Writing in 3rd Person: Surface as Depth


Surface as Depth: Rocking 3rd Person

You guys wanna talk about something I believe in? It’s 3rd person narrative. To the Nth degree. To artformitous levels.

1st person is nice. So’s 2nd person, though if you’ve written an entire novel in 2nd and it’s readable, trust me, I want to read it. But 3rd person, often (wrongly, I think) regarded as a sort of assumed base state for storytelling, doesn’t get a lot of talk, and it should.

Because it’s NOT just a base state. Because it’s NOT natural, and doing it well isn’t easy.

Our ‘natural’ storytelling tense, especially in this age of facebook and instant communication, is first person. We talk with the most assurance about things that’ve happened to us, things we felt and thought and mulled over. We can even describe, more or less naturally, things that go on inside our own heads (how we do this I’m not certain. My brain is my own personal final frontier. Could I explain to you why, when I smell corn dogs, I think of Phantom of the Opera? No. Hell no.) It’s easy to figure out where you’re at writing in first person, because you just think of what would be running through YOUR head when you smell corn dogs, and paraphrase accordingly.

Third person, however. How do you humanize that lonely-sounding he or she? How do you, perhaps, characterize an ‘it’?

Even the most informal and singular 3rd person POV stories show secondary, and sometimes primary, characters through a double lens. The lens of your viewpoint character–how he or she views this person–and the final lens of you, the author, writing about these characters from the generalized human ether taking place outside of he/she. When you think about it, it’s a hard road to walk. Because there’s also that third lens, the one you can only guess at.

Your reader, viewing this person being viewed by this person being viewed by you.

Oh my God. SO META. So meta it could make your brain explode.

To write third person effectively, you have to consider all three of these lenses. Actions and dialogue, therefore, can be viewed in this form:

1) How does my viewpoint character take this?

2) How/why am I writing it this way? What good does it do my story to write this character in this way, to have my main character take this character’s actions/speech in this fashion? (You’re in control of this story, remember. Write it like you are.)

3) How’ll the reader view it?

If you’re writing a mystery/thriller type of story, you’ve probably thought about these three lenses a little more than most. Mystery-driven stories, where small pieces of evidence are often dropped through unreliable secondary characters in deliberately misleading ways, prove damn well why all of these considerations are important.

As an example I think, in Halloweeny fashion, of the Twilight Zone episode where the aliens have a book entitled ‘To Serve Man’. Folk take this in a very rosy light, but guess what? It’s a fucking cookbook. The characters think one thing, the writer knows another. As the tale unfolds, the viewer (and the characters, hopefully) start to think again.

Your story might not be mystery or horror, and you might not need that ‘a-HAH!’ moment at the end of it. But this sort of misinformation–what Ms. Austen would refer to as ‘prejudice’–drives a lot of our day to day lives. You know that guy you always see at the bus stop complaining about his wife? You know how you think he’s kind of a dick? Well, how would you feel if you found his wife, upon returning home from work, beats the shit out of him every night, and he won’t leave her because he loves her, even though the MPD and the fact that she keeps calling herself Melvin the Drive-By Trucker drives him crazy? She refuses help. She knows something’s wrong, but she’s too scared and too ashamed to go to a doctor. So he sticks by her, even though she definitely isn’t the same person–or even the same NUMBER of people–he married twenty years ago. He recognizes that his wife is confused and in pain, and wants to be around to help if he can, even if it annoys the shit out of him, even if it’s dangerous. You might want to discreetly leave a few abuse hotline pamphlets at that bus stop, by the way. His wife might be ninety pounds, but Melvin the DBT doesn’t pull his punches. What he’s doing is sweet and loyal in its way, but is it healthy?

Things change when you have the full story. And, in third person, the story has to develop. You have to build your full story through your characters, who are human and fallible and see the world through their own eyes and not yours. No one just TELLS the full story. Not at first, at least. I have never gone up to a guy in a bar and said ‘I’m Em. I’m a slightly overweight failed author with a major class-chip on my shoulder from working high end retail, as well as an unpredictable temper. I’m happy to drink a beer with you, and am a smart and honest person, but I had a guy I dated for several years up and leave me in the holiday season with full rent for a two bedroom apartment and unpaid bills, so I have mild abandonment issues, and probably WILL mention his name when we fight, and compare you to him. Also, I snore. Nice to meet you!’

