Beverly Cleary:
On Third Person Subjective and Such

Choosing a point of view can be very tricky business — especially if you’re reaching for the limiting third person subjective. The narrative voice must maintain the logic of remaining within the protagonist’s knowledge, worldview, and understanding.

One of my favorite books to read when brushing up on this technique is the National Book Award winner, Ramona and Her Mother. Take this passage as but one example: “Ramona liked the word brunch, half breakfast, half lunch, and secretly felt the family had cheated because they had eaten their real breakfast earlier. They needed their strength to get ready for the party.”

While remaining in third person, Beverly Cleary filters Ramona’s thoughts, opinions, and emotions into the non-dialogue narration. Some writers struggle with this technique and slip into third person omniscient in which the narrative voice knows everything about everyone. Careful revision and editing will help you maintain the logic of this point of view.

What you gain in this voice is the close connection between your protagonist and your reader — nearly to the point of first person. What you lose is the limiting nature of maintaining singular access to just one consciousness.

This choice also provides writers with the ability to weave in comic relief with the fun and funny observations of — in this case — a child. Here we see Cleary at her finest: “I could, thought Ramona, deciding that since Willa Jean, welcome or not, was coming to the brunch, she had better prepare to defend her possessions. She went to her room, where she swept her best crayons and drawing paper into a drawer and covered them with her pajamas.”

Note how you can reveal your character’s flaws with this technique and thus provide yourself the opportunity to reveal growth as your protagonist arcs.

Have you tried this point of view? How do you like it? What are your struggles with it? Where have you triumphed?

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Madeleine L’Engle:
On “Frivoling” and Such

Whenever my characters all start to sound the same (and suspiciously like moi), I pick up the Newbery-winning bestseller A Wrinkle in Time and reread chapter one.

L’Engle had many gifts, and one of them was a superb ability to distinguish character voices.

The little boy with a genius IQ, Charles Wallace, sounds like the aged professor he is at heart. At one point, he’s even the grownup in the room scolding Mrs. Whatsit. “Do please get up,” he intones. “You’re carrying things too far.”

His diction includes such prodigious phrases as “exclusive. That’s my new word for the day. Impressive, isn’t it?” I’ll say. He’s five years old.

Mrs. Whatsit, on the other hand, sounds childlike, quirky, peculiar. She’s also funny. “I’m passionately fond of Russian caviar,” she explains. But Charles Wallace knows she spied it on the shelf and tells her they’re saving it for mother’s birthday.

After tumbling over in a chair, Mrs. Whatsit tells the family, “If you have some liniment I’ll put it on my dignity.” When Mrs. Wallace asks her if she’s stay overnight due to the inclement weather, their wacky guest replies that she must go as she “can’t waste time sitting around frivoling.”

Just the lesson I need to distinguish character voices in my own work…now back to writing.

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J.K. Rowling:
On Curiosity and Such

Who are the people in cloaks? Why is a cat reading a map and a street sign? Who are the Potters? Did Voldemort kill them? Why are shooting stars and owls about?

In the first few pages of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, bestselling author J.K. Rowling keeps a secret. Through mystery, suspense, intrigue — dropping hints like Reeses’s Pieces for ET — through the art of slow disclosure — she piques our interest and keeps us turning the pages.

We can’t wait to learn more from Dumbledore and McGonagall about who? About a little boy that not even Voldemort could kill. A little boy named Harry Potter.

What a trick, slight of typing hand. Delightful.

I don’t know about you, but I’m off to try this technique in my writing. Keep a secret, dole out information slowly, make the readers wait, make them curious…and thus want all the more…

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