Nov 17 2008

Common Problems with Third-Person Narration

We’ve already discussed why beginning writers tend to struggle with first-person narration, but third-person narration has its own share of problems.

1.  A third-person narration that tries to immerse readers in the perspectives of too many characters will probably feel flitty.  As a rule, a third-person scene shouldn’t give us internal thoughts from more than one character.  Even switching between two characters’ minds tends to disorient readers.

2.  A third-person narrator can’t get us as close to the perspective of an abnormal or misled character.  For example, if the main character has false memories or amnesia, a first-person narration will probably help us stay on his page.  Similarly, if the story has a lot of misinformation, such as false memories or amnesia or deception, then first-person narration will probably help us keep track of what the narrator knows/thinks.

3.  Third-person stories usually do a better job explaining what characters do and say.  For example, a third-person narrator can add context clues like “he lied” that typically aren’t available to a first-person narrator.  However, third-person stories are usually more limited when it comes to showing us what the characters are thinking. If you’d like to write a story where the main character’s thought processes are critical (like Flowers for Algernon), I’d recommend avoiding third-person.

4.  Many third-person narrators get lost in the perspectives of characters that are not very interesting.  See Harry Turtledove.

5.  Third-person narration typically marks off character thoughts by italicizing them.  That means that long passages from the character’s mind will probably look unpleasant.  In contrast, a first-person narrator is freer to discuss his thoughts at length.

15 responses so far

15 Responses to “Common Problems with Third-Person Narration”

  1. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 16 Apr 2009 at 5:09 am

    Since I began rewriting in third person, I’ve noticed these things:

    It’s easier to characterize. Before, when it was in Isaac’s perspective, at that was seen were his opinions. It’s less biased now.

    I can put in details he wouldn’t notice. Things like the exact temperature of a room, how many cars there were in a line; stuff that a person wouldn’t bother to notice.

    It’s easier with the tenses. In first person, I kept confusing myself and putting “is” and “was” in inappropriate places.

  2. Lunajamniaon 16 Apr 2009 at 5:22 am

    #1–yeah. I never have more than two character’s perspectives, and I’m trying to keep it to one but it’s really hard because “what if they-the readers-want to see what’s happening over here? But then I’ll have to add a perspective!”

    #5–true, but my characters’ thoughts usually aren’t that long at all. I mean, the italicized in-my-head thoughts.

  3. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 16 Apr 2009 at 5:59 am

    I have a question. I use italics for thoughts and emphasized words. If there is an emphasized word inside a thought, should it be in capital letters* or in normal font**?

    “What am I thinking? There’s NO WAY I’ll clear that jump!”

    “What am I thinking? There’s no way I’ll clear that jump!”

    Also, when there is a radio or TV on, I write the voices on it in underlined, italicized text. Would that be okay? I don’t think it looks jarring or unpleasant; it’s just for the purpose of diversifying thoughts from sounds of outside sources.

  4. B. Macon 16 Apr 2009 at 6:05 am

    If you want to emphasize something in a block of italics, the standard way to do so is to unitalicize it.

    There is no way I’ll clear that jump!

    I’ve seen a few authors that italicize TVs and radios. I don’t think that will be a huge problem, particularly if it’s buried a few chapters in. However, please do not underline the text; nothing in a novel gets underlined.

  5. Lunajamniaon 16 Apr 2009 at 6:06 am

    ^ I learned another useful thing today! Thanks, B. Mac.

  6. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 16 Apr 2009 at 6:35 am

    Okay, thanks!

  7. Grenacon 07 Jul 2011 at 11:45 am

    Which third-person voice should I use? Subjective or Limited? I always thought third person should be subjective, but now I have no clue.

  8. Crystalon 07 Jul 2011 at 1:12 pm

    It really depends on your story; what sounds best to you. Try out a few passages of your story in each point of view and see if there’s a difference.
    I don’t know what Subjective is, but I’m assuming that it’s the same as third person omniscient (where the narrator describes the thoughts and reactions of all the characters). You might want to use this voice if you have a lot of characters whose thoughts are important to the story.
    Alternatively, you can use third person limited in almost any situation, for example, if the other characters know things that you don’t want the reader to know.

    Sorry if this didn’t make sense; I’m having trouble putting this into words. 🙂

  9. Mynaon 07 Jul 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Huh… my Camp NaNo is in third person, but per scene I tend to stick with one characters thoughts/descriptions at a time (which is a bit of a pain because the MC is blind so it’s hard to describe things when I’m with her.) There are three main characters I do this with, and then occasionally with other characters if necessary. I’m hoping that’s workable ’cause in this novel there are so many subplots and extra pieces of info that even sticking to two main 1st person POV’s wouldn’t get half of the story. o-o

  10. Grenacon 08 Jul 2011 at 8:31 pm

    Well, I read somewhere that having too many people’s thoughts will confuse readers. Would it be alright to sort of break the characters spotlight every few chapters? There’ll be only 5 main charas who’s thoughts are important.

    I’ve tried going with Limited, but I always end up slipping back to Subjective.

  11. B. Macon 08 Jul 2011 at 9:05 pm

    “Would it be alright to sort of break the characters’ spotlight every few chapters? There’ll be only 5 main characters whose thoughts are important.” Hmm. Personally, that would disorient me a bit, rotating between 5 points of view.

    Are all of these characters so important that they need point-of-view? (IE: Could you convey some of their thoughts without making them point-of-view characters? Dialogue and action are usually sufficient).

  12. Grenacon 08 Jul 2011 at 11:24 pm

    Well the story centers around five girls and each one has to deal with some sort of problem in their life and the grief they carry with them as a result. I actually have to dig into their thoughts for this story. So I guess I’d have to use the omniscient POV. When I started typing it just came out through Ianthe’s POV. I usually have a hard time with either adding too much or not enough with POVs or accidentally going with one character.

  13. Grenacon 15 Jul 2011 at 2:08 pm

    I want to experiment Deep POV for this story. I was trying out different narrative styles and Deep POV just keeps slipping in.

  14. Melanieon 13 Jun 2012 at 8:38 pm

    I’m a little confused by this. I was told that you CAN open a window to characters thoughts in third person. Obviously if we can see reactions, and emotion, all the better, but a sort of “internal dialog” at it’s basest level is ok, or so i thought.

  15. Edgukatoron 13 Jun 2012 at 10:16 pm

    @Melanie – I’m not one of the experts here, so take my opinion for what its worth. The general rule in storytelling is “Show, don’t tell”… but having said that some of the most famous pieces of storytelling are “told” throughout (take most mythology and the bible, for example).

    As far as you can do this, you can’t do that, I think so long as you set up the rules for your narrator and you keep those rules consistent, it’s really just a question of narrative voice. Like B. Mac says in rule number one, if you use an omniscient narrator, it can be confusing to the reader to have all the internal monologue and motivations from every single character handed to them. But if you are only letting us in the mind of one character, then why choose 3rd person at all?

    I think it’s a question of consistency. If you set it up that your floating narrator only has access to the thoughts of characters x, y and z, it can be disconcerting to suddenly hear the thoughts of the arch-villain, or worse still, it may just come off as artificial. Do we suddenly hear the internal thoughts of a character just so you can reveal a plot point? Is there another way we could discover this? Or better yet, can it go undiscovered and still make sense?

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