Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen 1996, cover by Gary Ruddell), The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Tor 2014,
cover by Anna Balbusso and Elena Balbusso), and A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine (Tor 2019, cover by Jaime Jones)
Since quarantine has brought an unexpected windfall of time for me, I’ve been beta-reading more than usual, and from sources beyond my immediate network of writer-friends. With these new novels, however, I’ve noticed this trend of a lack of intimacy with third person viewpoint characters.
I’m not sure if this is a discomfort with diving deeper into their character’s viewpoint, not knowing how to deep-dive into PoV, or taking the “show-don’t-tell” adage a step too far, to the point where the prose only “shows” action and all moments of interiority and reflection are seen as “telling.”
Or perhaps it’s that some writers watch more films, or play more video games, than they read, and recycle techniques borrowed from visual media that don’t have the same impact in prose? This is not to disparage visual and/or interactive entertainment, nor writers who learn how to tell stories in that media. However, visual media uses a different skill-set to convey emotion, and there are things that can be done with prose that can’t be done as well in film.
Whatever the root cause, I’ve read multi-viewpoint novels where the writers specifically stated that the plot was deeply character driven, and yet, for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you anything about the characters that wasn’t directly tied to the plot. It’s as if the writer feared to bog down the narrative with character backstory, either as a result of excessive edits or an unwillingness to include it in the first place. By the end, all that was left was what was introduced in Chapter 1. The characters had no past, and their only future derived from events in the story. I felt so removed, like I was watching things unfold from a distance, and while the plot escalated and had the necessary dramatic beats, I simply didn’t feel anything. I wasn’t experiencing, I wasn’t sinking into the prose and being transported.
While I can recognize the problem and describe the effect (or lack) it has on me, I honestly have no idea how to outline a solution in a way a writer could actionably apply. It isn’t like grammar or spelling, where there’s a generally accepted “standard.” I know it’s missing, I can point it out, but I have no concrete approach to retrofitting emotional intimacy with a viewpoint character into a completed novel.
Since I can’t define how to fix it, I thought I could at least present a few examples (within the genre range of science fiction and fantasy) of writers whose writing does facilitate that deep connection between me and the viewpoint character: Lois McMaster Bujold, Terry Pratchett, Robert Jackson Bennett, Katherine Addison, Arkady Martine, Tamsyn Muir, Scott Lynch, S. A. Chakraborty, George R. R. Martin — these are just ones I see glancing at my shelves.
Each has written third person viewpoint novels with such a depth of character, an intimacy of narrative scope, that I understood not only who the character was, but who they could become. A three-dimensional character, I argue, is not only one that has an almost physical presence on the page, but one that creates the illusion of time — through backstory, complex emotional landscapes, opinions and goals, defeats and successes.
The Priory of the Orange Tree (Bloomsbury 2019, cover by Ivan Belikov), and Foreigner (DAW 1994, cover by Michael Whelan)
There is a caveat: not all stories need be told from a deep, intimate dive into the mind of their point of view character. Some stories are served by a more distant, even dispassionate narrative style, such as Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree or the opening of C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner, where the scope of the narrative’s voice implies the scope of the story itself, and intimate third person would be a limitation. This, however, requires the narrative voice to carry the brunt of the reader emotional engagement.
Writing that speaks and connects to me may not do so for you. Not everyone experiences fiction the same way (and wouldn’t it be a bland world if we did?)
So on that note, I encourage writers to seriously think about those books where you felt so deeply immersed in the viewpoint character it was as if your heart beat in tandem with the prose, where the third person narration infringed so closely on first person, you forgot the pronoun being used.
Let those writers be your guide.
A Chicago native, R. J. Howell has a BA in Fiction Writing and an MFA in Creative Writing: Popular Fiction. Her fiction has been published in Arsenika Issue 6 and Beyond the Stars: Rocking Space, among others. You can find her online at rjhowell.com and at her blog.