Third person POV allows you to see the big picture, yes, but it also provides all the telescoping necessary to zoom in for interior thoughts and feelings. Those deep perspectives can even color the nature of the prose.
Let’s take a look at an excerpt from Edward Stewart's 1978 novel, Ballerina, chosen for the way Stewart so seamlessly tightens his lens from a wide establishing shot, to the character's immediate actions, and all the way into her unspoken thoughts. These contiguous paragraphs are taken from the first page of the novel. Stewart writes in the third person, but as you read, think: How would these passages differ if written in first person?
Paragraph 4: The big picture (wide angle)
The last bell sounded. Stragglers came drifting back to their seats. At two hundred and fifty dollars a ticket, you didn’t hurry. The theater was packed with society, ballet potentates, celebrities. Conversation buzzed like a hive of excited hornets.Wow. Not one change necessary for first person.
Paragraph 5: Actions specific to character (zooming in)
The house lights dimmed. Anna pulled in her knees to let people squeeze past. A jeweled dowager glanced at her curiously, probably wondering why she was alone, why she’d spent intermission in her seat.By swapping in a few pronouns, you could easily switch this to first person.
Paragraph 6: Interior thoughts (deep focus)
I’ll tell you why, Mrs. Whoever-you-are: because it’s taken me a lifetime to get this far, and I’m not taking any chances on slippery stairs or falling chandeliers. This is the moment I’ve lived my life for, and I’m damned well going to stay alive for it.Here Stewart has fully entered the psyche of the character. Again, no change needed.
Whether in third person or first person, this telescoping technique will add depth and shading to your story. It can work against expectation: third person can telescope in for the deep POV so prevalent in today’s fiction, and first person can telescope out to provide relief from living non-stop in someone else’s head.
With this tool at your disposal, you need not base your POV adoption on a desire for deep POV or psychic distance. What else can help you determine the best POV? Consider:
- The way POV can contribute to meaning. In Ballerina, Anna is “watching” to see if her daughter can make it in the dance world in a way Anna herself could not. Utilizing third person POV, we are watching as well—and, watching Anna watch.
- How many points of view will you require to tell your story? Multiple first person POVs—say, beyond two—can be difficult for the reader to track. Jodi Picoult, in My Sister’s Keeper, employed so many first person points of view—seven!—that the publisher used different typefaces to help cue the reader. Yet it worked, because Picoult’s story benefitted from the way her characters shared, in their own words, how they were personally impacted by the story events.
- The feel of the story. Is this a big story, with plot powering up in segments all over the world (told best in third person, perhaps, or in first person through the eyes of a detached narrator)? Or is it an intimate character study, whose copious interior monologue would seem to hijack the book if told in third person?
- Does the protagonist die? That’s hard to pull off in the first person (although I tried in an eighth grade short story, lol, by cutting suddenly to the sheriff’s POV).
There are many reasons to settle on a certain POV, and as storyteller, the prerogative is yours. If you practice telescoping your point of view, however, as Stewart demonstrates here, you’ll be able to tell your story more effectively, no matter what your choice.
How did you decide the POV for your work-in-progress?
Kathryn Craft is an author of women's fiction and memoir who specializes in developmental editing at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."