About POV

Recently a student of mine asked about POV. Specifically, she was wondering about "close third person." "I wasn't immediately familiar with this level of specificity," she wrote. "I think I know the basics: first person, third person, etc. But I was curious if you (or anyone else) has a resource they could recommend that covers this?" 

I thought I'd share my response to her here, as I think it might be useful to other writers: 

So! As you say, there are three main narrative voices in which a story can be written: first person, second person, and third person. Everyone's probably familiar with these terms from school. First person is "I" ("I was a servant in my stepmother's house"), second person is "you" ("You were a servant in your stepmother's house"), and third person is "he/she/it" ("She was a servant in her stepmother's house"). Those are the basics, indeed. 

There's another kind of narrative technique I sometimes talk about, and that's narrative distance. It refers to a kind of psychic distance. It can be affected by things like the point in time from which the story is being told. If the "I" narrator is telling a story in first person present tense, there will probably be almost no narrative distance. ("I sweep the cinders from the fireplace. I weep.") If the "I" narrator is telling a story in the past tense, there is more narrative distance ("Now that I am queen, it all seems like centuries ago, that every morning I'd get down on my hands and knees and sweep the cinders from the fireplace"). Same goes for third person. 

In third person, narrative distance can be affected by how close or distant the point of view is. You can think of close third (also called limited third) as a zoomed-in camera angle, and distant third (also called third person omniscient) as a zoomed-out, distant perspective. In close or limited third, the rules for point of view are very strict: you cannot move outside of the perspective of your protagonist (hence the limited). When you're writing in close third, a good rule of thumb is to pretend like you're writing in first person, but replacing all the first person pronouns with third person pronouns. ("She could hear her stepsisters laughing in the other room, but she could not make out what they were saying.") In distant third person you have a little more flexibility. ("She could hear her stepsisters laughing in the other room, but could not make out what they were saying—which was fortunate, because Drizella was mocking her fiercely, saying, 'She looks as ragged as the mop she drags around with her!'") In that second example, you know you're in distant third because if you were in close third (just as if you were in first), if Cinderella couldn't hear what her stepsisters were saying, you wouldn't be able to put it in the story.

Long story short: In close/limited third, as in first (and second, which also functions essentially the same way first person does), you're functioning within the limitations of the self. If the protagonist can't see, hear, smell, touch, taste, remember, or know about a thing, that thing can't be in the story. In distant/omniscient third, those limitations are lifted. You have the freedom of an omniscient voice to describe and refer to things the protagonist has no relationship to. 

There's a caveat for omniscient third, however. You have to be fair to all your characters, and treat them all with a healthy amount of narrative distance. If you spend a bunch of time up close and personal in one character's experience, your reader will be disoriented if you zoom way out and tell us what's going on somewhere else entirely. ("Her stepsisters' words cut her like knives. She felt as if they'd stabbed her very heart. How could they talk about her that way, after all she'd done to please them? Miles away, on the other side of the woods, the prince cried to his manservant: 'How will I ever find a wife?'" Weirdly disorienting, right? That's because it starts in close third, POV Cinderella, but ends in a place outside the limitations of her perspective.)

Omniscient third is actually pretty rare in literary fiction these days. Two recent examples are Exit West by Mohsin Hamid and Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Those are actually the only two I've found. I think a lot of scifi and fantasy writers use omniscient third. The Bible is written in omniscient third, as are most myths. Tolstoy used it, and so did many other great 19th century novelists. Today, though, most literary fiction is written in close third, if it's written in third person at all. First person has become increasingly common over the last couple of centuries, and it's the prevailing narrative voice in which most mainstream pop fiction is written today.

Any questions?