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Writing Journal: Variations on Third Person

Some additional notes on authorial voice and point of view:

In her bookSteering the Craft, Ursula Le Guin says:

Voice is a word critics often use when discussing narrative. It’s always metaphorical, since what’s written is voiceless until read aloud. Often ‘voice’ is a kind of shorthand for authenticity. … I’m using it pragmatically to mean ‘the voice or voices that tell the story’, the narrating voice.

Further along, Le Guin divides the omniscient viewpoint into two:

  1. Involved Author POV (an opinionated narrator)


  1. Detached Author POV (the “fly on the wall”)

I’m starting to tease out the distinctions that underly my questions about point of view. There are differences between third-person limited and third-person omniscient. And even within the latter, an author has options.

Omniscient as a Strategic Narrator

Editor Ellen Brock has useful information on this topic. She reminds me that:

The omniscient narrator is a storyteller who chooses when to reveal emotions and thoughts of characters as it is important and relevant. There is a strategy there. A strategy to build suspense, to engage the reader, and to focus the story. It does not delve into the thoughts and emotions of characters on a whim.

Variations on Third Person POV

In an attempt to better understand my options, I pulled a bunch of third-person narratives off my shelf. Here’s a grab bag of third-person perspectives.

Sycamore row by John Grisham:

They found Seth Hubbard in the general area where he promised to be, though not exactly in the condition expected. He was at the end of a rope, six feet off the ground and twisting slightly in the wind.

Marshall Prather rolled his eyes at Jake, as if to say, “She’s nuts.” But he wisely said nothing. Instead, he finished off his pancakes and had to leave.

POV: Third-person omnicient (Involved)

Narrator tone: Matter-of-fact yet folksy.

Grisham is a “pull up a chair and I’ll tell you a story” kind of guy.

Enders game by Orson Scott Card:

Even as Ender learned how much he did not know, he also saw things he could improve upon. The well-rehearsed formations were a mistake. … Ender studied Bonzo’s formations like an enemy commander would, noting ways to disrupt the formation. During free play that night, Ender asked Petra to practice with him.

POV: Third-person omniscient (Detached)

Narrator tone: Missing?

Scott-Card is telling us what happened, but I don’t feel anything of the narrator’s presence here, although it is indeed straight-up narration.

Misery by Stephen King

The storm continued through the next day. The following night the clouds unraveled and blew away. … All the world outside froze solid. Sitting by the bedroom window and looking out at the ice-glittery morning world on that second full day alone, Paul could hear Misery the pig squealing in the barn and one of the cows bellowing.

POV: Third-person omniscient (Involved)

Narrator tone: Richly descriptive

King is a poet. But you might not notice because you’re too busy feeling scared. 😂

Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey

In a chapter focusing on James Holden:

Just behind the front line of rent-a-cops, with their nonlethal deterrents, stood a small clump of men in dark suits and sensible shoes. They carried shotguns with the air of men who were just waiting for someone to give them permission. That would be corporate security then.

In a chapter focusing on Avasarala:

The yard smelled like cut grass and fresh soil. The gardener - a thin man hardly older than her own son would have been - knelt in the back, pulling weeds by hand.

POV: Third-person limited. (Detached)

Narrator tone: Highly efficient.

Just the facts! But they deliver them well. It’s punchy.

What Style Will I Use?

As a reader, I enjoy all these styles. As a writer, I’m most attracted to King and Grisham’s approach to third person. They write third-person omniscient, and they’re both what Le Guin would call “involved” narrators. But they’re not too involved. They use a light touch to avoid self-insertion, and as a result, the line between narrator and POV character blurs a little.

I’ve been plodding along in third-person limited because that’s what most mysteries use, and I figured I’d start by following standard conventions. But is it time for a change?

I’ll think about it.