Third person: how close can you be?

When your character is emotional, how will you show this?

There are several different terms for this POV but I use Third Person Intimate. It means that the story is told in third person (he or she) but is confined to one person’s POV. So I might have a story about Jane, George and Phillip but I tell the story through George’s POV only, using he, and cannot go into Jane or Phillip’s heads.

E.g. George tipped his wine onto the white tablecloth. The red stain looked nothing like blood. Jane had already run to the kitchen for a cloth, but Phillip leaned back in his chair, a sneer on his face. “That wasn’t very clever of you, George,” he said.

I think you’re the idiot, actually. But George kept a polite smile on his face and helped Jane mop up the wine, ignoring her quick glances at them both.

Advantages – you can still maintain a sense of intimacy and closeness to the POV character, but it allows you to expand the world of the story more. This POV, when well done, never has to use he thought or she thought because we are always inside the character’s head and we understand this. In first person, your narrator is unlikely to describe setting and details, or even their own actions, a lot as it would sound strange, or more likely be an info dump. But you can do this in third person without the reader noticing.

Disadvantages – you do lose that extra level of closeness to the main character, and have to work harder at showing their thoughts and emotions. It’s easy to slip into telling (Joe felt angry), although I see people do this in first person, too. You still can’t go into other characters’ heads – you can only say what the POV character observes, and what they think or intuit about it.

Challenges – as with first person, you need an observant, reasonable intelligent POV character. Even a child needs to be observant, although they may not be able to accurately interpret what they see. You also need to stay close to your POV character while giving a sense of the wider world of the story.

Writing pointer: if you’re not sure which would work better, write a chapter in first person, then put it aside and write it again in third person intimate. (Don’t just use the same chapter and change the pronouns – write it twice.) Which one feels like it has more depth and resonance? Which one has the stronger characterization in it?

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