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Writing Excuses Season Five Episode One: Third Person Limited

Writing Excuses Season Five Episode One: Third Person Limited


Key points: third person limited let you have multiple viewpoints. Also, you can portray characters sympathetically because you can show the reader their thoughts and their view of the world. Third limited is less biased than first-person narration. Avoid having too many characters too early. Be careful about withholding information from the reader -- third person limited is expected to be honest. Watch for point of view errors! Keep it limited to what the main character knows and feels. Realize the strengths -- third person limited lets you show different perspectives. Think about which viewpoint to use -- who has the most pain, who has to make the biggest decision, who's got the most at stake, or who can show us what is happening best?

[Brandon] And welcome to season five.
[Howard] Woo Hoo!
[Brandon] Part of me is amazed we made it this far.
[Jordo] Yay!
[Brandon] Yay, producer Jordo.
[Dan] Yay, us.
[Howard] We've done like 120... 130 of these episodes?
[Brandon] Man. Wow.
[Dan] Uh... up to 150... no... 100... you're right, about 120-ish.
[Brandon] Well, we can't count, but that's OK because...
[Dan] We're not that smart.

[Brandon] We want to do a couple of podcasts where we focus on the different viewpoints that you can do. We thought we'd start with third limited, since I think a lot of us...
[Dan] Starting with first would be too simple.
[Brandon] Yeah. Exactly right. Because it would be first episode, first.
[Dan] Chronological. We can't do that.
[Brandon] So, third limited. Third limited is... we did a whole podcast on the different types of viewpoints, but a quick catch-up... third limited is where you pick a character's eyes to see through for a given scene. You write that character's viewpoint through that scene. You only give what they can see and know. You give a share of their thoughts. Then, for another scene, you might pick a different character. Really quickly, for the first part of the podcast, let's go over again, what are the advantages? Dan, why would you want to write in third limited?
[Dan] Well, one of the things that third will let you do is have multiple viewpoints within the same book. Which I suppose is possible with first, but...
[Brandon] I've seen it with first.
[Dan] But it doesn't work and is very, very hard to pull off. Third, on the other hand... any big fantasy book, any big thriller is probably going to have multiple viewpoints, and third limited let's that happen very, very smoothly.
[Howard] It's not just the viewpoints. It's being able to portray characters sympathetically because you are in their head. You are getting their thoughts, you are getting their viewpoint of the world.
[Brandon] Well, and first can do that really well also, but because the characters are I... anytime you go beyond one viewpoint... I think two is actually pretty reasonably easy to do with first person, but going beyond two gets really crazy because the reader's head has lots of trouble keeping all the I's straight. Whose eyes...not the I's, the other eye... you're seeing through for a given scene.
[Dan] Whose self?
[Brandon] Yeah. Third limited also does allow you to... third limited is inherently less biased. Like a first person narrative, a really good one, is going to be generally colored a lot more by the character. Third allows you then to present information, you can actually take one step toward omniscient. It's like a halfway point between first and omniscient. Which allows you sometimes in narratives to get away with things. You can get away with having the narrative be just a little bit more eloquent than perhaps the character viewpoint should allow. You're going to be allowed to... it's kind of like you can cheat just a little bit, which is nice.
[Howard] You've also... you don't have to create that artifice in which the first-person narrator is telling you a story, which in some genres works great and in other genres just seems really weird.
[Brandon] Yeah. I mean, there is that whole question of person. This isn't a podcast about first, we'll talk about it later, but there is that question of how is this story being told? Is it simply happening in the character's mind? If it's first-person, is it immediately going to make us assume that the first person then survived? You don't have any of those issues. Third is a wonderful viewpoint. I really like working in it. It's my favorite. I keep going back to it. It's probably because I'm naturally an epic fantasy writer and it tends to be the type of thing we do in epic fantasy. So, advice. Let's talk about advice for readers. What can you do wrong with third limited, and how do you avoid it? How do you avoid making mistakes?

