How to Use Close Third-Person To Get Closer to Your Characters

This guest post is by John Tang. John is a writer and graduate of the MFA program at San Francisco State. You can follow him on his blog, and read the literary magazine that he works for, Brev Spread.

`Close Third-Person is important tool to have in your kit. This is a chance for the reader to become intimate with your characters. And if done correctly, you can enter the natural vernacular seamlessly.

Close Third-Person

Creative Commons License Photo by Lali Masriera

John Gardner in The Art of Fiction explains it best in his example:

  1. It was winter of 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
  2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
  3. Henry hated snowstorms.
  4. God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
  5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing, and plugging up your miserable soul.

Already you can see a difference in the sentence although they say pretty much say the same thing.

The mistake authors make however is that you can’t get to level five without going through one or at least two. You have to gradually get there. Go ahead and try reading 1 and then 5, you will feel jarred compared to reading 3, 4, and then 5.

Authors To Learn Close Third-Person From

The best authors in this practice are Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, and Alice Munro, who won this year’s Nobel Prize in short fiction. Most people will champion Woolf because she wrote in a catastrophic era when consciousness was a trend and that she precedes both Murdoch and Munro.

But I want to use my hero Iris Murdoch in A Fairly Honourable Defeat to show how you can enter the consciousness—or to put it more technically, enter third person and shift into first person:

Morgan pushed the earth away and rolled down the slope onto the level of the shorter grass. She lay there prone and struggled with giddiness and nausea and unconsciousness. She told herself, and hung desperately on to the though, I have got sunstroke, that is what it is, it must be. She herself onto her knees, panting, grasping, keeping her head down. She did not know whether her eyes were closed or not. She seemed to see the expanse of green floor between the high flowering banks and it was alive with movement and huge forms. The great ray from afar was pinning her between the shoulder blades and trying to force her down again […] She felt the sun burning into the back of her neck as if it was directed through a prism. She though I have got to get up. Gasping and sobbing for breath she got to her feet and as if still blind and yet seeing began to run as fast as she could along the level floor of the cutting.

Murdoch breaks away from prose at “that is what it is, it must be,” entering into speech.

How does she do it? The trick here is using the concrete details from the natural world; and with that, you have already established a voice for your readers. Now you can enter into the syntax of your characters.

I implore you to read Woolf and Munro, who perhaps does a better job than Murdoch. I’ve selected Murdoch purely out of love and a chance to share her works. I firmly believe everyone should read The Sea, The Sea.

Do you write in close third-person? What tips do you have to get close to your characters?

PRACTICE

So here’s the exercise. For fifteen minutes, write in close-third person. And here’s my recommended approach. First, select an emotion and a setting. And then guide all the concrete details to reflect that emotion. You will naturally enter the character’s mind and discover what he or she is perhaps musing over or growing annoyed at.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, be sure to leave a few comments for your fellow writers.

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