Friday, August 12, 2011

Third-Person Point of View, Part 1.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

The third-person POV features third-person pronouns: he, she, it and they in the nominative case; him, her, them in the objective case; and his, her, its, and their in the possessive. Three examples from fiction appear below.

o For the first time in years the tears were streaming down his face. But they were for himself now. He did not care about mouth and eyes and moving hands. He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away, and he could never go back any more. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished (from “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A New Collection. Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Scribner’s, 1989. 235-236).


o Of all earthly pleasures, Laila’s favorite was lying next to Aziza, her baby’s face so close that she could watch her big pupils dilate and shrink. Laila loved running her finger over Aziza’s pleasing, soft skin, over the dimpled knuckles, the folds of fat at her elbows. Sometimes she lay Aziza down on her chest and whispered into the soft crown of her head things about Tariq, the father who would always be a stranger to Aziza, whose face Aziza would never know. Laila told her of his aptitude for solving riddles, his trickery and mischief, his easy laugh (from A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, 219).

o He thought there had to be something overlooked but there wasnt. They kicked through the trash in the aisles of a foodmarket. Old packaging and papers and the eternal ash. He scoured the shelves looking for vitamins. He opened the door of a walk-in-cooler but the sour rank smell of the dead washed out of the darkness and he quickly closed it again. They stood in the street. He looked at the gray sky. Faint plume of their breath. The boy was exhausted. He took him by the hand. We have to look some more, he said. We have to keep looking (from The Road by Cormac McCarthy, 59).

Many authors use third-person to tell their stories, and non-fiction writers often choose third-person for critical essays and explanations in order to avoid the sticky terrain of opinion and bias. Almost all the writing that teachers and professors ask you to do in schools and universities will require that you write in third-person.

Today, as evinced by the three opening examples, the topic under discussion is third-person omniscient. Next week, the focus will be third-person limited.

Re-read the excerpt from Hosseini. It begins with someone’s knowledge that Laila’s number-one pleasure in this world is her daughter, Aziza. How many people know your number-one pleasure? How many people have you told what your number-one pleasure is? The answer to both questions is likely “no one” or “very few people.”

Omniscient third-person narrators know the character’s innermost thoughts, motives, and secrets. Not only that, an omniscient narrator knows the innermost thoughts, motives, and secrets of every character. Hence, the name: omniscient, defined as having complete or unlimited knowledge, awareness, or understanding; perceiving all things.

A first-person narrator might say: I noticed that he kicked his right leg forward as he walked, and it swung above the ground from a knee-joint instead of following the hip, thigh and knee to plant the foot firmly below. I wondered if cancer, a machine, or war had taken the leg below the knee and hoped he would tell me one day.

On the other hand, a third-person POV for the same man might read: With each step, he lifted his right leg and exerted pressure on the cup at his knee to kick the lower leg up and out before relaxing the thigh muscles so that the foot fell into place. At first, the effort had exhausted him, then it had become excruciating as he pushed himself hour by hour to take another and another step, farther, still farther. Every sharp pang and dull ache were nothing; they were lighter than that moment when the detonator’s click reached his ears, too late to step off, too late to save the leg--hell, to save himself. He shut his eyes against the memory of that leg, just out of arm’s reach, still standing in that boot the color of sand, the khaki staining black with the blood that seemed to rise from his soul.

The first-person POV only describes what a person can sense and infer whereas the third-person POV knows the past and the present, the action and the emotion all at once.

Reading Challenge:

Identify two works, one written in first-person and the second, in third-person. Read or re-read the two works, noting how the authors manipulate point-of-view to grant and withhold information to readers. Ask yourself what has been gained and lost in the POV choice. (Note: This post and last week’s include titles for works written from both points of view.)

Writing Challenge:

As I did in the two short passages about a man with an artificial limb, write from the first person POV, then from the third-person omnisicient POV.

Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics (GUM):

When I was a girl--oh and woe, so many years ago--I learned that the article “a” precedes a word that begins with a consonant or a letter pronounced as a consonant. For example:

o A frat boy and a girl walked into a bar with a top hat on his head, a scarf on hers, and a platypus between them.
o A cat crouched behind a tree to watch a mouse scurry across a freshly mowed lawn.
o A photo of Sasquatch has been debunked by a scientist and a conspiracy nut working together.
o A university education is essential if you wish to qualify for a great job, but while studying at a university, I recommend that you carry an umbrella at all times.

If you are reading the examples closely, you should notice two words beginning with “u” in the last one. “A” precedes “university” but “an” precedes “umbrella.” The reason is that words such as “university” and “universal” begin with a sound like the pronoun “you” whereas “umbrella” and “underwear” and “uncle” begin with the vowel sound “uh.”

Words that begin with vowel sounds, including “uh” require the article “an.”
For example:

o An ant labors all his days whereas a grasshopper appears to hop, skip and jump through his.
o An elegant table setting requires candlelight and cloth napkins, but a casual brunch table needs paper napkins and plastic tableware.
o An idiot knows his present, but an informed voter knows the past and present in order to provide for the future.
o An octopus is one of the world’s best escape artists due to its abilities to shift shape and camouflage its colors.
o An umbrella is an essential tool when living in cities or dashing from class to class at a university.
o A yolk is no joke in terms of calories, but a yoke is often a joke if cracked upon the head of clown.

Again, I saved the exception for the last example in the series above. “Y” often counts as a vowel, but when words beginning with “y” are spoken, the pronunciation is not a short vowel sound so words opening with “y” usually require the article “a.”

Finally, is it an historic moment or a historic moment? Well, it’s both actually, but the more correct version is a historic moment for reasons similar to the “u” examples above. When the word begins with an “h” sound, choose the article “a.” When the word begins without the aspirant sound “h,” then choose “an” as in “an honest effort” (a word that begins with a vowel sound instead of the “h” sound). Thus:

o Owning a horse is a wonderful but expensive hobby.
o A hobby is as important to a happy life as honey is to bees.
o A honey bee is a friend to gardeners and farmers
o A hive should be protected from pollutants and predators, including wasps and man.

So let the distinction between vowel and consonant sounds be your guide when choosing between “a” and “an,” except, of course, some words beginning with “u” and “h.”