[Howard] Pitfall number one. Having too many characters too early. You gotta find the right number of viewpoints, and you have to find the viewpoints... you have to make sure you have enough viewpoints to establish... or not establish, to support the various plot threads you're trying to drive.
[Brandon] I think that's an excellent suggestion. Particularly for new writers. I think we've mentioned it before on the podcast. Getting bogged down with too many viewpoints is a real temptation. Particularly if you've read a lot of epic fantasy, and particularly if you've read the later books in a big epic fantasy series. You know, you've got dozens of characters flying around... not literally, but sometimes literally. You want to start with that same epic feel, and it's really easy to let the book get out of control.
[Dan] Now, point of advice for people that do still want to dabble with having lots of different characters. I'm reading right now Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry. Which is lots and lots of very short chapters. The scenes are short, and they begin... I mean, the chapter heading is essentially telling you where we are and whose head we're in. Which is a very nice trick to adopt and switch from one to another, because it's immediately obvious what's going on, it gets you into the scene very quickly, and then you can run from there.
[Brandon] George Martin does the same thing. Song of Fire and Ice names each chapter after the viewpoint character, and he starts juggling a lot of characters right from the get go. It seems to work better with short viewpoints if you're going to juggle a lot of characters. Martin does it, Kevin Anderson does it in the Seven Suns series, and apparently Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry.
[Dan] Jonathan Maberry does it very, very well.
[Howard] Even if you're going to do that, you need to sit down with your outline... and I would actually argue that if you're going to do that many viewpoints, you need a strong outline so that you can look at your plot threads, you can look at your goals, the various character roles, and determine how many viewpoints you need to support these and position them all correctly.
[] Now I would also say, stay away from putting too many different characters in too many different places. We've talked about this before. But having a lot of viewpoints doesn't have to mean having a lot of plot lines. You can have, as George Martin did, start your book with seven viewpoint characters all in the same place trying to achieve the same goal and just hop between them viewing events in a chronological order and it's much easier to keep track of.
[Howard] Well, and when I say plot lines, in many cases, character development. These two characters are in the same place the whole time but they may have different plots because they are developing differently. That's the sort of thing that you might need multiple viewpoints in order to support.
[Brandon] Another pitfall... and I've actually I think mentioned this in a podcast before, and it's a painful one for me to admit because I tend to break this one. This is the rule that I suppose you can break or at least I do, but be very aware if you're doing third limited of withholding information from the reader. The reader is going to expect third limited to be more honest than first-person. A first-person narrator can excise entire portions of their narrative if they feel like they want to, depending on the type of first-person you're doing. Third person, that's going to feel really cheap. I still have wriggled around it in some places, and I worry, personally, that it's a little cheap for me to do. But you at least have to acknowledge that the character is saying, "No, I can't think about that right now," or these sorts of things. You can't do it too much, otherwise you're going to... your readers going to see through it.
[Howard] If your plot twist requires... if the punch of your plot twist requires the reader not being told something that one of the characters explicitly knows, then the best thing for you to do is not touch on that character's viewpoint one that character is thinking about those things or being involved with those things.
[Brandon] Or go with first-person instead, because that really... if you're wanting to withholding information from the reader that way, stay away from those viewpoints or use first person where they can.
[Howard] It's pretty cheap when the viewpoint character says, "I have a plan," and then we cut away.
[Brandon] Yeah. Now, you know... yeah.
[Howard] Sometimes that's fun, and I've done that myself.
[Brandon] But what's really cheap is when a character says, "I've got a plan," says this and then they don't tell you what that plan is, despite the fact that you're in their head, for the next 400 pages. That can be really problematic.
[Dan] That's actually a huge thing with first-person, as well. But...

[Brandon] All right. We're going to stop for an ad.
[Dan] Ad.
[Howard] This week's book is Soulless by Gail Carriger. It's a steam punk bodice ripper sort of novel, only not quite as bodice rippy and more steam punky. I have to confess, I did not expect to love this book is much as I did. It's a... well, the cover kind of sets it up nicely. Vampires, werewolves, and parasols. What's interesting about this is that I've been reading so much third person limited fiction recently that as I... I was about three pages in, and I felt like, "Oh, my gosh, that's a point of view error. Oh, no, there's another point of view error. What the heck is going on?" Then I realized, "Oh, this is actually third person omniscient." With a strong respect for the central character of the scene.
[Brandon] So, wait. Howard, you decided to promo a third omniscient book during our third limited...
[Howard] I actually did. Because it was very educational for me about what is actually third person limited and what's not.
[Dan] You just always have to be different. Well, I think that... very few people write third person omniscient these days, especially in genre fiction, so that is probably an educational example.
[Howard] Anyway, I loved this book. My wife loved this book. My 15-year-old daughter loved this book. This got passed around the house.
[Brandon] OK. Well, that's to start your 15 day free trial and download Soulless for free.

[Brandon] All right. Dan, you had another pitfall? Start us off.
[Dan] Yes. Howard already mentioned. Point of view errors, which are very, very tempting to do when you're doing third person limited because you as the author are omniscient and you know what everyone in the room is thinking.
[Brandon] Well, I'm omniscient, but that's just...
[Dan] Well, OK. Brandon is omniscient outside of fiction, but... whatever. No. You're writing along, and your main character knows exactly what he or she is thinking or feeling. Then you type, "The man down the street was terrified." Well, your main character doesn't know that. The person... it's very easy to slip into things like that and say...
[Howard] The reason the Carriger novel is third person omniscient instead of third person limited is because the tone of the narrator is inherently snarky and fun. Sometimes you want to be able to say something snarky about what another character's opinion is of matters without the character actually voicing it. If you fall into that, and you're trying to do true third person limited, yeah, it's a point of view error.

