In Writing Group a couple weeks ago we got into a discussion around what the best narrative point-of-view is. D, the memoirist, prefers first person and strongly does not prefer omniscient third person. I, the literary science-fictionist, prefer 3rd person-limited, but I don’t fully know if I know what “3rd person-limited” actually is…
So, I figured I’d spend a few minutes on google and make sure I knew what I’m talking about when I’m talking about 3rd person-limited.
A) 3rd person-limited (3PL) is, technically speaking, a 3rd person (“he, she, it” not “I”) narrative that has access to only one character’s inner life. Meaning, the narrative can describe that one character’s thoughts, feelings, memories and sensations. But the narrative cannot describe those internal aspects of any other character.
As an example, 3PLversion of the Greedo vs. Han Solo scene:
Han gauged Greedo’s every movement, paying particular attention to the way his scaly fingers twitched on the trigger of his blaster. Once Han realized that Greedo was not going to pull the trigger, he seized the opportunity to fire first, killing the reptilian bounty hunter.
B) This is different from 3rd person-omniscient (3PO) in that 3PO is a narrative that has access to every character’s inner life. 3PO also has access to all the happenings in all place (here, there, everywhere) and all time (past, present, future). Basically, it’s as if God is telling the story.
Greedo vs. Han in 3PO:
Han gauged Greedo’s every movement as Greedo felt pangs of excitement and satisfaction. Greedo has been waiting for this moment for many years. Han, to the contrary, felt calm and at ease, knowing that he still held the upper-hand on his less experienced adversary. Just as Greedo was thinking about what to spend his reward money on, Han pulled the trigger on his blaster without remorse or anxiety.
C) Another version of 3rd person is one where the narrator has no access to the inner world of any character, telling the story strictly as a human third-party observer. I don’t know what this is called. 3rd person external only (3PEO)?
Greedo vs Han in 3PEO:
Han sat across from Greedo. Greedo made threats. Han made jokes. Han fired first, killing Greedo.
I actually thought that 3PEO and 3PL were the same things. I had been trying to write in 3PEO, thinking that was the gold standard of “show don’t tell” but not getting great results. My readers found my prose dry and hard to understand. Too many details were left out. Also, the characters seemed lifeless and hard to relate to when all we have are descriptions of their actions.
Maybe there’s a way to pull this off. But I don’t think I’m a good enough writer to do that yet.
I’m now sticking to 3PL. Not that that makes my writing suddenly better. But it gives me more room to try to say what I’m trying to say. It’s still an arduous process, finding my voice as a writer. Even harder is being able to competently express my voice. And harder still is finding a way to express my voice in a way that readers will connect to.
But one step at a time.
Have I defined these correctly? I’m actually not completely sure. I’d also be curious what other writers and readers prefer or if you even notice these things.