Writing Excuses 12.6: Variations on Third Person
Key points: Omniscient: the narrator knows all, sees all, and tells all. Or, the bodyhopper! Beware headhopping confusion, though, and the accidental omniscient. Then there’s third person cinematic, just the camera, folks. A good tool for establishing shots! Limited third person uses a single viewpoint character at a time. Very widely used, and lets you handle large casts and epic scope easily, while still knowing what is going on in the viewpoint character’s head. Be careful to quickly show us whose head we are in! Why does sci-fi fantasy use this so heavily? History, it feels natural for storytelling, it makes infodumps easy. Maybe because of the roots in short fiction? Third person limited lets you have your background and know a character closely, too. Mostly, though, it’s just background — what you read is what you write!
[Mary] Season 12, Episode Six.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Variations on Third Person.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re limited.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I’m omniscient.
[Brandon] Well, we’ll just let you talk, then.
[Mary] Tell us everything, Howard.
[Howard] I’m an unreliable narrator.
[Mary] And apparently you’re also first person. You don’t belong here. “He does not belong here,” she said.
[Brandon] So, just like last month, we were talking first person, this month, we are talking third person. There are two dominant forms of third person, with some kind of different variations on each. Let’s talk about omniscient. Shall we?
[Mary] Okay. Yes. So omniscient is when the narrator knows everything that’s going on. This is a style that has largely fallen out of fashion. Frequently, when we see it, it is used in something that is older. Like Jane Austen often uses omniscient. So Audrey Niffenegger used it more recently in… Oh… In a book whose title has gone out of my head. This is…
[Howard] Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series uses third person omniscient.
[Brandon] So, what is third person omniscient?
[Dan] Okay. So the idea behind third person omniscient, and, for example, Charles Dickens use this all the time, pretty much exclusively. So you have Oliver Twist and Bill Sikes in the same scene, and they’re talking and one of them’s scared of the other and one of them doesn’t care about the other and so on, and the narrator knows exactly what each of them are thinking. When they take an action, the narrator knows why Bill takes this action and tells you why and he tells you what Bill is thinking, and then he’ll jump over into Oliver Twist’s head and say something, and then maybe he’ll talk about Artful Dodger and why he’s doing what he’s doing. As opposed to limited third person, in which the entire story would be just from Oliver Twist and you never know… You’d never get to see behind the curtains, you’d never get to see inside Bill Sikes’ head, or anyone else.
[Brandon] Now, I see… This is, again, just my Brandon division, I’m not the ultimate authority on this, but I see two general kinds of omniscient. There is a type of omniscient where there is this present narrator. Almost like the person who does the little blurbs at the beginning of Schlock Mercenary comics, the comic book narrator, who is telling you a story. This person occasionally interjects things. You get the “But he didn’t know…” It’s this sort of thing that’s almost a hybrid first person. Right?
[Dan] Yeah. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is written that way, where the narrator is constantly commenting on things and has a very distinct voice of its own. Is not present as a character, the way first person would be, and in fact is never named, but is absolutely their own personality.
[Brandon] It’s like the editor. The editor is speaking. The other one is what I call omniscient bodyhopper.
[Brandon] Bodyhopper is… The quintessential example of this is Dune, is what I usually bring up.
[Dan] That’s what I was going to say.
[Brandon] This is where there doesn’t feel to be a present narrator, but every character’s thoughts are on display, usually with only a paragraph as a breaker between moving between viewpoints, and you’re in one… Someone’s head and then suddenly… And then Brandon thought this and then Howard thought this.
[Mary] This is one of those things that… One of the reasons it has gone out of fashion, particularly in science fiction and fantasy, is that when done poorly, it’s very, very confusing. So you will hear people talking about headhopping. This is usually when the narrator, or the author, thinks that they are writing in limited third person and slips and shows us what is going on in another character’s head and they’re not really writing in omniscient. The difference between headhopping and omniscient is often related to the way you set things up. We’re going to talk about that more in detail when we get into how to do these things. But I did want to flag that headhopping is a flaw, but the reason it’s a flaw is not because “Oh, you’re doing omniscient,” it’s because it’s confusing.
[Brandon] Yeah. You would bring up the kind of third which is one you shouldn’t be doing, which is the accidental omniscient.
[Brandon] This is the one I run across the most with my students is they aren’t conscious of the difference between limited and omniscient. They know, kind of instinctively, that you should be doing some things like this, but they’ve watched so many shows that have things like “But what they didn’t know was…” And things like that.
[Dan] Well, I think more than that is the fact that the books we are forced to study in high school English classes for the most part are omniscient, because they were written 100 years ago.
[Mary] That’s a good point.
[Dan] So the ones we’re reading for fun are one way, the ones we’re reading in school are another way, and until you learn where the lines are, you keep blending them accidentally.
