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How to Write a Novel: Point of View 3

Third Person Point of View

The previous posts have defined first person, second person, cinematic and omniscient point of view. This post will continue looking at third person point of view, this time focusing on what is most commonly seen in modern fiction: inner limited and deep perspective.

Inner Limited

Third person inner limited puts the reader in the position of observing the action through the eyes and thoughts of a single character. It’s much like first person, but written in the grammatical third person language of he/she and his/her. Note that the reader can only know the thoughts of the point of view character: unless the character is a mindreader, the character can only observe the actions of the other characters in the scene. This is the viewpoint favoured in modern fiction:

Princess Elizabeth sat waiting in the Royal quarters of the Tower of London. She knew she should be grateful she hadn’t been placed in a typical prison cell. At least the walls of the Royal apartment were covered in fine tapestries to keep the heat in, there was a large fire to fight London’s cold winter, and the food was as fine as any she had eaten in her Hatfield home: freshly cooked and still warm when it was served to her. She sat, bored, thinking of her half-sister Mary, the Catholic Queen who was now her enemy.

This example is rather distant, in that the reader is watching a scene rather than being drawn into that scene. The reader can see some of what is going on inside Elizabeth’s head, but words like ‘thinking’ inject narrative distance and remind us that this is just a story. This technique has some uses in modern fiction (like cinematic point of view), but can feel distant if used for an entire novel as it fails to engage the emotions of the reader. The solution to this is a deep and more intimate third person point of view, almost like first person.

Deep Perspective

Modern readers favour a more intimate third person (especially in genres such as romance and women’s fiction), as this pulls the reader into the scene and provides a degree of narrative intimacy more like first person:

She sat, drumming her fingers on the desk. These might be the Royal quarters, befitting her station as Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King Henry VIII, but it was still the Tower of London, still a prison. She gazed around the room. Perhaps the view had changed. No. Still the same wall hangings, showing that awful hunting scene. The poor stag. It hadn’t deserved to meet that grisly end at the hands of her father. That was back when he was married to Catherine of Aragon, before he split from the Roman Catholic church to divorce Catherine and marry Elizabeth’s mother.

At least the fire was warm and the food was as good as at home in Hatfield. Deep breath. What to do? There were no new books, nothing to sew and no one to talk to until the guard arrived with dinner. It was luxury compared with the hovels most people lived in, but it was still prison. A gilded prison, so here she sat, waiting upon the pleasure of her half-sister Mary, the Catholic Queen. Her enemy.

The reader should be able to feel Elizabeth’s boredom and impatience. If this was done really well, the reader would also be able to sense Elizabeth’s underlying fear: that she may have to die in order for Mary to secure her throne. That is the beauty of deep perspective: done well, it shows us things the character themselves may not even be aware of. But the example above also shows one of the problems of deep perspective. It takes more words to show than to simply tell (184 words compared to a mere 65 for the cinematic example).

To better understand deep perspective point of view, I recommend Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View, by Jill Elizabeth Nelson, a well-known Christian fiction author. It is short (63 pages), but well worth reading. It is available at www.Amazon.com for around USD 5.99, and can be read either on a Kindle e-reader, or on your PC by downloading the free application.

The next question is which point of view to use. This will be the subject of my next post.

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