Feeling Tense: 2 of a 2-part series

Feeling Tense: 2 of a 2-part series

Part 2: Third person

Third person omniscient

“Cora felt uneasy as she stepped into the cave’s gaping maw. Tina, on the other hand, was thrilled at the opportunity to explore.”

The narrator is God, looking down on Her characters. Since the narrator is omniscient, the writer has the freedom to reveal what any character is feeling, thinking, or doing, at any time. If characters are keeping secrets from one another, the omniscient narrator knows, and can share those secrets with the readers. If a storyline is complex, an omniscient narrator can make sure the readers find out what they need to know to follow the story.

This technique has its drawbacks. Third person makes it easy for the writer to preach: to tell the readers how they should feel about the characters, or whether a character’s decision was “right” or “good,” instead of letting the readers draw their own conclusions about the characters’ thoughts and actions. It is also somewhat impersonal in that the characters are held at a certain remove from the reader (we’re watching them, rather than seeing through their eyes); a novelist wants to avoid the dry tone of a history book.

One of my English professors once suggested to me that the narrator was also a “character” of sorts. The narrator affects the reader’s interpretation of the story’s events by the use of judgmental language–descriptions can include value judgments about characters or actions–and by describing certain events in detail while glossing over others. The omniscient narrator may not be a neutral one. When writing this tense, be aware that how you describe things, and what you choose to dwell on or leave out, may skew the way your readers look at your characters and plot.

 

Tight third person

“Cora looked around the inside of the cave, shivering in the disgusting dampness, wishing she was anywhere but here. She shot a glance at Tina, hoping to ask if they could leave, but Tina was too busy gawking at the cave’s ceiling.”

If first person is a view from behind the narrator’s eyes, and standard third person is the God’s-eye view, tight third person can be described as a view over the narrator’s shoulder. In the above example, although it is third person, since it is seen from Cora’s viewpoint, she does not know that Tina likes the cave. All she knows is that Tina seems to want to look around, while all she cares about is getting out as soon as she can. Similarly, while the omniscient point of view allows the narrator to outright tell the reader that Tina’s excited to do some exploring, the tight third person viewpoint requires the narrator to drop hints which will allow the readers to guess at Tina’s mindset, whether or not Cora ever figures it out.

From Tina’s point of view, this same scene might look like this:

“Tina looked around the inside of the cave, fascinated by the beautiful limestone stalactites tumbling from the ceiling. Unfortunately, Cora didn’t seem as entranced. Tina couldn’t imagine why not, but she wasn’t going to let her friend’s reluctance get in her way.”

Is the cave disgusting, or beautiful? In this case, it very much depends on which character is doing the looking.

In real life, different people might have different interpretations of the same event. Tight third person also allows for the narrator to get right inside the thoughts and feelings of his characters, but also provides the possibility of showing multiple points of view. This viewpoint is tricky, since the “narrator as character” is muted, and it is imperative that the writer describe events in a manner consistent with the beliefs of the character, as opposed to colouring them with her own experiences. It can be uncomfortable to see through the eyes of a villainous character-a bigot, a thug or a self-serving sleazeball-and present their point of view as rational, even natural. However, it allows for a fascinating insight into the way different characters think.

3 responses on “Feeling Tense: 2 of a 2-part series

  1. Frank Morin

    Mary,

    Great post here, but where’s part 1? Did I miss it somewhere?

    Choosing the right tense is an important decision in crafting your story, as each different type of narrator has pros and cons. My preferred method is 3rd person with deep penetration into the character’s thoughts.

    Frank

  2. Mary Pletsch

    You can find Part 1 in the October 2012 section of the archives. It went up on October 12, just before we switched to the “Theme of the Month” format, so it’s taken some time to find a theme where the second part would fit.

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