I know we have had endless debates regarding the pros and cons of first and third person point of views and close vs. omniscient perspectives. I don't want to start a new debate on this old topic. My own view of these has changed over the last year since joining this forum. I now try to keep a close perspective when writing in third person.
However, there are two areas with which I continue to struggle:
First, I do not understand why "third person" is considered to occur from the character's perspective. "Third person" would indicate to me that the narrator is not one of the characters (otherwise it would be called "first person"). A close perspective is fine, but I don't understand why some take it to mean you cannot address anything the character cannot see, hear, etc. This is not about the thoughts of another character, but about external events that usually have already happened (by way of past tense). I have asked this before and no one has ever answered me - who really is this third person?
Second, I do not understand why a "third person" narrator has to use language appropriate to the age or status of the character. What if the character is a mouse? Or what if the character is deaf or mute? What if they are two years old? What then? I can understand using language appropriate to the time or genre of the story to create mood. And I can even understand using it in a limited way to establish character. But I do not understand why it is "wrong" to separate narration from dialogue. I know times have changed, but I've seen it done very well in the past with Lord of the Flies, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and many others.
A quick thought regarding your first question.
who really is this third person? I read your question to be exclusively dealing with a limited third person perspective. As you know, third person refers to the relationship between the reader and the narrator - in third they are describing the actions of a third person (as opposed to themselves (1st) or the reader (2nd)).
The third person narrator's role in most cases then is effectively identical to that of a movie camera recording the events of the story, as if watching the action. It follows then that were the director's goal to follow the plight of the main character, the camera will show the actions of that character and omit those the character cannot see.
Needless to say, we're (mostly) not writing movie scripts, and the medium of the novel allows us to step inside someone's head and tell the reader what they're thinking, or to zoom right out and show things in a perspective the character cannot see, or head hop, or watch events no character will see but which effect the story. Yet you've rightly asked why "third person" is considered to occur from the character's perspective and this is almost certainly the most commonly used (and preached about) form of third person.
How we choose to manipulate the perspective beyond simple limited third is primarily dependent on its affect on our reader; something beginner writers often don't yet well enough understand. The end result? Writing texts appear to generally prescribe against it and not a few writers take that advice as a formula, a hard and fast rule, when really as long as the reader experiences the effect the writer is aiming for, then who is to say a particular approach is wrong?
[This message has been edited by BenM (edited June 26, 2009).]
I'm no expert, but my guess about your questions would be that most writers want their narrator to be invisible. To be a nobody. If your narrator only reports on the one character's thoughts and then refers to some piece of information that the character doesn't know about, then the reader starts to wonder "who is this guy?" And if you don't give an answer to that, then you've broken one of the biggest rules: NEVER push the reader out of the story.
And I think the second question could be answered the same way. If the narrator has a different style than the POV character, the reader starts to wonder who is telling the story 'cause it's obviously not the guy they're reading about. The way someone speaks is part of their personality, so if your narrator has a unique personality, you've created another character. Logically, I guess the reader should ask this about all 3rd person stories, but no one does unless their attention is called away by something inconsistent.
And my final thought is...I don't think either of the things you asked about are "wrong." They just not what's in style right now. You wanna be cool, don't you, Philo?
I'll try to tackle your questions as best I can with my own writing experience.
Third person is a very broad perspective which can range from limited PoV, very tight focus on one person (practically first person for the PoV even though it's said in the third person: we get his thoughts and emotions and see things only as he does), all the way to universal (we see inside everyone's head and even stuff they don't know about.) The latter is called omniscient, and although it's used, especially in TV shows, it has some serious drawbacks. I'll get to those more a bit later, but first the in-between, where the writer doesn't get into anybody's head but recounts details as if from a nonexistent point of view. The popular term for this is the fly on the wall PoV.
