The third person is a continuum of narrators based on how much the narrator knows.

Alice LaPlant drew this continuum in The Making of a Story, and it makes sense to me:

Omniscient                                                                              Direct Observer Godlike                                                                                         Fly on Wall

She explains that at one end you’ve got a narrator who knows everything about the characters, their histories, their present thoughts and feelings, their futures. This godlike narrator has infinite powers to know. On the other end you have a narrator who is limited to the observable facts, a narrator who acts like a reporter and lacks insight and judgment.

Read Hemmingway’s Hills Like White Elephants to understand this POV.

The Omniscient Narrator

The omniscient narrator may be a disembodied intelligence that isn’t part of the story as a character, but separate looking in and observing. 19th century novels often were written with 3rd person omniscient narrators. Classic examples are Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Jane Austen’s novels. More modern examples are, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Lemony Snicket, and Elizabeth Peters in her Amelia Peabody introductions.

The omniscient narrator can tell us what’s happening with any character. It doesn’t matter if are together or separated by time or physicality. This POV could give us the thought of one character in one line and the thought of another character the next sentence—something we call head-hopping when we’re using another POV.

The fully omniscient narrator, who hasn’t been restricted, could literally report anything.

Today, readers don’t want to just be told the story or have the story interrupted with comments, asides, lessons, etc, and the omniscient narrator has fallen in popularity. We won’t see many instances where the omniscient narrator interrupts the story to speak directly to the reader as in Isabel Allende’s Zorro anymore. Where there is a godlike narrator, it carries a distinct voice, never the same voice as the characters, or may have a neutral voice.

Limiting the Omniscient Narrator

According to LaPlant, in short fiction most narrators land somewhere in the middle of the continuum. The POV narrator will be limited in his or her knowledge in some way.

Narrative voice limitations may include:

—limited to the thoughts of the character, but unable to relate the character’s emotion

—able to see emotion, but unaware of backstory

—looks into the subconscious of the character, but can’t relate that to the past

All it really means is you’ve chosen to limit the knowledge of the narrator in some way that will enhance the story. A fully omniscient narrator would not be the best POV for a mystery, or we’d know “who done it” without the pleasure of clues and discovery.

There are a couple of subcategories you may want to use as defined by Beth Hill in The Editor’s Blog,


Limited Objective

The narrator is limited to reporting only events and dialogue and description he or she can observe. Readers don’t see inside the characters. They don’t get reports of thoughts or feelings because the narrator isn’t dipping into minds and hearts to show what characters are thinking or feeling.

This is very close to the third-person objective (our next blog entry). The omniscient narrator reports what he sees and hears in his own words, not the words and voice of a character. Hill says, “He can still report what a character looks like from the outside, which a character can’t do. And the omniscient narrator can compare characters or events to other people and things the character herself has no knowledge of, can mention things and places and truths the character has no knowledge of.”

Limited Subjective

This narrator can see a character, hear his thoughts and know his feelings, but can’t hear the thoughts and feelings of all the characters. POV is limited to one, or several characters. Viewpoint does not switch between characters in the same scene. The narrator stays with the character until the scene is finished.

This omniscient narrator reports what he sees and hears in his own words, not in the words and voice of a character. Character thoughts and feelings are reported in the character’s words. The narrator can report what a character looks like from the outside, which a character can’t do for himself. And the omniscient narrator can refer to events and people and things the character herself has no knowledge of.

Try It Out

Turn a few paragraphs of your own story, or a story you are reading from whatever narration you are using to an omniscient narrator. How does your work change? When you read, notice the narration and identify the POV.

Note: An omniscient voice doesn’t have to be bland or boring. When you’re writing, give this voice attitude—let the narrator comment, judge, and opine.

Coming next: Third person limited vs. omniscient

Charles Dickens

In any work of fiction or creative non-fiction there is a narrative voice, a central consciousness to relate the parts that can’t be witnessed first hand through scene. This narrative voice is what we call Point of View or POV and who your narrator is will be one of the most important decisions you’ll make.

You have three choices:

                        1st Person                       

                        2nd Person                        

                        3rd Person

Every story has a narrator even if the story is, according to Alice LaPlant, “ being told by an invisible and bodiless intelligence which never personally enters the story as a character, and which appears to be godlike in its scope of knowledge.” But please, don’t assume this voice is the author! When the author’s voice, or POV, enters the story, it’s called author intrusion—something we want to avoid. In fiction, the narrator is different from the author. The author writes the words but the narrator is the intelligence that is telling the story. The author controls the narrator, but that doesn’t make the author synonymous with the narrator.

