A Matter of Perspective (Part Four – Third Person Objective)

This week, we will look at the first of three different perspectives, all with a similar name the “Third Person.” In the previous weeks, we’ve looked at first person (“I”) and the second person (“you”). So who could the third person be?

Well, by the simple process of elimination, it would have to be someone other than the first two. This “third person” is, quite often, one of the characters in the story. However, this isn’t always the case.

Thus, we start with “third person objective.” In a sense, there is no one telling the story. The narrator, as it were, simply reports on what is happening as it happens. This can be a difficult perspective to write, but oddly enough, it also is one of the perspectives that, nowadays, people are the most familiar with.

If you will, imagine that the third person in these scenarios is the camera of the scene. The camera can’t go into people’s minds or emotions – it simply records what it sees through its lens and projects it out to the audience. In third person objective, the writer becomes that camera.

So people are quite familiar with the third person objective style, because it’s used in television and movies all the time. Writing from the third person objective style is pretty hard, though – especially for those dedicated to the concept of “show, don’t tell.” The writer isn’t allowed to get into the mindset of their characters – at all. They can’t use phrases like “Michael felt a surge of anger as he read the letter Mary left on the desk.” in this instance, the author is putting the reader into Michael’s head. They would have to write in a way to show that Michael is angry without stating that Michael is angry. “Michael’s eyes rapidly scanned the piece of paper. His brow furrowed as his nostrils flared. He threw the paper onto the desk and snarled incomprehensibly.”

It can be an interesting challenge to take one of your scenes – especially if you’ve written from the first person perspective – and try to writ from third person objective. How can you convey the same thoughts and emotions without getting into your character’s heads, or using emotional words? How can you show someone is happy or sad without using the words “happy” or “sad?” This can be a fun exercise to try out!

As for examples of third person objective, one of the first to come to my mind would be the classic story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. This is a story in which using third person objective is practically critical, since writing from any other point of view would ruin the surprise twist at the end. Ernest Hemingway also was famous for his works being written in the third person objective style.

One of the main drawbacks to this style is, of course, the disassociation between the reader and the characters. As an impartial observer, it can be difficult to try and convey emotions during emotionally charged scenes, such as a murder or a breakup of a romantic relationship. The reader may also feel the odd disconnect and have trouble relating to any of the characters in the story – which, of course, mans that they could get bored with the story and decide to go read something else. Of course, this also can lead to one of the biggest advantages with the perspective, too – by not confining the reader to any particular mindset, they can draw their own conclusions as to what’s happening. As a result, third person objective is often one of the best styles to use for mysteries and the occasional horror novel. Basically a book in which the author doesn’t want the reader to know the mysteries of the characters until the “big reveal” at the end. It would be an extremely poor choice for romance or “coming of age” novels, where the reader is invited along with a character’s most intimate or formulative moments.

Using the scenario I offered during the first week of the series, here is the scene that I came up with.

A slight rustling sound can be heard as a mouse pokes its nose out from under some paper. It lifts its head as it sniffs the air, whiskers twitching.

The motion catches the attention of a striped orange cat. The feline’s eyes widen as it stalks forward on silent paws. It freezes in place as the mouse looks around. It slinks forward, its feet barely making a noise on the ground.

A child sits nearby on a wooden crate. The child wears a bulky, battered coat, and a dirt-covered hat rests firmly on its head. Only brown eyes peer out from under a few strands of limp, brown hair. The eyes dart back and forth between the mouse and the cat. The child sits on the crate without moving, watching the scene play out.

Next week we will look into one of the other third person views! Until then, keep on writing!

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