A lot of fiction these days is written either in the first person or the close third person. Close third person is similar to first person because the character’s sensibility is the lens through which we receive the story. Close third person gives the writer a tremendous advantage — we get to know every thing that the character sees, hears, thinks and feels. We are privy to the character’s internal monologue. Sometimes I think this is one of the main reasons we read: we want to get in someone else’s head and find out what that is like.
But some writers don’t take full advantage of the close third person. They underutilize that wonderful device we call point of view. Here’s the thing: if you are going to use a close third person (or a first person) point of view, you need to spend some time in that character’s head. What is the character thinking? Or not thinking!
Here’s an example of the close third person from my novel From May to December:
Lolly picked up the pie from the round metal table where Aunt Jewel had left it and turned to go inside. Sue, a friend from work, had invited her to the movies, but she didn’t really feel up to it so she called and canceled. Saturday night and all she wanted to do was to eat some left over Thai food and read a book.
After her dinner she decided to take a bath. Her bathroom was small and covered in green tile. She’d need to redecorate in here, she thought. Maybe make a mosaic. She lit a vanilla-scented candle and undressed, drawing a hot bath. As she eased herself into the water on her one leg, she looked down at her body. How long had it been since a man had touched her? More than a year. Damn it, she thought. She used to see a guy named Sean. He was a French horn player, and what he could do with his lips was pretty spectacular. But then he got a symphony job in California and moved away. She missed him. Most men were afraid of her. Was it because of the leg? Or just because she didn’t take any crap from them? Being a feminist didn’t mean you were dead down there, she wanted to tell them. She leaned her head against the plastic waterproof pillow she’d stuck against the bathtub wall for just this kind of deep, soothing soak.
Supposedly we have about 60,000 thoughts a day. (I have no idea how they figured that out.) That’s a lot of thinking. You don’t need to overload your poor reader with all 60,000 thoughts, but don’t be stingy with them either. I know we harp a lot on the idea of “show don’t tell,” but sometimes you just need to tell your reader things and the best way to do that is through a character’s thoughts.
Why is it important? Mainly, it helps your reader begin to identify with the character, to care about the character, and to understand the character’s motivations. When you withhold information that a point of view character should know because you don’t want to give everything away, you run the risk of making your reader feel cheated.
Like most fiction guidelines this applies to memoir as well. The more we get in your head, the more engaged we will be in your story.
WIY: For ten minutes, write down all the thoughts that go through your head. Intersperse the thoughts with what is going on in your body and what you are experiencing externally. Now, let one of your characters talk to you. Ask your character what he or she wants to say, and then have your pen at the ready. If you’re writing memoir, that character can even be yourself.