The advantage of limited PoV is that it's practically first person, which makes it very easy to write. First person is how you see the world, so describing things by that method comes more naturally. It's also much easier for creating suspense, since you can leave details out simply by not letting them become known by the PoV character until you want them to know it. There are of course other advantages. A disadvantage is that if you want to swap PoVs you generally have to go to a new chapter or at least a blank space between paragraphs to show that the PoV is changing. You can't look into different people's heads in the middle of the scene so everything has to be through your PoV character's eyes.
The fly on the wall point of view is good for some types of stories, especially ones where characterization is not so important or the reader isn't supposed to know much about the characters until they learn about them through what the characters say and do. A drawback to it is that the only way to show how a character feels is by describing their reactions and facial features, which can again bog down the story. Also if we don't ever get inside any character's head, we never get a feel for who the story's about, and it's harder to build rapport with the characters.
Omniscient PoV is essentially entirely narrated. Facts are presented without needing to explain where they came from. You can know what any character is thinking at any time, or even move away from characters and focus on an empty room if that's what the story demands. But while this may seem like the easiest of point of views to present, it's actually one of the most difficult to do well. For one thing people like to rest in the back of one person's head. They tend to go into every scene expecting that the first person they hear thinking things is the PoV character. If you show what Mary is thinking then jump over and show what John is thinking their reading may stutter to a halt since they're not used to having information presented like that. This can turn out to be only a temporary drawback, and one they'll quickly get over, but there are other downsides.
One is that you have to very carefully represent whose head you're currently in, and you have to very carefully show when you're leaving their head to go into someone else's, or going off into full narration.
Your second question, about baby talk, foreign languages/accents/idioms, etc, is fairly simple and at the same time complex. The short of it is that it's much easier to write a story where the child is precocious than it is to get a degree in linguistics with a major in child language development, with another degree in child psychological development, and write the PoV the way a child would really think it, with dialogue the way a child would really say it.
If you do have that sort of knowledge at your disposal then great, write the kid's story with a higher degree of accuracy. Luckily there's a good loophole around that, which is that most people are adults, and they expect that even books we see through the eyes of a child are "written" by that child as an adult. If you want to get into linguistics enough to know that kids tend to favor voiceless labiodental consonants over voiced glottal ones, or that they have trouble with slides, it's certainly a good idea. It can help your children's dialogue seem more authentic.
The way I see it is when you are in close 3rd POV we are seeing everything as the characters sees it and thinks it, but the author can also switch characters. To address things outside of the character's viewpoint might lead to confusion because 3rd close POV doesn't have to use the tags - he thought-. The reader already understands because of the closeness of the POV. But if you break that and start commenting on things the POV characters would know nothing about, then the reader may be confused what is from the character and what is not. Omniscient 3rd though can comment on things the POV character does not know.
Using the POV character's style of thought in the narration increases the reader's immersion into the character. They get a better feel for who the character is and what makes them tick. If the character is a mouse and the author is using close 3rd POV then I would want to know how a mouse would think, it would be interesting to see the narration colored by the mouses's view of the world. What parent hasn't wondered what is really going on in the mind of their two year old, I know I have. I don't think it is "wrong" to separate narration from dialogue, but to blend them together is a good way to help your reader immerse herself into the character.
Thanks to all of you who replied to my questions. I appreciate the desire to keep the writer invisisble, but I do not see these "rules" being followed consistently. This in turn makes me question the validity of the argument.
Everything I read has exceptions. For example, I'm currently reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I'm at the beginning and one MC has just been locked into a coffin on a train. The narrator describes where they stop and who all are on the train and even how they are dressed. There is no way for the MC to see any of this. In the same novel, the narrator's vocabulary far exceeds that of the either MC.
This novel won the Pulitzer in 2000. Have these POV trends arisen since then?
I haven't read that book, could it be the author is using omniscient third POV? Besides all "rules" should be taken with a grain of salt. For all rules first seek to understand them and then understand that they aren't rules but tools. Then use them accordingly in your story.
I have noticed in your comments Philo that you seem to prefer the classic style of writing. If that's so then maybe you should write that way and who cares what the current style is. Be true to yourself first, it could be you write in the classic style better than the current style and people may like it despite it being different from the norm. I have always heard we should write what we like. I think you could also apply that to style, write in the style you like to read.
