Writing Tips - Using the Close Third Person

Updated: May 2

Every writer has their preferred 'POV' (meaning 'point of view') to write from. Some swear by the first person as it feels more 'in-the-moment', while others prefer third person because it allows them to reveal things to the reader that the character wouldn't necessarily know.


My preferred POV is something called the 'close third person', which works a bit like a crossover between the two. Here's a little rundown of how to use the close third person, and where it can be especially useful...



Recap:


First person - ‘I’. Usually written entirely through one narrator’s point of view.

Second person - ‘you’. Almost never used in fiction.

Third person - Character names and ‘he / she / they’. Varies a lot in style, from ‘omniscient narrator’ viewing events objectively, to ‘close third person’ which is told closely through the eyes of the character.



Using the Close Third Person effectively


There are many times when it is not appropriate to show what is happening through the character’s eyes. It takes up extra words, and can make the writing tiresome to read as excessive use can turn the narrative into a stream of consciousness.


For example,


“She felt the waves lapping against her feet” - close third person (CTP)


Rather than:


“The waves lapped against her feet”- omniscient narrator (ON)


HOWEVER. There are several instances where is can be extremely useful to use the CTP rather than the ON.




Using the CTP to create characterisation


Imagine that this girl, whoever she is, has just been through something traumatic. Imagine, perhaps, that she’s lost someone she loved, or she’s struggling with her mental health and is trying to gather herself. She might have gone to the water’s edge to take a moment to herself. She might take some deep, steady breaths, concentrating on how it calms her. She might focus on the feeling of the water lapping against her feet, and it might prompt her to remember a happier time. Suddenly, the water lapping against her feet is no longer just a physical observation, it takes on a powerful meaning for her. Now, while using the ON voice above isn’t wrong, it is far more effective to use the CTP because it allows the reader to connect with that character and experience what she is going through.


This is a useful thing to do with all genres of writing, but I particularly like to use it to make characters more three-dimensional, especially villains. Think about Scar from the Lion King. What makes him such a great villain is that he isn’t just pure evil; we see that he has a rejection complex which drives a lot of his motives, and later on in the movie we see that he is frightened and haunted by guilt. It makes him far more interesting than if he had just been pure evil. He is actually based on Claudius from Hamlet, another fantastic villain. Why? Because he’s human- he feels remorse, guilt, fear, jealousy and love as well as being a bad guy. And he’s engaging, because Shakespeare gives us the opportunity to glimpse the story through his eyes and feel what he is going through. I’m not saying that you should write random soliloquies in the middle of your story, but if you happen to be writing from your villain’s POV at any point, giving them a few moments of CTP will allow them to become far more three-dimensional than just telling the reader what they’re doing.






Using the CTP to create emphasis


Let’s use the same girl again. This time, she’s not traumatised- she’s Rapunzel. She’s never been outside her tower, she’s never felt the grass beneath her toes or felt the warmth of a hug. She’s experiencing this world for the very first time, and it’s incredible to her. You could still use the ON here- it’s not wrong- but how much more effective to allow the reader to see this moment through her eyes. Even better, add in some MORE description to highlight just how incredible this moment is for her.


“The waves lapped against her feet” - ON


Becomes:


“She jumped as she felt the waves lapping against her feet, the water refreshingly cool to her aching toes.” (CTP)


See how much more effective that is? Suddenly, the reader becomes aware that something mundane and ordinary to us is almost magical to this girl. We feel her excitement, and we feel closer to her as a result. If you use this sort of voice for everything, it will get tiresome very quickly, but for something amazing or out-of-the-ordinary? It allows the character to share the magic with the reader, which is a wonderful feeling.



This is particularly effective if you are writing from the POV of a child, as they tend to have a certain innocence and naivety of the world which leaves them in awe of things that are fairly ordinary to us as adults. It helps the reader to get into that child’s mindset. It is also extremely useful if you are writing fantasy, as it can help the reader to adapt to the wonders of unfamiliar worlds and experiences as they see it through the eyes of someone else who is experiencing it for the first time, making strange concepts seem far more accessible as well as making the reader feel as though they are on the adventure with the MC rather than just observing it.




