Who Is This “Third Person” Anyhow?

I have decided to write a new project, which I am going to be doing far differently than my previous novels. For a number of reasons I want to push outside of my comfort zone and try something new.

One way in which this will be different is that I am writing it in the third person.  Already, though, I have run into a snag, which is something that I have never seen anyone discuss before.  So maybe it’s just me.

I don’t know who this Third Person is.

It sounds funny when I say it like that, but it’s a real problem for me.  I’ll try to explain. When I write, I am acutely aware of the narrator’s perceptions of reality.  Who we are determines what we see.

Suppose that I am writing a scene of a person walking down a city street.  How I describe that scene is going to depend entirely on who is seeing it.  A native of the city isn’t going to notice the same things as a stranger.  Someone in the construction trade is going to see the buildings differently, an automotive mechanic is going to see the cars differently, a fashion designer will see the people’s clothes differently.  All of these things show up in how the scene is written.

Suppose the character comes to a stop outside a particular shop.  Is it:

That old junk store on 5th that had to be a front for something.

Or

An ugly building that seemed to held up by the dirt caked on the front windows.

Or


Beside a cab idling uneasily by a fire hydrant.

Or

In the shade of a tattered awning that advertised whatever it was that used to be here.

These are all valid descriptions of a rather rundown section of city, but they all tell paint a different picture of who it is that is describing the scene.  Deciding which details to include and which to ignore is a big part of how I give the reader a feel for my narrator.  I don’t have him say, “I am a loner who can’t relate well to other people”, I show it by describing the cracks of the sidewalk in detail while only describing the people walking by in vague terms.  I want my reader to get to know my narrator by seeing the world through his eyes.

Writing in the third person doesn’t give me the same access to a character’s perceptions.  Granted, most (maybe all) of this book will be from the Point Of View of a particular character, but using “she” instead of “I” means that someone other than the character is describing the action.

I don’t have a good handle on who that someone is.  And that keeps tripping me up.

Does that make any sense at all to anyone?

I don’t usually ask for comments, but in this case I would really like some feedback on this issue, so please, any thoughts that you have would be greatly appreciated.

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About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
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25 Responses to Who Is This “Third Person” Anyhow?

  1. I think the third person does not need to be a somebody. The narrator can simply tell the story with no introduction or explanation. Degrees of power to the third person can be granted so that the third person can explain the why as well as the how and what. My opinion.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I do see what you are saying, but I think it’s more complicated than that. Someone who isn’t anybody doesn’t have any reason to say anything, (if that makes any sense.)

      • The third person is presumably the reader’s conduit to the action. The reader gives the third person permission to tell the story with no credentials.(other than the quality of the telling) In fact, one step further is the omniscient third person who can describe feelings, thoughts and motivations of the characters without the reader being bothered with who or why the third person is doing so. Again my opinion.

      • MishaBurnett says:

        Okay, that I get. The third person narrator tells the reader what the reader wants to know. So really my issue is being able to clearly see my reader and know what she or he needs to know in order to follow the story. Thank you.

  2. Dave Higgins says:

    The narrator is always a character. In the case of third person PoV they are a different character from the protagonist, and might not feature at all other than as a narrating voice.

    I suggest starting by deciding who your narrator is, and why they are telling the story.

    Then decide if they are omniscient or not, i.e. can they narrate the contents of people’s heads or only describe actions?

  3. sknicholls says:

    That may be what is hanging you up. Is the third person omniscient? Or do you intend for this narrator to be a character who witnesses but has a passive role? It is difficult to get inside the protagonist’s head…and the heads of others without the omniscient perspective.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      With an omniscient narrator there is still the problem of choosing what to say–otherwise I could fill a hundred thousand words describing a single moment of time and never tell any story at all. What I need is a cohesive determinant function for sifting details.

      • sknicholls says:

        I think the reader learns a lot more about the author and the author’s perception of the world around them in third person than in first. In first you are writing “in character” even though you are saying I and me, whereas in third, your own mind and your own perceptions become that determinant factor, an element that identifies or determines the nature of something or that fixes or conditions an outcome.

      • MishaBurnett says:

        And that’s also true. I suspect that part of my reluctance is that it feels more “naked” to write without having a particular character to speak through.

  4. Sue says:

    Your questions make perfect sense since I still have problems with POV. I gather your books are in first person Your On the Road story was in 3rd limited or whatever one calls it. So everything was how she perceived it.

    Now it appears you’re talking in third omniscient – with an actual narrator. A style of writing that these days is out of fashion, I gather but still useful. It avoids head hopping, something I am intimately acquainted with.

    Omniscient still allows for showing and which description you use is entirely up to you. You, the author is the narrator.

    In a piece I’m working on for my writing group where I often “tell” a story simply out of laziness, I will be naming the narrator.

    I disagree with Dave. That narrator does not have to be a character in the story.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I don’t think third person narrators are out of fashion–in fact, most of the books I see these days are written in the third person, which is why I wrote the short piece as I did.

      • Sue says:

        yes – third limited – we only know what’s going on in her head. Omniscent gives the author the freedom to get into everyone’s head without head-hopping which is frowned upon

    • Dave Higgins says:

      We might be disagreeing because we are using terms slightly differently.

      If do not mean the narrator must be a person from the perspective of the characters in the book; I mean that even an omniscient narrator has a personality and voice that influences how they tell the story, and a purpose in telling it that influences which details they tell. Even if the narrator is the author, they become part of the story by telling it.

      While detailing the narrator character is not necessary to write well, it can help deal with issues of PoV &c. to note the voice and goal of the narrator.

  5. LindaGHill says:

    I would say the third person is you. It’s up to you to decide how you want the reader to see what the character is seeing – the trick is to not insert your own opinions, but rather the opinions of the character. Imagine you are a storyteller, telling your tale to a group of people around a campfire, and the story is so intense and so captivating and your listeners are so wrapped up in the story that they forget who is telling it. THAT is your third person.

  6. kingmidget says:

    Even though you’re telling the story in third person you can still slant it towards the perspective of one of the characters, or shift the perspective between characters. There are different third person points of view. One is limited, where you tell the story in third person from the perspective of one character. Another is omniscient, where the perspective changes from character to character, while remaining in third person.
    I go back and forth between first person and third person, depending on the story I’m writing. The advantage of first person for me is that you can spend a lot of time in one character’s head. The story is really about that character’s experiences in the world. The disadvantage is that it makes it difficult to tell the story of other characters. Which is the advantage of third person — you can get into other characters, their perspective, their thoughts, etc.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I understand about using third person to get into the heads of the characters, but a third person narrator who uses the POV of a main character still isn’t the same “person” as that character telling the story in first person.

  7. My early attempts at novels were all written in ‘Third Person’ and that is where I really began to find my voice. I found the best way was to be the character, but tell it as if the character was remembering their adventures at a later date; as an older person, but without knowing what was to come. That way I would observe the world as they saw it, keeping in character, but having the freedom to pull back and observe with a wider angle lens.

  8. Sometimes I think of the narrator as the dreamer – this is HIS dream, his story that he’s telling. As such, he can do with it whatever he wants. The characters in the story belong to the narrator, so they are all in a sense twice removed from me.

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