So you’ve already decided that you want to write in third person instead of first person. Good work! That’s half the battle.
Did you know there’s another battle ahead? That is when you decide whether you’re going to write in third person omniscient or third person limited.
This decision comes down to whether you want to head-jump.
Third person limited is, well, limited. The perspective is exclusively grounded to one character, unless you cheat a little. This means that you have all of the constraints of first person (all the reader sees is what the protagonist sees), but with just a tad more freedom. The reader will wonder a bit more precisely what that character is thinking and there’s a bit more of an objective sensibility.
One of the classic third person limited narratives is the Harry Potter series, and Rowling strays from Harry’s perspective in only a tiny few rare instances. She therefore had to bend over backwards to filter everything the reader needed to know about that world through Harry’s view. If Harry can’t see it? It doesn’t happen for the reader.
I would wager my sorting hat that things like the invisibility cloak and the pensieve were extremely inventive ways around the narrative challenges posed by third person limited. There is no “offstage” for the reader to witness something that Harry can’t see, so instead he has to be present to see he shouldn’t (invisibility cloak) and witnessing historical events for himself (pensieve).
Third person omniscient is, ostensibly, a bit more freeing, because you aren’t limited to a single character’s perspective. However, it’s also very difficult because for a reader it’s very disorienting to head-jump. If you’re inside one character’s head and then jump to the next character’s head and then another, it’s very difficult for the reader to place themselves in a scene. They just have whiplash.
There are two main approaches to third person omniscient to get around this. (I’m sure they have names, but I don’t know them. Learned ignorance!)
The first approach is to have the narrator be a fully developed character or character-esque presence of their own. This is the From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler approach. There is a defined character who is narrating the action. And while the narrative may show a bit of what the characters are feeling, the narrative never truly jumps to far insider character’s heads to show precisely what they’re feeling.
The other third person omniscient approach is a limited head jump. This is what I did with Jacob Wonderbar. For the most part the narrative is told from Jacob’s perspective, but when the kids are split up there are also scenes that are told from Sarah’s and Dexter’s perspectives.
There are even a few very (I hope) limited and seamless head jumps within scenes. In order to pull these off without the reader growing annoyed, I think of it kind of like a camera staying in place. There’s a moment when Jacob goes inside to warm up some corndogs (natch), and the narrative stays with the kids outside. Since the perspective stays in place and the reader feels like they just didn’t go inside with Jacob, hopefully it feels relatively seamless.
That’s the key: Whatever perspective you choose, it has to be grounded. The reader has to know where they are in relation to the action so they can get their bearings and lose themselves in the story.
(Thanks to Brian Wood for the question that inspired this post.)
Art: Six Tuscan Poets by Giorgio Vasari