Though, Jesus, it might’ve made my love life simpler to do so.

The story unfolds, in third person especially, through interaction. When your MC asks the girl at the bar if she’s seeing anyone, she doesn’t answer ‘I have a softhearted friend who I like but don’t love and hate to let down who I’m sleeping with about once a week, and a midlevel involved crush on the mailman, who asked me out to coffee last Wednesday’.

No, she says: ‘not really’. Or she says ‘kind of’. And from that, your main character infers something. WHAT he infers, precisely, depends on what sort of person he is. And what the reader infers–well. It depends on what you give away. Is she smiling when she says it? Does she look uncomfortable? Does she drain her Cosmopolitan, and order another?

If you want your MC to be sympathetic and relatable, what he observes should affect him in a way you’d imagine it would affect the reader, or at least in a way the reader would find understandable. Otherwise, because you ARE writing in 3rd person and can only describe in shorthand what your character feels, you don’t get that access to this person’s head.

The girl twists a peroxided curl around her fingers, says ‘not really’. Your MC smiles, drains his beer, and decides it’s about time to call a taxi. I haven’t used the phrase ‘he felt’ or ‘she felt’ ONCE. Not ONCE. But you know what he’s thinking, and what assumptions he made.

But I’m the writer, so after the taxi-calling bit, I’ll add this:

He had almost made it to the corner where the taxi stood idling when he heard the clatter of heels behind him, caught the scent of her jasmine perfume.

“Y’know,” she said, after she’d caught her breath, “I’m really not seeing anyone. At least, no one I can’t stop seeing.”

He met her eyes. They were the honest gray of an Andrew Wyeth sky.

“No one I won’t stop seeing,” she amended.

There aren’t any feelings mentioned here. Not directly, at least. But you can imagine a little bit about this girl from the details–the sudden rush, the clatter of heels, sickly-sweet perfume, twisting a curl. She was seeing somebody. She’s probably a little shy, a little vulnerable. But she’s willing to take a chance.

Sometimes, a lot says more than a little. A bombshell-blonde curl twisted around a finger means a lot more, is more relatable, than deadeye statements like ‘the pretty girl was obviously nervous’.

If you’re having trouble with this, seriously, go to a bar you don’t usually go to, a place that isn’t too loud but isn’t too dead, either. Just sit there for an hour or two and observe. Be a creeper, go ahead. It’s not illegal–hell, in this case it’s fucking research. Bring a book if you care about creepers noticing you creeping.

Watch how people react to each other. This will actually work even better if the music is loud, and you can’t hear them. Come up with stories about them, conversations for them. Figure out if they’ve just met, if theyr’e family, if they’re longtime friends, husband and wife, etc.

Then ask yourself how you know.

The answers will be in gesture form, in facial expressions, in seating arrangement and touch. This is how you explain yourself in third person. Will you occasionally need a ‘he/she felt’, a look into your viewpoint character’s head? Yes. But, like Lysol, deploy it with care. A little bit helps to solve a problem. A lot just makes your story stink.

One thought on “Writing in 3rd Person: Surface as Depth

  1. *Nerd glasses* 3rd person limited and 3rd person omnipotent are two very different things. (not that you focused on it, but…) The most consistent issue I find with people trying to write 3rd person is they try to be limited, but in an omnipotent way. So the reader does the meta thing you wrote about (bravo on that. Whew), and sees Jimmy Douche’s perspective for, eh, the introduction and up to meeting said lady. Then it hops to Lady’s perspective, 3rd person limited, and then bounces between the two from paragraph to paragraph, or sentence to sentence.

    I find 3rd Person Limited to be half a step from 1st Person, with the addition of being able to more freely describe setting, back story, etc.

    3rd Person Omnipotent (also, any writer who writes like this is a sociopath. Kidding) is quite a bit more difficult to do, because you’re a puppet master with all the characters, backstory, setting, history of setting, etc. Much more juggling, trimming of pertinent information, etc.

    What I’m trying to say is… I’m missing a bit in this post. You talk about things my MC Soren does in 1st person, as 3rd person, while avoiding “he feels/she feels.” Mas importante, yes, and you have a lot more experience with this via indie book-reading, but I don’t see it so much. Okay I’ll shut up now.

    Someone’s being a bit prolific, by the way. Kudos to that! Loving it.

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