Today’s post is by developmental editor Monya Baker (@Monya_PostMo).
Earlier this year, Tiffany Yates Martin contrasted omniscient, limited, and deep third-person POVs, along with common pitfalls. Deep third person—where the narrator’s voice is the character’s voice—offers many benefits of a first-person narrator but with more flexibility. It is convenient when there are multiple POV characters.
But deep third can be a real bear to manage. Action tags that provide clarity, like “Jane felt” or “Jane saw,” also create distance between character and reader. When the POV character intently observes other characters, readers may think the POV has shifted to the observed character. When characters are the same gender, pronouns quickly become ambiguous.
Here are a half-dozen ways to minimize both distance and ambiguity, starting with the simplest. They also improve characterization and make for more powerful writing.
In the following examples, Paul or Pauline is the POV character, and Oliver or Olive the character being observed.
1. Change pronouns to articles.
Often his or her can be replaced by the, this, that, a or an. That eliminates the pronoun and thus any question of what the pronoun refers to.
Clunky proper nouns: Oliver was standing at the door to Paul’s bedroom. (This is unambiguous, but pulls away from Paul’s POV and pummels the reader with names.)
Ambiguous pronouns: Oliver was standing at the door to his bedroom. (Even if readers are firmly in Paul’s POV and Paul’s apartment, his will cause momentary confusion.)
If you change the pronoun to an article, problem solved—assuming the reader knows Oliver is in Paul’s apartment.
Improved: Oliver was standing at the door to the bedroom. (Think about it: when you’re in your own home you think “the bedroom,” not “my bedroom.”)
2. Add descriptions. (This tool is most powerful when combined with others.)
The use of key details enhances both characterization and clarity. If the readers know that Pauline likes flash (or that Olive sticks to neutral shades), a description adds vividness and clears up ambiguity.
Clunky proper nouns: Olive handed Pauline Pauline’s wallet.
Unclear pronouns: Olive handed her her wallet.
Improved: Olive handed her her silver-sequined wallet. (This also works if readers saw Pauline buying the wallet in a shopping fit brought on by loss of self-confidence.)
Even better: Olive handed her the silver-sequined wallet.
Here’s another example combining tips #1 and #2.
Clunky nouns: And with that blunt assessment, Oliver charmed Paul’s work friends.
Unclear pronouns: And with that blunt assessment, Oliver charmed his work friends.
Improved: And with that blunt assessment, Oliver charmed the gym team. (It’s more specific and reminds readers where Paul works.)
3. Add physical sensations.
If you add something only your POV character can feel, the POV is clear.
Ambiguous POV: Olive squeezed Pauline’s hand tightly.
Clearer POV with sensation: Olive squeezed Pauline’s fingers so hard they hurt. (Only Pauline feels the pain.)
Ambiguous POV: Olive’s cheek brushed Pauline’s ear.
Clearer POV with sensation: Olive’s warm cheek brushed Pauline’s ear.
4. Drop in backstory, character knowledge, or voice.
If you add something only your POV character knows, thinks, or articulates, the POV is clear. Let’s say Paul uses a lot of one-word slang assessments like “gross”.
Ambiguous POV: “Who’s to say what’s weird?” Oliver said. He was laying it on thick for Ivan.
Clearer POV with voice: “Who’s to say what’s weird?” Oliver said. Gross. He was laying it on thick for Ivan. (“Gross” puts this in Paul’s voice.)
Here’s another example using backstory instead of voice. The goal is to maintain Pauline’s POV. Bonus: an opportunity for characterization.
Ambiguous POV: Olive was breathing fast with her eyes squeezed shut.
Clearer POV with backstory: Olive was breathing fast with her eyes squeezed shut, like that cousin from Boise who was afraid of the dark. (Only Pauline knows about the cousin from Boise, and you were just looking for a way to foreshadow her reentry into the story anyway, weren’t you?)
Or let’s say the POV character is a chef.
Ambiguous POV: Olive scrambled eggs.
Clearer POV with character knowledge: Olive scrambled eggs without even letting the pan warm up. (Pauline the chef would notice this, presumably Olive would not. Bonus: now the reader is wondering if the friendship will last.)
Combining voice and knowledge: “Who’s to say what’s weird?” Oliver said. Gross. He always laid it on thick for Ivan. (This is an assessment unique to Paul made in Paul’s voice.)
Here’s a combination of tip #1 (replace pronouns with articles) and tip #4 (add character knowledge): Olive handed her the silver-sequined wallet, the one that Ingrid hated. (This works if readers know from earlier in the scene Pauline has been thinking about her haughty sister Ingrid.)
5. Use character assessments.
If you add assessments and observations from your POV character, the POV becomes clear. (Credit to @mariond_d for this one.) If there is a place for adverbs, this is it. Words like luckily, probably, weirdly, disastrously can show the POV character’s desires, fears, assumptions, and confidence. They also show who is making observations and assessments. (The POV character, that’s who!)
Ambiguous POV: Olive was bored. (This reads like Olive’s POV, not Pauline’s.)
Clearer POV: Olive was probably bored. (Or: Olive must be tired. Now it’s clear that a POV character is observing Olive.)
6. Use limited third-person tags, but use tricks to make them less conspicuous.
Common advice on deep third is to avoid action tags like “she thought,” or “he saw.” These tags pull your reader away from the character’s head and so out of the story. But ambiguous prose also pulls readers out of the story. Here’s a secret: if you bury the tag in the middle of a sentence, it provides clarity but gets less attention. The same thing happens if you make the tag a result of the POV character’s action. (Credit to @mariond_d for this one, plus see Poynter Institute’s Roy Peter Clark: Order words for emphasis.)
This technique works best combined with descriptions or assessments.
Ambiguous POV: Oliver hunched his shoulders amidst the hard-drinking chain-smokers. (This seems like Oliver’s point of view, not Paul’s observation.)
Prominent tag: Paul watched Oliver hunch his shoulders amidst the hard-drinking chain-smokers. (This clears up POV but puts a boring, distancing phrase in the most prominent place in the sentence.)
Clearer POV with buried tag and action: Paul looked over at Oliver and saw how he hunched his shoulders amidst the hard-drinking chain-smokers. (This transforms the “and saw” tag into a result of Paul’s action.)
Clearer POV, with action and assessment: Paul looked over at Oliver and wished he would stop hunching his shoulders amidst the hard-drinking chain-smokers.
Sometimes a tag (like “Paul thought” or “Pauline saw”) really is the best option. If you have to choose between distance and ambiguity, take distance. First, though, look for ways that make the sentence only something the POV character can say. If you find ways that reduce both distance and ambiguity, the trade-off might become unnecessary.
Monya Baker is a professional developmental editor for scientists, a contributor to The Science Writers’ Handbook (Da Capo Lifelong Books), and a member of the National Association of Science Writers and the San Francisco Writers Workshop. Her articles have appeared in the Economist, Nature, New Scientist, Slate, Wired, and elsewhere. Her novel-in-progress, That They Might Have Joy, placed in the 2020 Mendocino County Writers’ Conference Contest.