There’s a big difference between a fiction narrator and a creative non-fiction narrator. In creative non-fiction, the author and the narrator are the same. No writing convention exists to differentiate these voices.

Think about it. If the narrator of your short story were I, the author, the work would be non-fiction!

First Person

The narrative is told by an actual character: I. That character can be a participant in the action or merely an observer of the action who tells about it, like Nick in the Great Gatsby. He was smitten with the glamorous Jay Gatsby next door and tells Gatsby’s and his cousin Daisy’s story. But ultimately the story is about Nick.

That’s the rub. The story is always about who we are primarily focused on. Even when there is a detached first person narrating, it’s going to be that person’s story. This is a convention you can count on.

Another first person option is the plural first person: We. This isn’t very common, but it isn’t unheard of either. Check out William Falkner’s A Rose for Emily.

Second Person

Second person is complex and rare. The narrator is You. But the “you” is really “I”, usually because “you” has disassociated from the unpleasant thoughts of “I” as found in Jay McIrney’s Bright Lights, Big City. Another possibility is that you is really another character and the piece is a monolog addressed to someone. Or the you addresses the reader as in Lorrie Moore’s How to be a Writer.

Third Person

Third Person is the most complex and requires a discussion in its own post. Tune back in next week to learn why the 3rd person isn’t a fixed voice, but a continuum of possible voices limited only by the number of authors using it.

Assignment: pick a story, your own or someone else’s. Identify the major characters. Who is the point of view character? Rewrite a scene from another POV in the first person. Is the story different? Is the meaning changed? Read your original and re-write in class.

The 4 kinds of characters:

  1. Those who never change, nor does their motivation (Stephanie Plum & James Bond)
  2. Those who don’t change  but their motivations change:  this character’s beliefs and personality don’t change, but what he wants changes as a result of the story events.  Heroes and villains.
  3. Those who change throughout the story although their motivation does not change: this character’s personality and overriding beliefs change regardless of the attainment of his goals. The single goal gives the work unity and comprehensibility while satisfying the reader with a comment on life. The character may get what he wants, but may be dissatisfied.
  4. Those who change along with their motivation: this character /plot is the most complex as his personality and beliefs are changes AND his desire changes as well. Aim toward this style: a progressive motivation (changing desire) and a character with internal changes.

Show motivations by:

-internal monolog

-dictated by another: detective novels


-dialog between characters talking about the character in question

-the character’s action (try 2-3 attempts to attain the desire)

The key to juggling motivation and change is to dramatize it! Write in scenes.

Prompt: Write a short scene about the worst visitor who ever darkened your character's doorway. How is the interaction between the host and guest going to change the host's personality and desires? Dramatize it. (From Wood, The Pocket Muse)

Adapted from: Alice LaPlant, The Making of a Story, A Norton Guide to Creative Writing 2007, Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, Writers Digest Books, 2005, Robert Olen Butler, From Where We Dream, Grove Press, 2005

I've heard a lot of buzz about critique groups over the last few years. At every conference, meeting, and author talk, we are reminded that publishers don’t retain editors anymore, and agents and publishers expect near perfect manuscript. Author Karen Batchelor once said, “These days, the writer is mostly on his or her own.” And it’s true. We have to “re-vision” our approach to professional, publishable writing.

The Norton guide to creative writing, The Making of a Story, encourages us to take our time with our manuscripts. Don’t assume a piece is more complete than it is, author Alice LaPlant says. I agree. Take the time necessary to explore your work, making sure that the characters are believable, the plot is working, the narrative is rich with detail and sensory language, and the right scenes are in place.

Here’s the rub, I’m way too close to my own work to objectively evaluate these issues, and I’m willing to bet you are too. What’s the solution? 1) Workshop style classes that focus on constructive literary criticism like our class at UVC; I have attended one of Susan Bono's groups for years—a real help to my writing. 2) A writing partner who will read and comment on your work. 3) Critique groups. I’ve started several peer groups: the First Drafter’s Society for encouragement on those brilliant, messy first drafts (Anne Lamont would call them something else,) Wordweavers for camaraderie, encouragement, ideas, insight, copy editing, and great revision, and JAM for in-depth criticism, structural help, and deeper characterization—my nemesis.

“Isn’t there some sort of protocol for critique groups?” a friend asked recently.