[Mary] The book that I was trying to remember the name of is Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. It is clearly written in omniscient. I bounced off of it initially because I’m so trained to read tight third person, that even though she had flagged and it was very clearly omniscient, I kept going, “But why am I in someone else’s head?” So again, I just want to flag this as being a fashion thing. When you get into other forms of… Other genres, romance uses omniscient all the time, and contemporary literature uses it all the time. It is not… It is definitely not a problem.
[Howard] You’re not breaking a rule if you use it. I’d like to point out that there’s… And I think Scott Card is the one who hung the label on this, third person cinematic, which is where what we are doing is following a camera around a group of people. We’re not getting into their heads much if at all. But the point of view we have has the voice of someone who is not one of those characters. The thing that I’ve noticed in some student writing and in a lot of first draft is that often we want to open with an establishing shot, and the establishing shot will be written in third person cinematic. There isn’t anybody who’s seeing… None of the characters are seeing what it is you are describing. You are describing a setting for me as if you are a camera. That’s third person cinematic.
[Brandon] That’s actually a tool you can use. The Wheel of Time, every book starts with a third person cinematic zoom in, almost more present narrator. You’re not sure, but it’s an omniscient moment in those books.
[Mary] Guy Gavriel Kay uses this to wonderful effect for establishing atmosphere and general geography before he gets deep into a scene.
[Dan] For the most part, cinematic is best employed as a tool, here and there. Because it runs the risk, because you never enter anyone’s head, of distancing you from the characters. It can be done in an entire novel, but it’s rare.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. You were going to tell us about Zen Cho’s book.
[Mary] Yes. So we’ve talked about Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown before, which I love. But the reason I’m bringing it up now is because she deploys both omniscient third person and limited third person in the book, and she goes very smoothly back and forth between the two. It is… It’s written as if it’s in the early 1800s, so she’s using the omniscient to give you the sense of that style, the voice. But then she’s catering to a contemporary audience by going into limited third when she needs to. She uses both of them, I think, to very good effect. It’s beautifully written. She has nailed the voice on that. So it’s a really good example to look at what those two styles do, and how to use them both as a tool, and the way you can actually use both of them in the same book.
[Brandon] Excellent. Let’s talk about limited, then.
[Mary] All right.
[Brandon] What is third person limited?
[Mary] So, third person limited is where you are limited to a single viewpoint character. You only see the things they see, you only hear and experience the things they experience. It is used because it gives you the benefits of being… Some of the benefits of first person, which we’ve talked about previously, where you can understand the character’s thoughts, those are some of the things that are included in that. But it also allows you occasionally to back the camera up just a little bit and describe things that the character might not necessarily notice. So it gives you a little bit more freedom to kind of paint the room, so to speak. As well as desc… Letting you know what’s going on inside the character’s head.
[Brandon] Usually, the big advantage that third has over first is dealing with large casts. You can jump heads when you need to third limited. Usually, if you’re going to do third limited, the way to do this is to use at least a line break. Most people use a chapter break. Some use a hybrid of the two. But you’re saying, “We are done now.” In the first paragraph, ideally the first line, the first name you mention is generally an indication that this is the person’s head you’re going to be in. If it’s not, you have to quickly disabuse us of that notion and get us in someone’s head. But then we’re in that person’s head. You can show an entirely different perspective on other characters, on events, on things another character might not know. So you can do this very large cast very easily.
[Howard] That’s the… That’s, I think, the biggest hurdle with third person limited, is switching points of view and making the transition clean and clear every time. The… That technique that Brandon mentioned. The name of the character whose point of view you have entered should be the first name you see. It is very diff… Very, very difficult to recover if it’s not the first name you see. In less there is something very stylistic, very signature in the text that would telegraph the point of view more clearly than the character’s name would.
[Brandon] I’ve had so much trouble with this on it, in alpha reads and beta reads.
[Howard] I bounce off it every time.
[Mary] We’re pattern seeking creatures, and in the absence of information, we try to fill in the gaps with whatever information we have. Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch is a really good example of a book that has multiple third person narrators, but is very, very clear about whose head you are in any given moment.
[Dan] Especially as that series goes on, and they start hopping back and forth in time, he continues to make clear “Oh, right now, we’re in the present,” and “Right now we’re in a flashback,” and so on.
[Mary] I think Red Seas Under Red Skies does that beautifully.
[Brandon] So, this has become the dominant form in science fiction and fantasy. Just like I would say the first person immediate present tense, third person limited past tense is what people default to in sci-fi fantasy. Why? Why has it become dominant? Any thoughts?
[Dan] Well, I think, partly because that’s how The Hobbit was written.
[Dan] So it’s just become part of our culture. But also, I think, what it does really well is it allows you to feel like a storyteller or like you are listening to a storyteller, who is going to say, “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” Now I’m going to tell you this entire story, and you’re going to get it all through the lens of this one character. And you get to know that character well. So there’s a strong storytelling bent to it, that just feels right.
[Mary] I’m going to go on a much more technical reason.
[Mary] I think it’s because science fiction and fantasy has to deal with infodumps.