A lot of readers don't care about POV and "violatoins" thereof. Some do - I have only once genuinely throan a book across a room because it irritated me so much, and it was a book by a very successful author ("Magic", by Tami Hoag). There was a conversation between the two main characters and every line jumped back and forth describing what X was seeing of Y and then what Y felt about what X had just said, and after six or seven switches in as many lines it just made me tear my heair out (I remain bald to this day).
Seriously; all "rules" are there to be "broken". But you must know WHAT the "rules" are, and WHY it would be "correct" to "break" them in any particular circumstance. Those who short-circuit this and assume no rules apply under any circumstances are doomed, because they will fail to understand why one thing works and another does not.
To break the rules, you must learn how to use the rules.
Thanks, satate. I would probably call my current style a form of modified classic. I do try to stay as close to the current norms as I can. However, I know that as soon as I have a scene outside of the room or use a word in narration that could be constued as "above" the character, then I will be called down for it. This makes me hesitant to submit writing for critique, because that particular criticism unnerves me for some reason.
Since I watch a lot of movies and TV, my thought process in writing is similar to those mediums. Remember the scene in Home Alone when the lightning strikes the tree, and the tree falls on the powerline? I don't see why that would knock a reader out of the story. The story remained closely tied to Culkin's character throughout.
That is what bothers me about this particular criticism. Not only is this commonplace in TV and cinema, but it is also common in classic literature, not including Dune, LOTR, and many other genre classics. Also, I see these "asides" and elevated narration being performed in much of the modern literature that I read.
Thanks, tchern. I had to answer the phone while you must have been posting. What you said makes sense, I just think there are a lot of things we become obsessive over. This is just one that irritates me a little more than the others.
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A (I hope) related comment: I've just read the first two books in Ilona Andrews MAGIC series (MAGIC BITES and MAGIC BURNS) which have a first person narrator who breaks the if-the-first-person-narrator-knows-it-the reader-should-know-it-too "rule" like crazy (the first person narrator has a nasty secret that she is always talking about hiding, but does not talk about what the secret is--her hints provide a little mystery for the reader, I guess), but the author makes the story work (at least, she did for me) in spite of this "coyness."
I figure that she is able to do this in part because she is conveying the first person narrator's surface thoughts, and not what OSC calls "deep" thoughts and feelings. I have to confess that I have been throw-the-book-across-the-room irritated by other books that have done this, so I'm not really sure why this "coyness" in these books hasn't bothered me. Maybe I just like the character enough to forgive her "coyness?"
There are even more variations of 3rd person than there are types of POV. Third person simply means the person talking isn't the one the story is about.
That could mean the narrator is actually a person/character, but they are telling you about other people/characters, a sort of bastardized 1st person narrator. Think Red in Shawshank Redemption and Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Incidentally, both of those narrators do have sections where they talk about themselves and give a 1st person narration, but mostly they're telling you about a third person (Andy Dufresne and Sherlock Holmes, respectively).
It could also mean the narrator is some invisible, unnamed person telling the story, a narrator who has no personality or character of his or her own. A voice from the sky, if you will. This nameless entity can have as much knowledge about the story as the writer chooses.
It's currently in fashion to have a limited thrid person narrator who penetrates deeply into one character's mind, giving the reader a very up close and personal experience with that one character, but that is by no means the way it has to be or the way it has always been done. Nor is that the way it's always done today; plenty of great books still come out using different types of narration. Up until the twentieth century, narrators were almost exclusively either 1st person narrators, or third person narrators who could see into anybody's head they wanted.
So, 3rd person limited=currently popular, but that's just a modern trend.
quote:Seriously; all "rules" are there to be "broken". But you must know WHAT the "rules" are, and WHY it would be "correct" to "break" them in any particular circumstance. Those who short-circuit this and assume no rules apply under any circumstances are doomed, because they will fail to understand why one thing works and another does not.
