Thursday, June 21, 2012

Maintaining The Mind Of A Beginner About The Third Person

I am always a little taken aback when I see newly published writers offering workshops on writing. To me, a person who has published only one book is inexperienced and probably doesn't have a lot of knowledge to impart to others. This attitude on my part is why I have been such a satisfied martial arts student for the past decade. The "maintain the mind of a beginner" business, in which you assume you don't know much so that you're always open to new knowledge, is popular in martial arts training. I embraced it eagerly.

After I wrote and published my first book, I certainly didn't know much. It's a very good thing that I accepted that because when my editor, Kathy, pointed out that my use of a third-person narrator in my second book left something to be desired, my mind was open to the possibility that she was right. I have obsessed on the third person for the last fifteen years or so, and wrote only one book with that kind of narrator. And Saving the Planet & Stuff used a point-of-view character, which is like a first-person narrator but different.

Recently I happened to read several books written in the third person, books that did not use a point-of-view character but shifted points of view among several characters. Here are a couple of problems I saw with the situation:

1. First and foremost, it's difficult to maintain narrative drive if the author keeps stopping the action to allow still another character to dwell on what's happening or even tell a story that doesn't appear to have much to do with anything. Some writers can switch point of view and have the new character drive the action of the story along. Some can't. Or maybe they don't know they're supposed to.

2. It's hard to commit to a protagonist if other characters are given too much face time. Or maybe it just seems that they're getting too much face time if those other characters aren't carrying the story along in terms of plot or interacting with the protagonist enough.

3. Martin Millar can create a whole universe of characters who are entertaining enough that readers will want to stay up late to read portions of a story from their various points of view. It seems that not every writer can do that. I can't believe that I'm the only reader who goes, "Oh, shoot. Him again" when confronted once more with the thoughts of a particularly dull secondary character.

None of the books I'm talking about were dreadful. They were just strikingly off because the third-person narrator was so awkward. Would I have recognized that fifteen years ago when I was still an inexperienced writer? Would I have recognized it now if I hadn't continued to study point of view ever since?

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