Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Narrative Viewpoint: Third-Person Perfect

In the third post in my series on Narrative Viewpoint: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly, I’m focusing on the good for a change, the viewpoint that I think works best for most stories: third-person limited. A great example of this viewpoint is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Each scene or chapter is told only from the narrative viewpoint of a single character, who is referred to by his or her name instead of “I” as would be the case in the first-person point-of-view.

A textbook example of third-person viewpoint done right!
In A Game of Thrones, for example, the first chapter is told solely through Bran’s viewpoint. He is the only character in the chapter whose internal thoughts are revealed to the reader, and every observation the reader experiences comes only from Bran’s vantage. While there are many other important characters in the first chapter such as Ned Stark and John Snow, we’re never shown their internal thoughts; rather, we only know what they reveal through dialogue or their actions – just like Bran would. The next chapter is told through Daenerys’ point-of-view; the third chapter is told through Ned’s point-of-view, and so on. We get to know each of these characters extremely well, which is one of the things that makes the novel so special.

Martin only changes viewpoints after a chapter break, which adheres to one of the unbreakable rules of third-person limited: viewpoints can only shift after a scene or chapter break. This eliminates the jarring experience of jumping from one character’s mind to another’s during the same scene, which is one of my huge problems with the third-person omniscient point-of-view. Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels follows the same rule. We get to experience many of the same events from the viewpoints of different members of Roland’s ka-tet, but King always starts a new scene before he changes the point-of-view.

We get to know Roland's ka-tet very well!
This is not to say that third-person limited is always the best narrative viewpoint. Some novels are undoubtedly best told through the first-person point-of-view, which is the most intimate viewpoint between a character and the reader. But it is an extremely limiting viewpoint since the only parts of the story that can be told are those the first-person narrator experiences. This necessarily eliminates all those great scenes where the bad guys are plotting something terrible for the hero, which the reader knows about, but hero does not. Imagine Stephen King’s The Stand without the scenes involving Randall Flagg or the Trashcan Man. The story would suffer. Big time.

Third-person limited also allows the author to create complex plots where the action takes place in different locations at the same time, like the various locales in A Game of Thrones. A first-person narrator can only be in one place at one time. But with third-person limited, multiple characters can tell the story through their own viewpoint even if they are continents apart like Daenerys and Jon Snow – so long as the author obeys the rules by only changing viewpoints after a scene or chapter break.

Lastly, third-person limited eliminates that maddening omniscient narrator who plays no role in the story except to tell the tale. Instead, the story is told through the actions and thoughts of a character who lives through it, allowing the reader to do the same. This, in my view, is one of the primary reasons why we read fiction. So why wouldn’t an author use a point-of-view like third-person limited that does this so effectively? To me it’s a no-brainer.

4 comments: said...

It is really interesting to me, that I have never thought about where the perspective comes from, the authors own thoughts or the ability to see it from the the author's other creation. That's really very interesting.

Joseph Finley said...

Thanks for the comment! I believe narrative viewpoint can have a huge impact on the quality of a novel.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for correctly identifying A Game of Thrones as third-person limited. There is some confusion on the Internet about this matter -- apparently the rotating POV has led people to believe AGOT is third-person omniscient. Hopefully they'll find their way here!

Joseph Finley said...

Thanks for commenting! A Game of Thrones most definitely in NOT third person omniscient!