To break the rules, you must learn how to use the rules.
People say this a lot, but I don't see many examples of what its supposed to mean. (thats in no way an attack of you, tchern. Lots of people say it, and I am genuinly curious what it means and how it really pertains to specific situations.)
I think the question of this thread basically is: Heres the rules of different POVs and levels of immersion. But, these rules get broken all the time. So, acorrding to current wisdom, when/how is it currently considered apropriate to do so?
I think many/most of us have a pretty good understanding of the natures and purposes of these "rules" yet we still get a lot of mixed signals about when/how its ok to "break" them (my belief is because its mostly a matter of taste but thats neither here nor there.)
One of my biggest issues with the POV thing is a characters appearance. A character knows what they look like, right? And yet if someone is writing in close 3rd and mentions some aspect of the POV characters appearance, usually someone tells them they are breaking POV.
And yet 1) the character knows what they look like, even if they can't see themselves and 2) I've seen this done in published works.
So, which is "correct?" (a similar thing has also happened to me, as I write mostly fantasy, when I've got a mage character projecting light from their eyes or something similar...I mean...the light is coming from their eyes and they know that...and they can see it shining on things so...whats the issue?)
[This message has been edited by Merlion-Emrys (edited June 26, 2009).]
Thank you, Merlion, that was also one of the questions I originally meant to bring up but totally forgot about it until just now when I read your post.
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I like this question. I've wondered about this, too, because I actually LOVE IT in romance stories when the POV shifts to other characters during the same scene. I only really see this in romantic stories, and I think I read somewhere that that's really the only popular place for that anymore. But I think it makes the whole interaction a little richer.
So...my guess about what they mean by "know the rules before you break them" is that beginning writers have tendency to cheat. Imagine a story where we know everyone's thoughts, except that the author withholds key information at random moments to increase the suspense. That could be very annoying if the reader KNOWS that the author is holding out on them while they read that scene. Jane Austen did this a lot, but it worked because you don't know that it's happening the first time you read the books.
I think you should break any rule you like, as long as you don't annoy your reader. This idea seems to be the basis of all the rules, anyway.
Oh, and I agree with you, Merlion, about POV violations. For example, if I scowl at someone, even though I can't see myself, I know what I'm doing. I think those kinds of things are fair.
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quote:I think you should break any rule you like, as long as you don't annoy your reader. This idea seems to be the basis of all the rules, anyway.
I think your right to a point. However...and I know I sound like a broken record with this some times but its just the truth...annoyance is another of those subjective things. And theres also the issue that many things that most readers don't give a wererat's posterior about are biggies to some editors. And I think POV is a big one for that...I mean I didn't really even know about the concept till I came to Hatrack.
For me, if just following my natural impulses its about whats right for the story. But, apparently, a lot of times those are acceptable instances of breaking some rules...
It just seems to me that even once their understood, when to break or follow "rules" is mostly a matter of opinion
I hope I didn't offend anyone by stating that the criticisms of breaking strict limited POV and using elevated narration "irritate me". Let me clarify this statement. It is not the criticism itself that irritates me, but the strict upholding of this rule without justifying why it is wrong. If someone says, "You broke your POV, and it threw me off a little," then I see it as a relevant criticism and a possible problem.
If someone says, "The guy couldn't have known it was the dog that knocked over the lamp in the other room," then I don't feel this situation was addressed in a way that was relevant to how it affected the reader. My non-response is, "So what? Why does that matter? How did that throw you out of the story?"
This is also how I feel about narration and MC descriptions.
You're right, Merlion. Maybe I should have said "confuse" or "frustrate." The word "annoy" isn't nearly good enough, I know, but you get the idea, right?
My whole point is that the rules are there to help a writer know how to speak clearly to his audience. If you can do this while breaking a rule, then the rules don't apply to you.
I guess I could explain my thought like this...all these rules aren't rules, at all. They're just examples of ways that inexperienced writers tend to break the MAIN rules (over here at hatrack, those are Faith, Hope, and Clarity).
