#114: Exploring Third-Person Point of View

Dear Story Nurse,

I need some help loosening my grip on tight third person point of view. I write mostly fanfic, and tight third works well for shorter works, but I find that it breaks down in longer works. Most of the time, I work around it by occasionally changing POV at scene transitions or chapter breaks.

This leads to confusion for some readers because tight third, at least the way I use it, almost axiomatically creates narrators as unreliable (just in different ways) as first person POV does. First person is culturally coded as unreliable, so readers tend to question what the narrator is omitting or being misleading about. Third person, on the other hand, carries the implication that there isn’t a person withholding information or not understanding what they’re experiencing/observing.

When I write tight third, different POV characters have very different ideas about what the things they see and do mean and make assumptions about what other people think, feel, and intend. Any particular character’s section may contain major conflicts with other characters’ sections.

I like writing this way and enjoy reading things written this way, but the comments I’ve gotten have made me think about the fact that I can write tight third and first but not omniscient third or even a more distant third. I would like to figure out how to approach those.

Thanks!

—Anne (she/her)

Dear Anne,

Learning new writing skills is usually valuable (unless you’re doing it to procrastinate), but I want to caution you against thinking that you have to change the way you write because it doesn’t work for a few readers. If you’re happy writing tight third and you’re reaching at least some readers who seem to really get what you’re doing with it, it may make more sense to work on setting reader expectations around reliability of narrators in that context. For example, you can switch POV more frequently so that the differences between two people’s experiences of a situation show up earlier and establish that this is a thing that can and will happen in your stories, or have side characters argue with your POV characters about how they’re interpreting events, so as to remind readers that the POV character is not infallible. And remember that nothing you write will reach or please every single person who reads it, so you’re best off continuing to write what makes you happy.

But that’s not what you asked! So for general tips on writing looser third-person fiction, read on.

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#43: Describing Your Viewpoint Character

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m currently writing a story in first person POV and I’m finding it extremely difficult to describe my main character because of it. What are some strategies for getting across character description to the audience in a way that is not cliche?

—Noelle (she/her)

Dear Noelle,

This is a delicious technical question that I’m very happy to sink my teeth into. First-person POV can be a lot of fun but it also definitely presents some challenges, and one of those is conveying who’s speaking without a clunky or clichéd paragraph of self-description.

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#33: Balancing Commercial and Artistic Demands

Dear Story Nurse,

How do you know if the story you’re telling honestly needs more than one POV?

I’m working on a sequel under contract and deadline to a fantasy novel. I wrote the first novel with one POV, in first person. Now for the sequel, I have a different protagonist (she was in the first book, as a character with antagonistic goals to her beloved brother, who was the protagonist of the first book) and there’s just some things about the world and the situation that she doesn’t know.

But another character from the first book has direct experience with the parts that my planned protagonist doesn’t, and her journey is really interesting. The characters are… rivals who become allies. They’re on opposite sides politically, and come together in the end to save everything.

But I’ve heard that if you write the first book as 1 character in 1st, you have to stick to that narrative model because that’s what readers expect, and switching to 2 characters in 3rd or 2 characters in 1st is a bad idea. But every time I look at what’s happening with my planned protagonist’s rival, it’s just so interesting.

I’ve only ever written romances when it comes to stories with two POV characters. How do I know when I need more than one POV in a story where romance between the characters is not happening?

—oenanthe (they/them)

Dear oenanthe,

You’ve already answered your own question: you as a writer are telling yourself that you need more than one POV to tell the story you want to tell. That matters far more than some vague gossip someplace about what readers can or can’t tolerate. But I don’t think that’s actually the question you have. Going by the rest of your letter, the question underneath your question is: “Am I allowed as a commercial writer to do the thing I want to do as an artist?”

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#30: Whose Story Is It Anyway?

Dear Story Nurse,

I am a mostly-fan sometimes-original fiction author who generally has a clear idea about plot and story beats and so on, but an issue with an unfinished NaNo project has me a bit stumped. It’s original fiction, a time-travel transhumanist romance between characters whose first names conveniently start with A, B, and C.

For the first part of the story, our point-of-view character is B, a female graduate student who has been sent to the distant past and who hooks up with A, a man of some privilege there. She makes a copy of his brain pattern on her computer (with his consent) and returns to C, her genderqueer ex, who helps her load up A’s mind on a computer. Eventually, A will be restored to a physical form with science magic and they will all live happily ever after together, but before I can write that I have to figure out a very basic question: Whose point of view do I write the next section of the story in?

I’ve written everything so far from B’s POV and I intended to write the rest of the story that way, but there’s a lot going on between A and C that she won’t be witness to. On the other hand, it could be that all of C’s diagnostics aren’t actually interesting or relevant to the story. I’d almost decided to write the next section in A’s POV, but something inside me is rebelling!

What can I do to narrow down my options and figure out why I am hesitant to commit to an actor for my next few thousand words?

Thank you!

—Aris Merquoni (she/her)

Dear Aris Merquoni,

Questions about point of view are really questions about what story you’re telling. If you’re not sure whether to switch POV, you may not be sure what your story is. Is it B’s story, or is it A, B, and C’s story?

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