novels are written in third person point of view (POV). But did you
know there are different types, or levels, of third person? I label
them (1) close, (2) removed, and (3) omniscient.
This month and next we’ll look
at the differences in these three types, with an example of each.
1. Close third person
is as near to first person POV as you can get. The reader is placed
completely within the character’s head, seeing and perceiving the world
as the character would. Words, phrases, terminologies, odd ways of
speech, etc., all reflect the character’s personality and the way
he/she would describe the situation. Close third person is all the rage
these days, and what we’ve grown accustomed to reading. It’s become the
norm for good reason: It has a lot to offer. (A) It’s intimate, and
therefore highly characterizing (if used effectively); (B) because of
its intimacy, it adapts itself to that ubiquitous “show, don’t tell”
rule. Readers “see” what a character is thinking, for example, as
opposed to being “told” what he’s thinking; (C) at the same time, the
reader is afforded this intimacy with the character, the third person
aspect allows the author to show various viewpoints within the story,
unlike first person POV, in which we have the intimacy at the expense
of other viewpoints.
Close third person is my POV of
choice. I love the way it helps characterize the people in my novels.
But it’s not easy to write. Using close third means I must write each
POV in a completely different voice so the reader can “hear” the
In this excerpt from my novel Deceit,
the reader meets Melissa. I wanted Melissa’s teenage voice to be
immediately heard, as opposed to the adult voices of the other
characters. At the same time, Melissa is a bright girl and precocious
in her thinking, so that, too, must be evident.
Sixteen-year-old Melissa Harkoff’s jaw hinged loose. The house was crazy.
gaped through the back
window of the Jackson’s fancy car. A
Mercedes. That should have given her a clue. But nothing could have
prepared her for this mansion. Two-story, with big
gray stones around the front door, and chimneys on each end. The
driveway circled in front, a long sidewalk sweeping up to three wide
steps of the porch. Green, thick bushes lined the sidewalk, and big
pots of flowers sat on the porch. The windows were large and clean. And
the house went on for . . . like, forever.
many rooms did a house like
that hold? Twenty? Fifty? Each one must be as long as a yacht.
one of them was for her. A
bedroom. With a sturdy door she could close.
welled in Melissa’s eyes.
This couldn’t be happening. Any minute now she’d wake up back in her
mother’s filthy trailer. She’d open her eyes to a stained, saggy
ceiling. Hear her mother’s hack and cough, the clink of the first
bottle she’d pulled from a paint-peeling cabinet. Gin. The whiskey
would come later. Melissa would smell the trailer’s stale mustiness of
dirt and despair. A life going nowhere. She’d pull on old clothes and
slip out the door to school before taking a true, deep breath . . .
2. Removed third person
steps outside the character a bit, inserting some psychic distance
between the action and the reader. The reader is still looking only at
one character at a time and can feel somewhat in the character’s head,
but not as completely. This POV is less warm, less emotionally intense,
but can be very effective in the hands of a skilled writer. For in this
POV, the author’s narrative voice is often louder than the voice of the
character. You’ll see more “telling” than in close third person. But
here, the telling—again, if it’s done well—will seem appropriate and
compelling. Far fewer contemporary novelists write in removed third
person. Dean Koontz is one author who does it extremely well.
Here is an excerpt from the
opening scene of Koontz’s new novel, What the Night Knows.
thump of the wipers matched
the slow, heavy rhythm of John Calvino’s heart. He did not play the
radio. The only sounds were the engine, the windshield wipers, the
rain, the swish of tires turning on wet pavement, and a memory of the
screams of dying women.
the main entrance, he
parked illegally under the portico. He propped the police placard on
was a homicide detective,
but this car belonged to him, not to the department. The use of the
placard while off duty might be a minor violation of the rules. But his
conscience was encrusted with worse transgressions than the abuse of
the reception desk in the
lobby sat a lean woman with close-cropped black hair. She smelled of
the lunchtime cigarettes that had curbed her appetite. Her mouth was as
severe as that of an iguana.
glancing at John’s police
ID and listening to his request, she used the intercom to call an
escort for him. Pen pinched in her thin fingers, white knuckles as
sharp as chiseled marble, she printed his name and badge number in the
for gossip, she wanted to
talk about Billy Lucas.
Hear how the description of John
in the third paragraph is more of a removed “telling?” Rather than
being completely in his head and feeling guilt as he remembers
something in his past, we are simply told that his conscience is
“encrusted with worse transgressions.” The strength here lies not in
the complete immersion into the character’s mind, but in the author’s
voice. Note the repeated use of “the” in the last line of the first
paragraph. Koontz did this for the sake of sentence rhythm. While in
close third person we would “feel” these things more with John, here
Koontz relies on the strength of his narrative.
Next month we’ll take a look at
omniscient third person.
from Getting Into
Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn