Third person point of view: omniscient, subjective, & external (tip 42) 3

D.D. Johnston discusses writing in the third person. He considers three main types of third person perspectives: the third person omniscient, the third person objective (or external), and the third person subjective (or limited). He concludes that the third person subjective should be most writers’ default viewpoint.


Video transcript follows below:

In our last video we considered when you should and shouldn’t write in the first person point of view. The major alternative to the first person is the third person, but the third person is a murky and complex business, due to the question of omniscience.

Omniscience means knowledge of all things.

The Judeo-Christian God, for example, is omniscient. God sees everything. God knows what you watch on the internet even if you delete your browsing history. God even knows what you think. Interestingly, this is a point that Christian theologians have long struggled with. Thomas Aquinas on one occasion sought God’s opinion on one of his manuscripts – most of us would be happy with a small review in the Times Literary Supplement but not this guy. He took his manuscript and left it open on the altar of Notre Dame Cathedral. Of course, what he’d forgotten was that since god is omnipresent he hardly needs the manuscript to be placed open on an altar – he could read it if it was hidden in the bottom of a mine shaft. And, anyway, since God’s omniscient, he doesn’t even need the thing to be written: God knew what Aquinas was going to write before Aquinas was even born.

Now, I know that some religions are cool with representations of their deities, and some aren’t, and not wanting to offend anybody, I decided the safest way of visually representing an omniscient being was to create my own God. My God is called Hugo.

Now, Hugo is omniscient; he’s all knowing. What is Hugo like as a story teller? If you use an omniscient third person narration, then you can tell the reader anything you want – you know it all. You know what every character is doing at any time – and what they’re thinking.

This seems wonderful, right? You know everything! But there are problems!

For instance, Hugo’s favourite game is Cluedo. Poor Hugo ruins every game of Cluedo, because as soon as it’s his turn to roll the dice he says ‘It was Professor Plum in the dining room with the candlestick. Aw Hugo! You always spoil cluedo!

So this is a big problem with omniscient narration. Where is the mystery! Imagine starting a whodunit: After they found the body in the pantry they met to discuss alibis. Miss Scarlet was thinking, What an awful crime, who could have done such a thing? And professor Plum was thinking Mwah ha Ha ha It was me, It was me, Whaah ha Ha ha.

And not just in a whodunit; so much of human interest is dependent on our uncertain knowledge of other people. Hugo spoils all of this. You know that delightful dance of desire whereby one questions and wonders and fantasises about the reciprocation of amorant feelings? Hugo’s friends come to see him and they say, You know Hermione? I think she likes me… Well no she probably doesn’t. I don’t know, maybe she does. He he. She always puts kisses at the end of her text messages, but I think she does that with everyone. She’s just being friendly; she doesn’t like me like that. Except maybe she does because this one time she asked me to help her move flat and she could of asked other people but she asked me, and–

Yeah, says Hugo, actually she only asked you because everyone else was busy. She never thinks about you. In fact last Tuesday she slept with that kid Jonah. The sex lasted 4 minutes and 37 seconds; they did it in the bathroom and he never took off his Simpsons boxer shorts.
Hugo! You’ve spoiled everything!

Well if we have an omniscient narrator at one end of the scale, then at the other end of the scale, we have the fly on the wall. This is the third person viewpoint where you don’t know what anybody’s thinking or what they’ve done in the past. This is called either the third person objective, or the Third person external.

Were a fly on the wall clever enough to describe me recording this video, then that fly could relay what I looked like, what I said, the hum of the laptop to which the microphone is plugged, etc. But the fly couldn’t tell the reader that I was needing the toilet, that I had pizza for dinner last night, or that you are thinking of clicking to a different video.

In other words, in the third person external, you can describe only the objective facts, and the reader has to interpret the action as if they were viewing a film. I’m a great fan of the third person external because it forces us to follow that most famous piece of advice –show don’t tell. I like this point of view.

But, it does have obvious restrictions. In this age of visual media, of film and television, isn’t one of the great advantages of writing, one of the reasons literature is still so important, that we can go inside characters’ heads, in a way that a film cannot? And here we come onto what’s become the most popular viewpoint in contemporary fiction; the third person limited omniscient; AKA the third person subjective.

