JM Williams

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Narrative Perspective: 3rd Person Pure Limited or Limited Omniscient


I had another good discussion with my editor as we reviewed his comments on my book manuscript. Another interesting, you-know-it-but-don’t-realize-it topic came up: narrative perspective.

I generally write in third-person. It’s standard form for fantasy, though less for sci-fi. I find most first-person writing to be lazy. It goes back to the age-old adage “show don’t tell.” Most writers using first-person simply describe thoughts and feelings, rather than showing their effect.

A major problem I have with a lot of classic SF, is that the main characters often come off as cardboard plot devices, rather than real people. Plot usually takes precedence in SF over character. But I am a character writer by training, so that’s no good for me. Thus, I tend to stick with third person.

There are basically three ranges for a third person narrator: pure omniscient (which you should almost never use), limited omniscient, and pure limited. The middle one was the new[ly recognized] concept from our discussion.

What is the difference between limited omniscient and pure limited? Well, it has little to do with what the narrator knows of the story; both perspectives come from right behind the eyes of the character, limited in knowledge to what the character knows. The difference is how events are judged. Is the story being judged (as in the actions of other characters) by the character or is the narrator’s independent perspective coming through.

The way my mentally-challenged character views an aggressive older boy is going to be much different than I would. I probably hold that boy to a higher moral standard and will be harsher in my judgement. The character has encountered this boy before and has become numb to his bullying. So which perspective do I use?

This is important because I have many characters and perspectives in my book. Do I do it like George R.R. Martin and have the moral perspective change with each character? Or do I provide a consistent judgement of the world throughout the work. I have decided to do the latter, for consistency and balance (once you see the structure of my book, I think you will understand). Though the narrator is limited in knowledge to what the characters know, his moral compass analyses and presents events to the reader in a consistent way.

This difference between limited perspectives is something that cannot be done in first person, and one of the reasons a lot of first-person writing is flawed. Take the story The Disavowed Agent by Allison Spooner. Not to dig at writer, the story is based on a fun concept and was a good read (follow the link and give it a read). The problem is that her character is a 7-year-old and yet has a mostly adult world view and vocabulary. She explains this by suggesting her character watched a lot of spy movies, but there is only so much such a young child can absorb and emulate.

In first-person, the voice must match the character, it doesn’t make sense otherwise. The solution would be to write this story in third-person limited omniscient. Then you can keep the complicated adult voice, but be in the character’s head at the same time (though, you’d have to change some of the dialogue).

I find a lot of first-person writing suffers the same problem. First-person is the easiest form to write badly and the hardest to write well. Unfortunately, it seems either a lot of publishers out there prefer first-person stories, or writers do.

I would caution any writer to think twice about writing in first-person as a default. Ask yourself if it is necessary, if it adds something to the narration that cannot be achieved in third-person. If you don’t have a good positive answer, stick with third-person and build your character by showing rather than telling.

But that’s just my limited perspective.

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