Third Person is Not a 30k Feet View

I started listening to a popular writers’ podcast this morning, one I have listened to a few times before and enjoyed. Today, however, I had to turn it off after only a couple minutes.

One of the writers talked about writing in the first person and how he preferred it to the “30,000 feet view of third person, where you can’t be in the characters’ heads.” I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it. That is an absurd statement, and it bothers me that who knows how many writers are listening to and believing this nonsense.

You can write in third person and still be in your main character’s head. Writers do it all the time. In fact, I would argue they do it more than not. Yes, there are those writers who aren’t in anybody’s head, instead writing everything as if from an outside perspective, but they are rare. Dashiell Hammett comes to mind. Although you still would never get his detailed descriptions from “30,000 feet.”

And then there are the omniscient voice narrators who are in everyone’s head. But, although that has worked very well for certain writers, particularly in epic fantasy, it is mostly shunned these days in favor of a single POV. And I can understand why on a certain level. A lot of authors don’t do omniscient very well.

You can write in third person and still be in your main character’s head.

But the idea that you can’t be inside a protagonist’s head while writing in third person is ridiculous. So I stopped listening. I may unsubscribe. Probably not, but at the moment I feel like it. They seem like nice guys and do have good stuff to share. Plus, we writers need to stick together. But… no, I just can’t today, when such nonsense is being spread to the world.

I do think that writing in first person can help lend a sense of connection to the main character, but it is not the only way. And I think that writers who rely on that, who believe it is the only way, are severely crippled in their abilities. First person has its place. I use it primarily in short stories, but it can work equally well in long form.

Present tense is another matter. I mention it here because I think the way this particular podcast author was looking at first person is similarly flawed. Present tense is something I only use sparingly and with a very clear intent. It is currently overused in long fiction, and most of the time it doesn’t serve the story. Many celebrated authors agree, including Ursula LeGuin. Here’s a quote from her interview with the Association of Writers and Writer’s Programs.

Obviously the present tense has certain uses that it’s wonderfully suited for. But recently it has been adopted blindly, as the only way to tell a story—often by young writers who haven’t read very much. Well, it’s a good way to tell some stories, not a good way to tell others. It’s inherently limiting. I call it flashlight focus. You see a spot ahead of you and it is dark all around it. That’s great for high suspense, high drama, cut-to-the-chase writing. But if you want to tell a big, long story, like the books of Elena Ferrante, or Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years, which moves year by year from 1920 to 2020—the present tense would cripple those books. To assume that the present tense is literally “now” and the past tense literally remote in time is extremely naïve.

But back to this 30k feet view nonsense about third person. Here are some examples of 3rd person writing that gets inside someone’s thought process.

From A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin:

Bran looked to his lord father for rescue, but got only a frown, a furrowed brow. “Hullen speaks truly, son. Better a swift death than a hard one from cold and starvation.”

“No!” He could feel tears welling in his eyes, and he looked away. He did not want to cry in front of his father.

“Lord Stark,” Jon said. It was strange to hear him call Father that, so formal. Bran looked at him with desperate hope. “There are five pups,” he told Father. “Three male, two female.”

“What of it, Jon?”

“You have five true born children,” Jon said. “Three sons, two daughters. The direwolf is the sigil of your House. Your children were meant to have these pups, my lord.”

Bran saw his father’s face change, saw the other men exchange glances. He loved Jon with all his heart at that moment. Even at seven, Bran understood what his brother had done. The count had come right only because Jon had omitted himself. He had included the girls, included even Rickon, the baby, but not the bastard who bore the surname Snow, the name that custom decreed be given to all those in the north unlucky enough to be born with no name of their own.

From The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie:

The next house was a bakery with a squat, smoking chimney. The smell of baking bread made Logen’s empty stomach rumble. Further on, a couple of dark-haired children were laughing and playing, running round a stubby old tree. They reminded Logen of his own children. They didn’t look anything like them, but he was in a morbid frame of mind.

He had to admit to being a little disappointed. He’d been expecting something cleverer-looking, and a lot more beards. These folk didn’t see so very wise. They looked just like any other peasants. Not unlike his own village had looked before the Shanka came. He wondered if he was in the right place. Then they rounded a bend in the road.

From my own book, No Promises Large Enough:

Masami’s normal breakneck speed at the keyboard became fractured. She couldn’t keep her mind on the article. What is happening to me?

When Akio said she hadn’t been at her desk, she blew it off. He was always trying to get a rise out of her. Always saying stupid things to get her attention, to try to break through her armor. She had earned that armor, and it didn’t break easily. She felt bad, after what they had been through. Akio didn’t have her fortitude. She could see he was reaching out, but she just couldn’t. It’s not how she processed things. She wasn’t a sharer. She went deep inside, shuttered the windows, locked the doors, and let her internal demons battle it out there. Akio needed a buddy. She couldn’t be that for him. She couldn’t lose her edge.

But when Tanaka had said the same thing, corroborating Akio’s accusation, her armor had cracked. She had been at her desk all day. And Tanaka had said it wasn’t the first time. None of it made any sense.

I could do this all day. Grab a book blindly off the fiction section in your local bookstore or library and you’ll likely find third-person writing that gets inside the main character’s head. The above examples clearly show just what the protagonists are thinking.

I think, like LeGuin says about writing in present tense, this podcaster’s sentiment is another example of “young writers who haven’t read very much.” They naively latch onto an idea that sounds solid on its surface (such as first person is better for getting in the characters’ heads) and don’t do any actual analytical reading that would show them the truth of the matter.

And to be clear… I have zero problem with writing in first person. Although I prefer third person, I think first can be very effective, even with full-length novels (unlike present tense). I only have a problem with the erroneous view that first person is better for getting inside your characters’ heads than third person.

Writers, readers, let me know your thoughts in the comments.

My book, Headless, the first in The Ghost and the Mask series is on sale for 99 cents right now on all e-reader platforms in all territories (prices may be slightly different from country to country). Here’s a link: books2read.com/headless

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