We are talking now about a God, but not a very powerful one. Now what happened, according to the teachings of Hugoism, is that Hugo got fed up of people bullying him. Just cause he spoiled every game of Cluedo, people started to pick on him. They’d come to see Hugo and ask: ‘Hey Hugo, you’re all powerful, right?’
‘Yeah!’ he’d say, ‘I can do anything!’
Then they’d say something like: ‘Alright Hugo, can you create a rock that’s too heavy for you to lift?’
And at this point Hugo would get all sad and confused and sometimes he’d start to cry. And so what he decided to do, according to the teachings of Hugoism, was to create a companion – another God. And so he created Bongo the Monkey.

But in creating Bongo the monkey, Hugo still wanted to be the most powerful being. So he decided to limit Bongo’s powers. And he allowed Bongo to have only a bit of omniscience; to be able to know, for instance, what Miss Scarlet and Colonel Mustard are thinking, but not what Professor Plum is thinking.

Now, in some ways this is the perfect POV for story telling: it avoids the confusion and over-knowledge of omniscience; it allows for mystery and the unknown; and it lets you explore the thoughts of one or more character. I always think of it as the default POV – consider how the story would work in the third person subjective, and then ask yourself whether there’s a better alternative.

If you do decide to write in the third person subjective then you face another complexity: when you see things from a characters’ viewpoint, when you tell the reader how a character experiences the world, do you interpret the experience as the author, or do you write those bits in the language of the character? If Wee Billy runs away from school and plans to climb a tree, do you write, ‘Billy placed his hands on the trunk and paused, considering the rough-patterned bark, the gentle sway and creak of the branches, and the slow, easeful, release of the day’s heat’; or do you write, ‘looking up up up he knew easy he could make it. Wow, for sure he could make it up there’?

This is often called an interior monologue. In many interior monologues a character thinks with the clarity and order of communicative language. They talk to themselves. But real thought is less structured and filled with half thoughts and disconnected associations. In the first half of the 20th century writers began to experiment with presenting thought in its true incoherence. And the technique they used became known as the stream of consciousness. The most famous and celebrated example is still James Joyce’s Ulysses:

His downcast eyes followed the silent veining of the oaken slab. Beauty: it curves, curves are beauty. Shapely goddesses, Venus, Juno: curves the world admires. Can see them library museum standing in the round hall. Naked goddesses. Aids to digestion. They don’t care what man looks. All to see. Never speaking, I mean to say to fellows like Flynn. Suppose she did Pygmalian and Galatea what would she say first? Mortal! Put you in your proper place. Quaffing nectar at mess with gods, golden dishes, all ambrosial. Not like a tanner lunch we have, boiled mutton, carrots and turnips, bottles of Allsop. Nectar, imagine it drinking electricity: gods’ food. Lovely forms of women sculped Junonian. Immortal lovely. And we stuffing food in one hole and out behind: food, chyle, blood, dung, earth, food: have to feed it like stoking an engine. They have no. Never looked. I’ll look today. Keeper won’t see. Bend down let something fall see if she.

What’s the obvious difficulty with this? It’s a lot of work to write and it’s very hard work to read. I’ve read Ulysses and I can appreciate its genius, but it is hard going. He was a clever bloke that James Joyce, but he was no John Grisham.

So we come to our conclusion. You have to decide what point of view you’re going to write in. 1st, 2nd or 3rd.

If you decide to write in the third person then you must decide how powerful the implied story teller is. Are we talking about a totally omniscient being like Hugo? Or a fly on the wall? Or, are we talking about a demi-God – a creature like Bongo the Monkey who knows everything about some people but can only observe others from the outside?

If you decide to go for the limited/ subjective viewpoint – and I believe it should be your default setting – then you have to decide which character or characters you are going to know everything about, and which characters you can only observe from the outside. Sometimes this is obvious: in the whodunit it makes sense to know everything the detective thinks and does, but to remain outside the suspects; to know no more about them than what the detective can observe.

Next, if you are going to have access to a character’s thoughts, then how are you going to present these thoughts? Are you going to describe them for us? Interpret them? Or are you going to present them as the character thinks them? And if you decide to present them as the character thinks them, does that mean using the character’s language as though she were speaking (as in the interior monologue) or does it mean trying to capture the fluctuating reality of thought (as in the stream of consciousness)?

But the main thing to remember is that when you have decided on a point of view, be consistent. Stick to it.

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

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