent marks) means unless his daughter takes ballet. I did ask my dh what color my eyes were (I mean he IS a guy and they only know like five colors, right?) Wrong! He told me they were a warm mocha color. Up went the eyebrow cause I always thought my eyes were brown. But he is one of those artsy musician types so I guess it forgiveable. However if I were to ask my oldest he might tell me they look like mud. :0)

I'm anxious to hear what you have to say on this topic because sometimes I am guilty of slipping from one POV type into another. I really have to watch it. :0) Any help is appreciated.

Thanks for another great topic.

Unknown said...

What I like about close third person is it gives me a chance to change voices with each character. My crit partners liked that I recently gave one of my "victims" a very distinct voice of her own. She only got to keep it for one chapter, though. This is a good topic. I know we newbies need to stick to the basics, but POV is a fascinating rule to break!

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

In my present WIP, I have at least five people who are important POV's. To make it less confusing, I'm trying to give each specific chapters, so the lines among them don't get blurred.

Brandilny....question...Is it acceptable to show multiple points of view if it's done during dialogue, as in stating their emotions for the particular things they are saying?

Dineen A. Miller said...

I love it when character comes so clear to you that you can "hear" her and see it come out as you write her POV. That's my favorite, but I've been playing with omniscent for a book I'm working on, just to sprinkle through. That was tough going from third—had to write the prologue three times, but it was worth it.

Anonymous said...

I love the comment from the lawyer about stay at home moms and high school educations. A bit sententious, wouldn't you say?
I think first is boring to read, even when well written.
I prefer close and omniscient third.
I write in third omniscient, but I'd like to experiment with close. If I hadn't almost finished the novel I'm writing, I'd use close.

Anonymous said...

Nothing---but absolutely Nothing---should ever cause a reader to put the book down and look up a word. On the way back they could come upon a helpless, undefended refrigerator, remember that perfectly aged three day old chop suey with shrimp, and with with Battle Star Gallactica about to come on TV...well, you get the idea.