I totally believe in the main rules. For me, those are the only ones that are set in stone. IN NO WAY AM I ABOUT TO START UP THAT OTHER THREAD, but I think that this is where the difference in opinion on the first 13 starts. When I get or give a critique, those are the only rules I'm concerned with. I want the option to break any other sub-rule (like someone's idea of consistent POV) if I like. As long as I'm okay on the big three, I consider myself okay and all that other stuff as "taste."
Is that better? I hope so, because from reading your comments I think we agree. Any difference is probably a "clarity" flaw on my part. <big grin>
[This message has been edited by Betsy Hammer (edited June 26, 2009).]
quote:You're right, Merlion. Maybe I should have said "confuse" or "frustrate." The word "annoy" isn't nearly good enough, I know, but you get the idea, right?
I do. What I was getting at is that you can't please everyone. Your statement that anything is fine if it doesn't cause some sort of difficulty (whatever word you want to use for it) is valid. However, what causes difficulty for one may not for another etc...and thats our great quandry. The subjectivity of these things means that no matter how many rules we follow or break, some people are going to dislike/be frustrated by/have a low opinion of any given thing one may write.
quote:I totally believe in the main rules. For me, those are the only ones that are set in stone. IN NO WAY AM I ABOUT TO START UP THAT OTHER THREAD, but I think that this is where the difference in opinion on the first 13 starts. When I get or give a critique, those are the only rules I'm concerned with. I want the option to break any other sub-rule (like someone's idea of consistent POV) if I like. As long as I'm okay on the big three, I consider myself okay and all that other stuff as "taste."
Refresh me on exactly what "faith hope and clarity" are supposed to refer to?
Sorry, that was kind of annoying, huh? It's not like I knew that stuff a year ago. Anyway, here's my lame summary, based on chapter 2 of Character and Viewpoint by OSC and the literary class of his that I attended...
"Faith, hope, and clarity" come from the Bible, and relate to the questions that all readers ask unconsciously throughout every story they read. ("Oh, yeah?" "So what?" "Huh?") Your readers should go through your story with a red pencil and write these questions in the margins as they come up. That way you have a "naked record of these questions coming to the surface and when." The person should not comment on how they would write the story at this time.
Faith = Believability = "Oh, yeah?" You have to justify everything that happens in your story so that readers never ask this question and quit reading. They should believe that whatever it is could really happen.
Hope = Emotional Involvement = "So what?" These are the moments when boredom strikes. They should put a "sw" in the margin every time they find themselves distracted.
Clarity = Understandability = "Huh?" What's happening? Something doesn't make sense, etc.
Also, during the critiques OSC DID comment on style and such, but always in the context of the questions. For example, if it's too flowery, that's probably a "so what?" Strange POV shifts are a "huh?" because they can be confusing.
I like these rules so much because they help readers get to root of what's really bothering them.
Oops. I had to put all my millions of kids to bed and I just saw that Kathleen already commented, but I'll still post because...whatever. And I agree that they're still relative, but if you're getting a consistent "huh" from everyone, then you know you have a problem.
quote:...but if you're getting a consistent "huh" from everyone, then you know you have a problem.
Exactly. And even then it still may not matter.
Harlan Ellison's "Jeffty is Five" is an award-winning short story with an ending that is a trifle unclear. In his introduction to the story, Ellison railed about readers not getting it. He said everything was there for the careful reader to "get it". Fair enough.
However, on his website there's a forum dedicated to discussing his work. This story came up, and there was some debate about the ending; what happened, what it meant, etc. Ellison himself came onto the forum, chastised us all, and proceeded to tell us "what happened".
Personally, the ending is still unclear, especially in light of what Ellison said about it. If anything, it just goes to show that even though one may get a lot of "huhs", it may not make it any less of a story.
(And yes, I'm aware that the "huh" aspect is more of a critique on breaking the flow of the story as opposed to an ending, but I think my point still stands 'cause even a "huh" at the end of story may color one's opinion on the entire story, no matter how well written.)