“Of course, why do you ask?”

“Well, first, people come with work that hasn’t been proofread. Then they spend hours arguing over tiny points of grammar, spelling and punctuation. A couple of the people get an idea about something and they never stop going on about it—but they're easier to take than the man who says everything is “nice.” What does “nice” mean? And then there’s a woman who defends every criticism anyone gives her and is still making the same errors now as in the beginning. And I'm tired of hearing everybody say how bad their work is. Why do I want to read someone’s bad work? It’s a waste of my time—but it shouldn’t be, should it?”

No, your critique group shouldn’t be a waste of your time! The group should be one of your most valuable tools. My experience is that I improve my writing most by hearing what critique givers say about other work rather than what is said about mine. I don't have the same attachment so am relaxed and open to seeing the possibilities. I'm lucky. My groups have met for years and the participants are kind, purposeful, and very good critique givers.

When I mentioned the problem to my class, a student pointed out Judith Barrington’s suggestions in her Writing the Memoir, from Truth to Art. We use these principles as guidelines for our workshops.

Readers do
-come prepared with copies for all participants that have been read over and corrected
-ask for specific feedback they would like
-ask for clarification if they don’t understand
-make notes while people talk
-respond to specific questions asked during the critique

Readers don’t
-denigrate their own manuscripts
-explain the intention of the piece or why it was written
-respond until all have given their critique

Critique givers do
-start with what they like, what moves them
-pinpoint why something works or does not work
-point out where they feel confused, lost or do not believe
-write notes on their copy of the manuscript and sign it as a reader
-suggest possibilities for language or plotting to example their critique
-make copy editing and proofreading corrections on their copy

Critique givers don’t
-criticize in a way to belittle the writer or the writing
-make generalizations without pinpointing specifics: Try, “This is good because I was moved by the last paragraph where you said…”
-tell stories from their own experience
-waste time pointing out small grammar problems and other proofing errors
-impose personal viewpoint or flog a point that has already been made, and never are mean!

Writers—always remember: it’s your work and what you think is most important, that is, until your publisher says differently!

Emotion drives behavior, behavior drives story. ~Nancy Kress

What’s happening in a story is most often happening to a character. Characters and plot intersect in several ways:

A character can create a plot point through action—the character does something and the story is a step closer to completion. (This applies to creative non-fiction too.)

A character can be acted upon by others, by nature, by God, and can create another plot point by reacting.

A character can remember things. Flashbacks are character-rich plotting devices that can give the reader information from the character’s backstory. Flashbacks don’t need to be told in chronological order.

Plot points can also be created by the imagining of the character. This could be a dream, a fantasy, a daydream, or a projection. An excellent example of this device can be seen in Flannery O’Conner’s Everything that Rises Must Converge. Notice how the son’s wild imaginings affect the plot.

Using your own list of characters, write or rewrite a story from the POV of a minor character. How does the plot change?

More reading: Junot Diaz The Sun The Moon The Stars
Tobias Wolff The Rich Brother
Julia Alvarez The Rudy Elmhurst Story

I’m using the word “reveal” because a compelling character emerges from a combination of narration, dramatization and action in scenes—show AND tell. James Frey says a character has 3 dimensions: physiological, sociological and psychological. Do your homework and create full lives for your characters (backstory.) A compelling character is a complex character.

Describing what a character looks like, what his or her environment is like, and what kinds of possessions the character owns is the most basic way to define a character and is usually done through narration. Choose physical details that underscore her personality traits. Choose those character traits that have a bearing on the character’s emotion and behavior in the story.

What a character says in dialog is powerful characterization. How she says it is critical to knowing the character: her vocabulary, syntax, diction, use and misuse of words, even gestures, tone, and how emotionally charged the speech is. Just as important is what the character doesn’t say or avoids (subtext) to define her character.

Characters can’t only talk, they must act. A character’s behavior, both with other characters and alone, shows the reader a great deal. What the character does is tied in with who he is.

Characters reveal themselves directly or indirectly on the page, depending on the point of view, through their thoughts. It is particularly effective for characterization when the character thinks differently than he or she acts or speaks. An example of character revealed through thoughts can be seen in Bharati Mukherjee’s The Tenant. Notice how the association of her thoughts follow each other, and notice how much we learn about her through this association.

