The Art of Narrative: Third Person


Continuing with our analogy between narrative points of view in fiction and a football match, we can see that, once we step off the pitch, quite a bit changes.

While taking the point of view of the ball, we were following the game from a single viewpoint but one which was very much at the receiving end of the action, bounced to and fro and hardly able to put anything in context. This relates to the stream of consciousness writing style, in which the emphasis is on the interior, constantly shifting and partially disconnected world of a character.

Taking on the viewpoint of a player, we observed that this was very much like the first person narrative viewpoint in which the entire ‘game’ is viewed only through the eyes and emotions of one person.

The third person point of view tells the story from outside its framework.The narrator is someone who is not a character in the story being told. The writer uses the pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘they’ to refer to all the characters. This is by far the most common point of view in fiction. It gives the writer the freedom to focus on different people, events, and places as he or she chooses, without being limited within the perspective of a single character.

There are a couple of variations in third person narratives, depending on how far removed the narrator is from the events of the story, and how much the narrator knows about each character. Perhaps the most common kind of this narrative is what is known as Third Person Omniscient (All-knowing) Point of View, which means that the narrator knows all the thoughts and feelings of every character and can move in and out of the the internal life of any or all of them, as required. As readers, we fall into the arms of the writer, who simply tells the story to us from ‘off stage’, without restricting what is told to us except by his or her own desire, if you like. This is the football match from the manager’s bench, observed and described - and at least partly consciously controlled — by that manager.

Third Person Limited Point of View is the variation in which the writer may have access to the thoughts and feelings of one character, or none at all, following one character closely and conveying that character's thoughts and feelings (but not the thoughts and feelings of others). It’s similar to first person, bit without using first person pronouns like ‘I’.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is an example of a Third Person Omniscient piece: the tale is told by the author, who can jump into any of the character’s points of view or none, relaying the events of the story either through their viewpoints or directly to us as readers. That Tolkien carefully concentrates the presentation of the story through the hobbits is a slight modification — he has chosen to convey the epic events through a set of characters who more closely relate to the reader than anyone else in the tale. But we see events through other eyes at times too.

If Tolkien had restricted everything in the narrative so that we could only ever experience events through the character of Frodo, for example, he would have been telling a tale using Third Person Limited Point of View. Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories are an example of stories told in this way — we are not ‘in Bond’s head’ as we would be if Fleming had used first person, but neither do we leap from character to character in his adventures.

Third Person Omniscient can get very omniscient indeed. In Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the author attempts to tell the whole grand tale of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, using the sweep of historical events as details in his story, occasionally stepping back from history into the realms of philosophy to make his point. At the same time, he is able to zoom right in to an individual’s character’s mind and heart, relating how things appear and feel from various characters’s viewpoints on an intimate level, at times approaching the closeness of stream of consciousness.

The analogical equivalent to that, in our football parallel, might be a drone camera, capable of giving us a whole match perspective, and even after match commentary, while also being able to fly down to the level of the ball to observe events ‘first-hand’.

The trick is not to fall for these methods of telling a story as anything other than that — methods. Stream of consciousness, first person, third person — they are all tools for the writer. If you want to tell a story in which the focus is on the subjective experiences of a character, use a stream of consciousness approach; if you would like to guide the reader along a particular path without giving away too much and if the power of your story is on revelations arising from the reader not knowing too much, first person narrative might be useful; and if you want to make a more didactic point, or move the reader not only along a specific track but more widely through themes and settings, third person narrative would be useful. The key is to determine what effect you are desiring to create.

In the case of Tolstoy, the combination of almost-stream-of-consciousness all the way through to almost total omniscience produces one of the grandest novels ever written — but similarly, Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, told from a stream of consciousness point of view alone, ranks as one of the most poetic novels in English.

The football game is just an analogy — but it might help you to see where you are as a reader when reading different styles of work: either up in the stands, perhaps with the post-match commentators, getting a total overview of everything, or down with the manager, engaged in trying to direct and control the game, or with a particular player, more directly experiencing the thing, or perhaps bouncing around with the ball, vicariously sharing the motion and action without much context.

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