For an example of a different portrayal of Baby Talk, just watch one episode with Stewie on The Family Guy. Like Garfield, he doesn't interact with the adults around him in a way they understand, but his own thinking process is clear.
Think back to your childhood, as far back as you can. How did you view yourself? Did you "think" in baby talk? Of course not. You thought just like you do now. Your observations and conclusions about the world may have been different, based on a lack of experience. But your inner relationship with yourself, your inner observer, was as adult as it is today.
Kids aren't small sponge replicas who will some day turn into humans... they are fully human already.
Look at the book To Kill a Mockingbird. The narrator is a child, but the narration is not childish. The actions and dialog reflect the age of the narrator, but not the narrator's voice in the words.
In other words, you have a non-issue. Just write the way you think the narrator would write, be it mouse or boy or machine.
[This message has been edited by Elan (edited July 01, 2009).]
Yeah thats what I thought faith/hope/clarity was, I just couldn't remember for sure.
Those things in themselves seem to me less like rules and more like concepts...a system of quantifying how readers interact with stories.
Actually in some ways, those things (especially the first and last, the "caring" one which I would call interest seems rather unlike the others because what interests people is extremely subjective) are to some extent the concepts that the various "rules" are refering back to, trying to reinforce and trying to avoid problems with.
The first one, to me, would mostly represent self-consistency. In sf/f/h we're already dealing with things many people don't believe in, but they must be done believeably, and that means consistency. (although as a buffy the vampire slayer fan I will say inconsistencies can be compensated for by other things.)
The second, to me is purely a matter of taste.
The third one is also much more objective. For most stories your going to want as close to complete clarity as you can get. There are exceptions...if your writing a story that focuses on mood, emotion and the like, a lot of things may not be clear...but it should also be clear that thats the case, if that makes any sense.
Hmm...I've diverged largely off topic though haven't I. Well not really I suppose, because I agree with you, Betsy, that the other "rules" are really just ways (or at least, possible ways) of achieving these meta-goals. POV issues, for instance, would be linked to clarity, and maybe for a few people to believability somewhat.
It still remains though that anything you do is going to be unbelievable, uninteresting, and/or unclear to some, but all those things without the "uns" to others.
I just finished a book written in omnicient pov. I didn't notice that it was omnicient until after I finished the book, and I was flipping back through it and noticed similar to this:
quote:Clary had no way of knowing that as Jace walked away from her, he was twirling a blood stained piece of thread between two fingers.
Or something like that. Then I started looking at other pages and realized that she had used this same pov throughout the book. I think any pov is fine as long as it is invisible to the reader. I wish I knew how to make it invisible. I've learned the most from critiquing other people and noticing what works and doesn't from them.
edited to say: I hope I didn't stray too far from the original topic. As to your second question, I agree with you. The narrator can be a separate and distinct voice from your main character. If he is not, you might as well write in first person.
[This message has been edited by Unwritten (edited June 27, 2009).]
I would also add that apparently there seem to be various levels of 3rd person close as well and some versions are, to me, very very much like 1st person. In these I think its very close to the narrator being the POV character in all but grammatical technicality.
I think for things like writing from the POV of an infant or small child a fairly "distant" close 3rd would probably work pretty well.
As far as POV being invisible, I think it pretty much is to average readers. Its other writers and/or editors who are likely to notice/care.
Certainly one can play with these things quite a bit. If you haven't, philo, read Richard Matheson's short story "Born of Man and Woman." I think its technically first person, however it does an interesting job of writing from the POV of a...um...person...who has had very, very limited contact with the world outside a basement.
Also (just kind of throwing stuff out here) I remember extrinsic talking about POV as a sliding scale...and it also seems I remember reading somewhere that POV may some times "zoom" in and out at times.
As far as seperation of dialogue and narrative...well I've often heard that in very close 3rd person the narrative will often take on a lot of the POV characters "voice" but depending on the nature of the story it doesn't seem a problem to me to seperate one from the other.