Third Person

When you write in the third person, the author, rather than a character, takes on the narrator's role. There is no I or me in third person, except in dialogue. All of the characters, including the protagonist, are he, she, and they, as in this example from my story, No Wildflowers:

That spring there were no wildflowers and the grass did not turn green. Every day Sarah scanned the huge blue Oklahoma sky for signs of rain. Occasionally a small white cloud, like a bit of dandelion fluff, would blow by, but nothing more.

Sarah dreamed of home in Virginia, where weeping willows on the creek banks greeted the season with their pale green. Next the world would turn yellow with daffodils and forsythia, then pink and white with azaleas and apple blossoms.

Each morning, while Sarah was dreaming, her husband Rob drove off to the Army post. He was a first lieutenant, paying back the military for putting him through college, and he had two more long, bleak years to go. Sarah attempted to amuse herself until he returned at dinnertime by reading big stacks of romances from the post library, or trying chocolate soufflé recipes she clipped from magazines, or nursing the wilting pansies in the garden she'd scratched into the front lawn of the rented house. For company she had Velvet the cat.

Her violin stayed in its case in the closet, neglected and silent. Sarah tried to ignore the vague sense of guilt that welled up when she thought about practicing and decided, as she always did, Not today.

A third person narrative gives you a larger playing field. You can operate on a grander scale, with greater flexibility. You can be in two places at once. You can take your reader inside the minds of more than one character, presenting each person's unique perspective on the story's issues and events. The tradeoff is that you sometimes sacrifice the high level of intimacy and the ease of reader identification that a first person narrative affords.

Although there are many subtle variations to the third person point of view, it offers a writer three main options:

• Limited or restricted third person. This is similar to first person in that there is one specific viewpoint character. We see the action through his eyes and are privy to his thoughts, and no one else's.

• Multiple points of view. In a multiple viewpoint story, we take turns looking through the eyes of two or more viewpoint characters. In this way we gain a more complete understanding of the characters and also of the story's events and issues.

The usual way to handle multiple viewpoints is to assign each character certain scenes. When you have decided to which character a scene belongs, make sure you stay in that viewpoint from the beginning of the scene to the end. Occasionally an author mixes first person and third in a multiple viewpoint story, using the first person to signal the protagonist's scenes.

• Omniscient point of view. Here the author is not only the narrator but becomes, in a sense, the viewpoint character as well. The author does not actually appear in the story, of course, but describes the events based on his knowledge of the characters, events, and issues with which the story deals. Because the author knows everything (that's what omniscient means), there are no restrictions. You can describe what's going on at every place and at every moment. You can be inside every character's head, showing each individual's observations, thoughts, feelings, and actions.

The omniscient viewpoint may appear to be the easiest to handle, but it has its own pitfalls. It can sometimes degen erate into an attempt to give everyone's point of view at once. Jump around too much from one character's head to another, and your readers are likely to become distracted or befuddled rather than enlightened. The Life of the Party on page 53 is deliberately presented this way to provide a basis for writing exercises. Read it as an example of the omniscient viewpoint misused.

This approach can also be more distancing. Readers may have difficulty figuring out which character to identify with. The author's commentary, coming from beyond the story, can seem intrusive, pulling readers out of the moment and destroying the immediacy of the story. The omniscient viewpoint requires skill and care equal to the others.

• Limited omniscient viewpoint. This sounds like a contradiction in terms. How can you be limited if you know everything? I tend to think of it as the ten-degrees-over viewpoint: While we as readers are inside the character's head, we are also outside of it, standing about ten degrees away. With this approach the writer allows us to discern subtleties about the character that would not come through in a strictly limited first person narrative:

The first call came on Wednesday evening as Dorothy Ann washed up the plate and pot she'd used for her supper. Through the small, square window over the sink she was watching the last streak of orange fade from the sooty sky.

At the the third ring she sighed, dropped the sudsy rag into the water and shuffled over to the phone on the far kitchen wall. "Hello," she said into the black receiver.

"I love you," said the voice at the other end.

"Hello?" she repeated. "Who is this?" But the only response was a click and the dial tone's buzz.

Dorothy Ann is the sole viewpoint character in this story. The reader sees the events only from her perspective; we never hear another character's thoughts except as they are expressed out loud to Dorothy Ann herself. Yet at the same time that readers are in her head, listening to her thoughts, we are seeing her from a slight remove. Take the shuffle in her gait, for instance;

we notice it, but it is unlikely that she herself thinks of her walk in quite that way.

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