[Brandon] Now, we really need to spend some time talking about how to do it well. We've talked about pitfalls.
[Howard] Yes, let's...
[Brandon] Let's give some advice on how to do it well. I'll just start this off by saying realize your strengths. One of writing third limited, in fact one of the strengths of writing over some other sort of storytelling forms like cinema, is the ability that we have to present the world through the lens of a character's eyes. Third limited, when it's written really, really well, will allow you to paint the world through the character's viewpoint, which therefore will allow you to... and you can do this in first-person, too. But if you really want to do it well, third person limited makes sure the character's way of seeing the world influences what they're doing. An example of this I used when I was talking about third limited at Jordan Con... I used Robert Jordan, who is a very good third limited writer. He loves third limited. If you write really well, you can take simple things, like a glass of water sitting on the table, and how three different characters passing through the same room would notice that glass of water and what they would think of it will show something about their culture, their personality, and the world you live in. How they all react differently to this cup of water. That's what third limited can really let you sing and be wonderful at doing, is by showing different perspectives like this.
[Howard] Half-full, half-empty, and who the heck left a glass out on that wooden table?
[Dan] Without a coaster?
[Brandon] Exactly. Those are just three ways to do it. The Wheel of Time Books, you've got one character that values water a lot. They see a couple of water, they think that's a huge wealth on the table. Whereas another character might see the goblet and say, "oh, look at this goblet. It was finely crafted. I think I may list that and take it with me when I pass the other direction on the way out." Different views on a simple thing like that will just make your characters come to life.
[Howard] The other thing... one of the other techniques that I like is when different viewpoint characters have different metaphors that they use for describing the world around them. Not necessarily verbal metaphors, but is they are comparing things to their own experiences. I find, even though I don't technically write third limited, I'm writing third cinematic, I'm very careful with my choice of metaphors. So that some characters will say some things... will say one thing in one way, another would say it completely differently. That informs their thought processes, their perspectives, all of that.
[Brandon] You want to use this as a tool. To be an advantage to you. You don't just want to write carelessly. You want to try and work these little things in, to every sentence, every paragraph.
[Dan] Now another really good example from Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry. This book begins with a character being approached by some FBI agents while he's at the beach. It doesn't just say they showed up. It talks about them... he sees them coming. He analyzes the formation in which they're coming and what that tells him about them. Then when they get him into the car, he notices the way that the FBI agent is sitting so that he can reach his gun really easily. Then he takes it even further and says, "But he still wasn't doing it quite as well as I would have done it." So you get that whole... you get so much character just out of the way he is analyzing the motion of these guys.
[Brandon] A suggestion also to help if you're writing third limited, if you are using multiple viewpoints, which hopefully with third limited, you're taking advantage of that, you don't have to, but it is a good thing to do. You can sometimes show contrasts through two characters that you placed close together. They can be simple things. For instance, I'll go back to Robert Jordan, a lot of people have read him and I'm very steeped in his world right now. He's writing in a world where people are inherently more sexist than they are during our modern sensibilities. This could come off very, very poorly with the reader with our modern sensibilities. The way he approaches it, I think, is brilliant, because he will intentionally have one scene from a guy's viewpoint, followed by a scene from a girl's viewpoint, and they will both think the same sexist comment about one another, if you really watch. They'll... the men will think something like, "Oh, women and their gossiping." In the next chapter, the women's viewpoint are like, "Oh, men and their gossiping, sitting around a fire after a battle. You can't trust their gossip." He'll do things like this, to kind of show the irony of it. It will also show the culture, and the world, and the characters by who thinks this and who doesn't.
[Howard] There's a fun reflection of human nature there. That's Robert Jordan making social commentary as much as just writing good fantasy.
[Brandon] Yeah. You can use this... you can show this contrast. Put these things close together and have people... different people see the same things or seeing the same situations. If they think the same things, that tell you something. Or if they think opposite things, also tell you something. It just allows you to use it as a tool to get these things across.
[Dan] I think one thing we should talk about, is knowing when... which viewpoint to choose for a given scene. One of the starting points I think came from Orson Scott Card who said your scene should be from the perspective of whoever's in the most pain at the time or whoever has to make the biggest decision.
[Brandon] That's good advice. Very good advice. I tend to try and pick the scene where we've got someone in the driver's seat. That also allows you to feel more active. But of course sometimes you want to pick the scene, pick the viewpoint where the character is not in the driver's seat because that does put them in pain.
[Howard] Sometimes I pick... I've got a character who has just taken the driver's seat, and I will choose perspectives that are ancillary to that because the reactions to what's happening are more important than the decision to make it happen.

[Brandon] All right. We are out of time. I'm going to go ahead and give us our writing prompt this week. I want you to write a scene where Howard and Dan and me and then Producer Jordo do all walk through a room, and it's in our perspectives, and we are all going to think differently. You have to write this just knowing, having listened and knowing...
[Howard] You just ask people to write HowardTayler fan fiction
[Brandon] Yes, I did. I do it every time. It is accepted practice before I go to bed.
[Dan] Nice. Yeah. We do it anyhow.
[Howard] Jordo. Stop recording, quickly.
[Brandon] So, I want you to do this, and see how the four of us see the world differently. This has been Writing Excuses.
[Dan] What are the bets that my perspective is soaked in blood?
[Howard] My blood!
Tags: characters, pitfalls, viewpoints, writing excuses

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