Using CTP to portray an unreliable narrator


This one is trickier, because the reader often won’t find out until later that the account they have just read is unreliable.


“His eyes flicked over to her and he smiled warmly.” (ON)


Fine. But what if he didn’t...?


“She noticed his eyes flick over towards her, and he smiled warmly.” (CTP)


Ah. Now it’s from CTP, and we have a margin of error. What if he’s not actually smiling at her at all? What if he’s actually smiling at the person standing behind her, who he’s secretly in love with, and she just thinks he’s smiling at her? The reader probably won’t notice at the time, but when they hit the twist in your tale later on and flick back to this bit, they will realise that they’ve been subtly tricked. And readers LOVE to be tricked.


Sometimes, this is also a useful tactic to use even when the reader knows that the character is barking up the wrong tree. For example, if something happens in the novel but it is witnessed by a child character and they misunderstand what is happening, even if an older reader can decipher between the lines what is actually going on. Think about the novel Atonement, when Bryony witnesses her sister and Robbie having passionate sex in the library. 11-year-old Bryony sees what is happening, and the reader knows exactly what’s going on, but Bryony misunderstands and thinks that Robbie is attacking Cecilia. Without the CTP, it would be very hard for the reader to distinguish what Bryony is seeing (or thinks she’s seeing) from what is actually happening.




Using the CTP to create tension


The CTP can be a very powerful tool for creating tension, especially if you are writing horror, romance, thriller or another category which would involve characters’ hearts pounding. If their pulse is racing, you ideally want your reader’s to be doing the same. How? Through the CTP.


Think about what happens to you when you’re in a tense situation. Let’s not make it too scary or steamy; let’s say a game of hide-and-seek. You’re hiding in a dark cupboard. You know that someone is coming to get you. Your senses will be going into OVERDRIVE. You can’t see, but this will only heighten the senses you can use. Now read this, and see which is more effective:


“She hid in the dark, trying to stay as quiet as possible. He entered the room, and paced the floor near her hiding spot, listening out for any signs of movement. Then, slowly, he walked towards the cupboard where she was concealed, and grabbed the handle.”


That was ON. It was fine, nothing wrong with it, but it didn’t really get your pulse racing. Now try the CTP version…


“She made herself as small as she could, her heart pounding as she tried to control her trembling limbs. It was too dark in the cupboard for her to see, but she held her breath as she heard the ominous squeal of the living room door. He was here.

His slow, thudding footsteps creaked against the floorboards as he entered the room, so heavy that she could almost feel each one trembling through the floor. Then all went silent.

Her heart was beating so hard, she feared that he would be able to hear it even through the heavy oak door. Then, to her horror, the footsteps started up again, this time drawing nearer to her hiding place. Even from this distance, she could smell the musty cologne on his wrist as he reached for the handle, and she forced herself not to scream.”


It takes up more words, but isn’t this SO much more exciting to read? This is one of those occasions where using the ON would actually feel wrong, because it would break the tension. If you want your reader to feel what the character is going through, you need to tell them what is happening through the character’s eyes. In this instance, what the character feels is actually more important than the details of what is happening.


This example could also be useful for the unreliable narrator situation. The ON perspective doesn’t give you any flexibility, but the CTP leaves room for questions as she can’t actually see what’s going on. Perhaps he flings open the door, and she realises that it’s not actually the person she was expecting, but someone completely different. Readers do love to be tricked.




In summary, the CTP can be a very useful tool if it’s used correctly, especially if you want to make your reader engage with a character, create tension or set up a thrilling plot twist that will make your reader both love you and hate you all at once!


Do you have a favourite book written in the close third person? Maybe you use it in your own writing? Tell me about it in the comments below!


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