Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Narrative Viewpoint: Third-Person Ugly

In the final installment of my series on Narrative Viewpoint: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, I’d like to talk about the “viewpoint” that annoys me the most. In fact, I question whether it’s even a legitimate narrative point-of-view at all. It’s what I call “third-person ugly”—not quite third-person limited or third-person omniscient, but some monstrous thing in between.

This "narrative viewpoint" is downright monstrous!
This thing creeps up on you. There is no obvious omniscient narrator or storyteller that signals to the reader that the story is told from the third-person omniscient point-of-view. No, this one, at first blush, looks and feels like third-person limited, one of the best narrative viewpoints. For those who missed my last post, in third-person limited each scene is told through a single character’s point-of-view. The reader can only experience the scene from that character’s vantage and the only internal thoughts the reader is privy to belong to that single viewpoint character. The author isn’t prohibited from switching viewpoints to that of other characters, but these shifts only happen after a scene break or chapter break. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels are examples of this viewpoint done to perfection.

Understand third-person: read George R.R. Martin!
In the ugly version of third-person, however, the story begins with a scene from a single character’s point-of-view, just like third-person limited, but then mid-scene—without warning—the viewpoint shifts into the mind of a different character. Then it shifts back to the first character or even worse into a third or fourth character’s skull. Some might consider this another form of third-person omniscient, but it doesn’t read that way from the start, and that’s the problem.

By beginning the story in the most intimate of the third-person viewpoints, the author has made a certain covenant with the reader that, yes, this will be a third-person limited story! But then the author suddenly—and inexplicably—breaks that covenant by shattering the intimate bond between the reader and the character. Just when we thought we were getting to know the character—wham!—we’re forced into someone else’s head!

Every time I see this in a novel it reminds me of the movie The Matrix. Being in the story world is like being plugged into the Matrix through a single character’s point of view. Let’s say it’s Neo. We’re rocking along in Neo’s mind, following his actions though the story when suddenly, back on the Nebuchadnezzar, someone rips the plug out of Neo’s head and tries to plug it into Trinity’s head. For an instant we’re disconnected from the Matrix; we’ve been thrown out of the story. And as soon as we get back there, we’re wondering: What happened, who am I?

Don't unplug the reader from the Matrix!
Of course, so long as the story is otherwise well-written, I suppose we can sometimes overlook these unexpected viewpoint shifts. But the effect is still jarring, which makes me question how in the world this can ever be a good thing.

So here’s my view: Unless a writer is going to risk everything with a true third-person omniscient point-of-view—and I mean risk everything since this can be the worst viewpoint of all when it’s not executed masterfully—then just stick to third-person limited and play by the rules. No shifting viewpoints until after a scene break or chapter break. Period.

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