When I discovered a way to bypass the agent/publisher mechanism, with all its frustrations, time-walls and disappointments, and make my work available directly to readers a great weight lifted from my head and allowed the creative juices air again: I was very excited. However I could see that the books that were self-published on smashwords.com were mainly popular fiction and not the literary fiction I usually read and aspire to write. I searched my bank of ideas and resurrected the idea that eventually became Veronica Comes Undone.
See my blog post Veronica Comes Undone: How did this happen? August 29 2014.
I started writing immediately, with that warm feeling of creativity gaining momentum and urging me along; using the third person point of view (POV) which is the usual form for popular fiction. I was well into the piece, about 30,000 words, when I realised that I was actually using third person subjective: I was writing in the third person but from a specific character’s close POV, that of my protagonist, Veronica, and no-one else’s.
The third person POV allows you to be omniscient, to know everything; the past, present, and future of the world and everything in it; everybody, everyone’s desires, secrets, and obsessions; in short to be god-like with the capacity to tell the story from multiple POV’s jumping from character to character; as if the god-like narrator is sitting on the characters’ shoulders experiencing the same story from everyone’s POV (Jane Austen, Tolstoy, St Aubyn).
First person POV only allows the narrator access to the first person; the protagonist is the narrator (I said, we went). It’s only from inside the narrator’s head that you see, feel, and are told the story.
Third person subjective is indeed using the third person (he said, they did, she went) but not jumping from the shoulder of character to character, but staying on the shoulder of only one: in my case, Veronica’s. Initially I worried that this was limiting: too much like the first person, that I was cutting myself off from a richer narrative, other character’s thoughts and motives but I had 30,000 words in my wake and it felt right; it was working.
I soon realised that third person subjective, as well as first person, has an up-side: you do not have to explain the motivations of others. People’s actions to us and others in our own sphere of perception can be confusing, annoying, or down-right maddening but they can also be surprising, alarming and devastating, and it is not possible, in the first person, to explain why these other characters do what they do. This is great fiction fodder.
Formally and academically this third person subjective is called free indirect discourse which can also be defined as the practice of embedding a character’s speech or thoughts into an otherwise third-person narrative. It’s almost like the narrative is coming from two brains: the narrator’s and the character’s.
James Woods, literary critic for the New Yorker, and Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard, in his book How Fiction Works (Woods J,2008 Jonathan Cape) calls it ‘close writing’. I like this term. It expresses exactly what it feels like, what it reads like.
Here’s an example;
As he walked towards her she noticed nothing but his hair: it bounced and shone like a Pantene commercial. How does he get it to do that?
The first sentence is the narrator’s; the second is the character’s: something she didn’t say but only thought as if the narrator, sitting on her shoulder, heard her think this.
If close writing gets too close it can slip into the first person.
As he walked towards her she noticed nothing but his hair: it bounced and shone like a Pantene commercial. How does he get it to do that? I’d kill for hair like that. And before she knew it they were shaking hands and she was smiling far too much.
And the last sentence is back to the third person again.
By the way, writing in the second person (you said, your wife, take yours) is rare. However Elliot Perlman in his masterpiece Seven Types of Ambiguity opens in the second person;
He nearly called you again last night. Can you imagine that, after all this time? He can.
This is rather intriguing and troubling as it appears the narrator is talking to an unknown character or, even more disconcerting, to you, the reader.
However second person POV is used more commonly in advertising (Apple – “Think different”; even though this is grammatically incorrect), and song lyrics (“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell).
For a light hearted take on ‘close writing’ follow the link to the essay, The Art of Close Writing by Jonathan Russell Clark, a literary critic and fiction writer who writes the essay ‘close’ and not in the first person, as you might expect.
For a more detailed discussion of close writing try