The Final Point of View

Greek vase painting

Third person: He decided that being naked was better than wearing armor.

An airplane was flying above a river in the book I was reading a couple of weeks ago, and the pilot was shooting at two people on the river. The chapter ended with him shooting. Before I read on later to find out what happened, I was thinking these two characters in the canoe can’t be killed, because they’re so important that the author has let us be inside their mind in earlier chapters.

Most fiction is written from one of two points of view, or “person” to use the technical term. When it is written as if a person is directly telling it to you (I ordered a piece of lemon pie and winked at the waitress), we call it first person. When it is written as if the narrator is describing someone else, using he or she or they, we call that third person (she wondered why the weird guy winked at her when he ordered the pie). There is also the rare and usually awkward second person (you walk into the diner and see a lemon pie in the glass case, and you think about how your mama used to make it).

The book I was reading was in third person, as we watched the plane fly overhead and turn around to come back, but to say that something is written in third-person is to drastically oversimplify the possibilities. In the real world, for instance, I can talk about someone who is standing beside me or someone across the room or someone living in another city, and I can talk about someone who I know very well or who I’ve just seen.

So when the bullets began to hit the water, the author could have put me inside the plane, in the canoe on the water, or standing on shore. I could also have been simply watching, or I could know what a character was thinking.

I’ll categorize four possible types of “third person” point of view. 1) Omniscient from a distance: the story can talk about someone as if looking at them and in the next paragraph talk about what’s happening across town. 2) Omniscient up close: the reader can be told things the character doesn’t know, but the narrative follows the character around and stays right with that character. 3) Not omniscient, but physically close to the character: this is like a camera with a close-up, so that the reader can only experience exactly what the character experiences, but we’re outside the character’s head. 4) Inside the character: now we are inside the character’s head, listening to their thoughts and feelings.

These third-person points of view can be extremely different from one another, and they can even be mixed in ways I’m not getting into. Here in the tedious real world where we while away the hours, we actually only know in depth what’s in our own head (if even that), and as much as we might want to, we can’t normally watch people when they’re not around. Through the magic of fiction, however, woohoo! I’m inside your brain while you’re thinking about . . .  whoa! I’ll just back on out of there.

One of the things a writer is able to do is leap about among all these possibilities. In the last book I wrote, for instance (The Invention of Colors), I had chapters in third person talking about one character, alternating with first-person chapters where a second character narrated, saying “I did this and I did that”. This was no great innovation on my part, as I read books like that years ago.

It’s also possible, working only in third person, to be very close to one character for a while, follow them around, then suddenly move to another character, who is now looking at the first one. I’ve been in multiple writing groups where the advice is to avoid doing that. When such advice is offered with a justification, such as “you’ve made the story too confusing to know what’s happening”, then it is good advice.

Oftentimes in a writing group, however, the admonition not to shift point of view is given as if it were a rule in a Soviet prison camp. This Is What You Must Not Do. Lucky Leo Tolstoy that he lived before that time, as he often broke the rule. Maybe he never belonged to a writing group. Of course, if the writer does shift around on the point of view, readers are free to hate it, and such shifts can, in fact, be jarring. But also interesting.

In the book I was reading, with the potential killer in the airplane, I realized my reasoning was wrong that a character could not die because the writer had allowed us inside a character’s head. Although my reasoning was wrong, in that case, fortunately, the bad guy missed, the people in the canoe were OK, and later in the book the evil pilot crashed his plane.

Nevertheless, some writers will let you experience a character’s thoughts—and then kill the character. I think at some point in the past I even read a book where we were inside the character’s head at the very moment of death. That’s pushing the envelope.

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