Narrative Voice: Third-Person
Follows: First-Person Narrative Voice
Despite the copious amounts of examples of voice within first-person narrative, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is only found in that perspective. In fact, third-person can offer a wealth of voice exploration that first-person may be limited in—if handled well.
Just because a book is in third-person does not mean that the story has to be written in the writers’ voice. The narrative can have an entirely new feel; one that is distinct from the author and potentially set the book apart from further pieces that the writer creates.
An example of voice in third-person is Ted Dekker’s ‘Showdown’.
“Cecil Marshal shifted his seat on the town’s only public bench, shaded from the hot midsummer sun by the town’s only drinking establishment, and measured the stranger strutting along the road’s shoulder like some kind of black-caped superhero.”
It is small, but the comparison of the stranger to a “black-caped superhero” is a demonstration of voice. This is Cecil’s opinion. To him the stranger looks like this, but another character may think of a different simile.
The saturation of voice within a third-person prose is, of course, different from that of a first-person narrative. It is also different depending on whether the voice is omniscient or limited, but this is not a rule set in stone.
Discussing voice within a narrative would be a bland one without mentioning the sarcastic, anecdotal voice of the omniscient narrator in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ by Douglas Adams. The narrator regularly breaks all kinds of writing rules that I’d never get away with, such as telling rather than showing and dropping in opinionated language. This is all evidence of a strong voice within an omniscient third-person perspective.
“The huge yellow something went unnoticed at Goonhilly, they passed over Cape Canaveral without a blip, Woomera and Judrell Bank looked straight through them, which was a pity because it was exactly the sort of thing they’d been looking for all those years.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Even though the narrator drops exposition tangents, the voice is enough to not throw the reader off. When explaining that Arthur’s comment about “lifestyle” started a war, it isn’t essential to the plot of the story, more so a fact that the narrator found amusing enough to share.
With such a strong voice, the narrator becomes an entity unto its own—and I doubt the book would be nearly as interesting if it had been written in any other way.
Most would argue that narrative voices from third-person perspective can be difficult to separate from the author’s voice. Some even argue that there is no difference at all. Such is the case with ‘Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West’ by Cormac McCarthy. Given McCarthy’s distinctive style in writing, such as less is more in regards to punctuation, it can be difficult to see an immediate difference between ‘Blood Meridian’ and some of his other works, such as ‘The Road’.
As with most omniscient narrators, the narrator of ‘Blood Meridian’ has an air of authority in its sweeping statements about the happenings of the book’s setting. This lulls the reader into a false sense of security that everything being said is reliable and truth, when this is not necessarily the case. There are many aspects of the story that the narrator chooses to omit, starting with the name of the protagonist, whom is simply referred to as “the kid.” This is not unknown in McCarthy’s works, with ‘The Road’ having a similar set up with The Man and The Boy. Yet it is worth asking why the names of characters are omitted if the narrator knows them—which it is relatively safe to assume it does given its unquestioned insights into the world. The only explanation would be that the narrator has deemed that the audience does not need to know.
Another character that goes unnamed is “the idiot.” Now, one could argue that the character has been called such because he is a genuine idiot, but it also could come down to the narrator’s own personal opinion of the man.
Furthermore, McCarthy’s narrator is a fan of similes over metaphors. This may be considered a minor note, but it is worth acknowledging that similes are riddled with subjectivity, as established with Showdown’s “like a black-caped superhero.” Exercising his control over language, McCarthy is able to use his skill to subtly suggest opinion within the narrator.
“Toadvine doled the coppers onto the bar and drained his cup and paid again. He gestured at the cups all three with a wag of his finger. The kid took his cup and drained it and set it down again. The liquor was rank, sour, tasted faintly of creosote. He was standing like the others with his back to the bar and he looked over the room. At a table in the far corner men were playing cards by the light of a single tallow candle. Along the wall opposite crouched figures seeming alien to the light who watched the Americans with no expression at all.”
It should be noted that this narrator does not enter the mind of the kid, like other narrators. It also drops in Western colloquialisms, much like Lila Bowen’s ‘Wake of Vultures’—a book I cannot praise enough for its strong third-person narrative voice.
With these examples of voice and how it can work alongside narrative choice, it can look quite daunting for new writers, or even established ones when fine-tuning the key elements of their work.
It needn’t be a huge ordeal or something to get stressed about. It’d be dismissive to say that it is something that comes naturally, because it doesn’t always. It is something that requires nurturing and one fine detail: knowing your character.
I highly recommend learning every single little thing there is to know about the characters you wish to follow, whether first or third-person. Once the foundation is in place, such as where they’re from and what they like, how they speak and react will start to build. As I said earlier, certain writing habits in the author might be hard to break if necessary, but that’s a part of the fun.
If that becomes too stressful, this advice never fails me: write. The character’s voice at the beginning of the first draft could feel entirely different to the voice at the end of the fourth. With experimentation and experience comes the fruit of a writer’s hard labour: character voice. Get the bare bones of the story down if necessary before worrying about voice; just try to remember in a later draft that voice is a powerful element to have within a piece of work.
Then my final tip: join a writers group, or at the very least find a beta reader. In my experience, this is one of the most useful tools at my disposal. An audience is able to tell you whether a character’s voice is slipping, changing too rapidly, or non-existent altogether. They can become invested in characters and this enthusiasm is something that often dwarfs my proofreading. As I am inside the box, bogged down by everything else that I know is happening or has happened or will happen in the story, I may not notice all the things my beta readers notice, and that is beyond useful, but also motivating.
© 2016 Lannah Marshall
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.