[Mary] We have so much technical information that we need the readers to know in order to understand what’s going on in the story. That sometimes having a narrator who can just say, “Well, the warp drive was…” And just take a minute to explain the thing. It’s not necessarily something that the character would be thinking about. Now I will say that I think that the infodump is something that is often very clumsy and there are better ways to handle it, but I think that’s one of the reasons that it developed, is that early on in our genre, that was pretty much the only way to get across this kind of information.
[Brandon] See, that’s interesting to say, because I agree with that. But at the same time, omniscient seems even better at giving you infodumps because the characters don’t have to have the information, and in limited, they kind of do. At least you have to… You don’t give the infodump in the limited viewpoint that doesn’t know anything about it. Beyond that, just as an aside, though I agree with this, first person is actually… Lets you cheat on infodumps very easily because you can stick it in character voice and make it entertaining and get it in. It’s harder to do that way, but I’ve the same time, it’s like you can do a three page infodump in first person and if you do it right, the reader doesn’t know it’s been an infodump.
[Dan] Because really, that’s a character monologue, and just can be incredibly fun to write.
[Mary] Ada Palmer’s new book is… Has a ton of these, where she’s talking along and then says, “Oh, wait. Let me pause and make sure that you understand this thing.”
[Mary] It’s great. The… I was thinking about what you were just saying, and I remembered that actually the Golden Age of science fiction, but the early days of science fiction were very much driven by short fiction, and in short fiction, the fewer characters you have on the page, the easier it is to handle. I wonder if that was…
[Brandon] Yeah, that could totally have something to do with it. I also wonder if like the rise of television and movies have done this, where it seems like you’re watching your television show and it’s like, now we’re here with this person, now we’re here with this person, now we’re here with this person. Third limited actually best mimics that in book form, in this sort of now we’re in his head and we get his story and you’re allowed to kind of do this epic scope by now we’re jumping all the way across the world to this person, and it may be driven by that. I’m not sure.
[Dan] Let’s not forget, we mentioned this already, but third person limited really is kind of this beautiful hybrid of omniscient and first, where you get to see everything, but you also get to know the character really well and intimately. That is its own reward, I think, in a lot of ways.
[Howard] Any time you ask, “Why is a thing this way?” we are going to construct a narrative that supports something that we love. I personally think that one of the reasons we see books that are written in a diff… In a given way, is because the books that the authors are reading tend to be written that way. If you want to write something that isn’t in third person limited, you gotta read some stuff that’s not written in third person limited. When I see something like Alyssa Wong’s Nebula winner, You’ll Surely Drown If You Stay, is written in second person present tense. I never would have thought to write something like that.
[Mary] Holy cow, it is. I did not notice that when I was reading it, because I was just “So pretty.”
[Howard] Yes, it’s beautiful and it’s brilliant and it’s pretty, but until I had read something like that, I didn’t even have an idea in my head of how it could be done. So the question of why do we write in given ways… We can argue until we are blue in the face about what the various advantages are, but experimenting and reading something that’s just weird is a really good tool.
[Brandon] It’s very interesting to me, as kind of an armchair historian of the epic fantasy genre, and science fiction to a lesser extent, seeing how this has developed. Because back in the 80s, you will find books that have like what we would call viewpoint errors all over the place. They’re third limited, it’s starting to develop, but once in a while, you’re in someone else’s viewpoint unexpectedly. There’s one or two paragraphs in Ender’s Game that are from Bean’s viewpoint, out of nowhere. The Hobbit is Bilbo writing this story down, and occasionally has these moments of what Bilbo didn’t know yet, but he’s writing about himself as a… Then it eventually kind of stabilizes in the 90s, may be driven by the Wheel of Time’s popularity. As Howard was saying, it’s what we were reading, a lot of us, so we just end up reading it a lot and refining it in epic fantasy into this thing that’s become more rigid than it used to be. It’s very interesting for me to look at.
[Mary] I also actually wonder with that, is like, how much of it is from the rise of fanfiction and writing groups. Of people saying, “Yeah, this is really confusing. I don’t know who is thinking that.” And people just started to make it easier, so…
[Howard] It’s entirely possible. One of the things that’s growing out of this, and this is a little bit of meta-discussion. Here we are, beginning our second month of season 12, and we’re talking a little bit about the things that you read influence the things that you write. The voices you listen to affect the things that you write, and I’m really looking forward to what comes out of our student body, for lack of a better word, this year because they’re going to be getting so many different voices behind these microphones.
[Brandon] Well, I think we’re going to call it here. We’re going to give you some homework. My homework for you this week is the same as last month’s homework, except now with third person. I want you to take the same passage that you may have written in limited, and try the two different forms of omniscient. Try the one that there’s like a narrator that’s able to say, “What they didn’t know…” and things like this, and try the one where you’re just body hopping with every paragraph. Or take something you’ve written in omniscient, and try it in cinematic. Try it in limited. I want you to experiment with these tools and find out how they go. We will be back next week with the Chicago team where we’ll be talking really about how to describe and do description through the lens of a third person narrator. We’re really excited again to have you guys with us for season 12. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.