12.7: Description Through the Third Person Lens

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Mary Anne, and Wesley

The third-person POV lens can be used for simultaneously describing the world to the reader and describing the character. In this episode we’ll talk about where we deploy these tools, where the pitfalls are, and how to do it well.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Andrew Twiss, who heard the AC turn back on, and mastered by Alex Jackson, who was happy to not need to digitally filter the AC out of the mix.


Homework assignment: read Ursula LeGuin’s Steering the Craftand dive into the exercises there.

Amberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly

5 thoughts on “12.7: Description Through the Third Person Lens”

  1. Yay, Brandon, Mary, Mary Anne, and Wesley. That was a great episode, especially for the close or tight third person, or deep POV as some have it.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I am trying to write a deep 3rd Person POV protagonist in order to prevent having to release information that is known to other characters. So your ruminations on that subject were useful. But going deep is challenging and there are some conventions that seem necessary, as this good blog from Beth Hill’s Editor’s Blog makes clear: http://theeditorsblog.net/2011/11/16/deep-pov-whats-so-deep-about-it/

    Last week I was trying to think about a book written in close 3rd P POV that was 100% or close to 100% that POV. I finally recalled one: Ender’s Game. OK, Graf gets some POV time as puppetmaster and maybe a couple of others, but it is probably 95% Ender’s POV. That said, does a single 3rd P POV get boring or is that still a viable writing strategy.

  2. The Chicago Foursome focus on looking at the world through a third person narrator! Making samosas, pimento cheese sandwiches, noisy air conditioners, babies crying, but don’t lick the vases? What does a macaw sound like? And chopping infodumps up like onions, then dribbling them across your scene with the wind blowing… It’s all there, even if you don’t lose viewpoint or hide secrets from your readers. So, go read the transcript, available now in the archives and over here


    Then let your readers in on the information, but make the outcome surprising, yet inevitable. Wow! In the library, with a lead pipe? I should have seen that coming!

  3. Expanding on Brandon’s point about focus, particularly his bird example, the information gleaned by a character can also inform the reader about who they are. Growing up where I did I know that certain birds call and behave in different manners depending on various predators they can see. Certain babblers and thrushes will act differently in response to a human or a tiger. If out walking I would commonly pay attention to them (and other animal cries). To most people, however, they’d just be birds calling in the jungle. As writers we can use focus and knowledge to expound character personality and expertise and add depth to the stories we tell.

  4. @Andrew
    Many books are written using only a single POV, or using a single POV most of the time. Most books written in 1st person use a single POV. There’s no reason the same can’t work just as well in 3rd. As long as the character is engaging, it won’t matter. If the character isn’t engaging, having extra POVs probably won’t help.

    When I read the title of this podcast, I thought they might talk about how POV characters describe themselves in 3rd person. That seems to be an area where a lot of writers struggle. I try to rely mostly on action and comparison to bring out those details, but I don’t really stress getting those details in unless they are in some way important to the story.

  5. Woah. Comments get closed incredibly fast around here! This is actually supposed to be for 12-6, but I can’t post there. :(

    When Howard said that when changing perspective, the name of the new POV character has to be the first name you see, otherwise it gets confusing unless there’s something *very* stylistically obvious about the new character, it immediately reminded me of something I did recently, but in first person.

    I’ve been writing a Web serial for the past few years about a guy from Earth stuck in a fantasy world. The perspective character narrates the whole thing in first person past tense. But the fourth book involves him and one of the other main characters going off on a voyage across the ocean. I wanted to slip some parts in about what’s going on in the main setting in between all of this, but I couldn’t really slip into third-person and describe something from someone else’s POV because that would ruin the style of the story… so I tried something a little bit different.

    Chapter 3.5 (presented as an extra bit surreptitiously inserted into the manuscript between chapters 3 and 4) starts out:

    > Wow! Paul’s writing his memoirs, and he didn’t even tell me? I’m so disappointed! Not really surprised, though. That’s so like him. He’s a great guy, but he’s always had a tendency to think of everything in terms of himself. I bet it never even occurred to him to ask me.

    That’s all it took. As I read this to my alpha reader, (I read everything out loud to my alpha reader, because she’s blind,) she immediately picked up on which character it was inserting themselves into the narration, because it was so definitely “the voice of” that character. So I was really pleased that I was able to pull that off. (In fact, this character’s name is not actually mentioned anywhere in the chapter.)

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