Go back to those lists you made of important people in your life, the creepy ones too, and pick a number. See that person in your mind's eye. What's she like? Zoom-in. Write about her skin, and the way her hair straggles unevenly around her ears, a combination of mousy brown and silver. Notice how she moves, how she flutters her hands when she feels nervous or perplexed. Smell her breath. Has she tippled the tequila today? Is she still wearing that Indian print bedspread she sewed into a granny skirt in 1968 and huaraches? What does her natural expression say about her? Look at what she's doing. Is it routine, sweeping the floors, or something she loves. She plays the piano, doesn't she? Where is she? On that slumping screened back porch she loves so much, or in the formal living room. Write about this person until you own her. Carolyn See says, "And from now on, it's a combination of what he does and what you want him to do that's going to make this character come alive."

If you're having trouble visualizing your character, interview her.

Adapted from: Alice LaPlant, The Making of a Story, A Norton Guide to Creative Writing 2007, Carolyn See, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers 2002, and James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Novel, St. 1987

Characters are the stars that everything else in your story orbits around: the plot, the dialog, the details, the themes. Even “show don’t tell” is all about character. Characters are central to what we writers do every time we apply pressure to those keyboard keys! And our goal is to create real people (in memoir too) who live on the pages, act in ways the reader believes and whom the reader can care about.

But there’s something else. A character must convince us that he or she is real, and he or she must surprise us. We aren’t going to care about flat, predicable characters.

Flat vs. Round Characters (Thanks to E. M Forster!)
When we read, we focus in on characters, whether or not we realize it, and we see them as human beings with all the features, attributes, foibles and peccadilloes of a real person: black curly hair, size six shoes, a limp, a history, memories, an aversion to clowns, hair trigger tempers, hopes, dreams—although we may not read about all of these things, a (main) character has ‘em and the reader can feel the character breathing on the page. If she doesn’t, the character is flat, lifeless, and not believable.

Not to say a flat character isn’t allowed. We want a few flat characters in our work. These are stereotypes. They act in a consistent and prescribed manner. They lack complexity. They serve cocktails in the Beastly Bar. They rat to the teacher, putting our protagonist into hot water. They might be a loving mother or an evil boss, but they don’t surprise us and we, as readers, don’t care about them.

The round character is the opposite. He surprises us with his passion for reptiles, or his kindness toward foreigners, or his caustic eye on the world. The round character might be our friend. Something to keep in mind, the round character doesn’t need to be likeable, just compelling! E.M. Forster says, “if a character never surprises us, then he or she is flat; if they surprise but do not convince us, they are only flat pretending to be round.”
(Gurov in Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog” is a round character.)

Some tips for creating compelling characters:
~Be specific, particular and precise when writing character. Real people don’t act in general ways. Your flat character may cry at a wedding along with half the guests, but your round character is going to surprise us.
~A round character will not act consistently, nor will she act crazy, all the time.

Strive for complexity. Humans are multifaceted, unpredictable, and infinitely interesting!

Carolyn See in Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers
says, "Until the rest of us have time to sit down for cucumber sandwiches [like E. M. Forster--Ed.,] there are other ways to look at the characters who are going to be important in our lives and our work." Here's how:

Make a list of the ten most important people in your life. "Without thinking about it, or trying to make a good impression on anyone, or a bad impression either. Whom do you love? Who betrayed you? Whom did you betray? Who drives you nuts? Who's out of your reach? Who's your role model? Who's your benchmark for insanity?" Write the list. Now, quickly, write the list of the "other" important people you knew and why—the ones who creep you out.

These are your characters. Carolyn says, "...the ones you know something about. You may even have said to them, in a quarrel, 'I know you better than you know yourself!'...But they give you—in a form of cosmic refraction—unique access to your own soul and vision of life."

Save your lists. You've got work to do!

Adapted from: Alice LaPlant, The Making of a Story, A Norton Guide to Creative Writing 2007 and Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, Writers Digest Books, 2005 and Carolyn See, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers 2002

“Tension is the Mother of Fiction” ~Jerome Stern



According to Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction (W.W. Norton and Company 2000), “When tension and immediacy combine, the story begins.” Stern advises the writer that tension is created out of conflict: between characters, between the characters and forces of nature, society, or vampires. Characters may even have conflict with themselves. Tension is integral to all aspects to storytelling. Tension is part of what involves the reader in the story—“the more you get readers to feel and visualize the scene, the more vivid the tension….” (Stern) Tension may resolve, end, or continue at the end of the story, but the story remains memorable after the cover is closed on it if the tension lingers.

Alice La Plant, in The Making of a Story—A Norton Guide to Creative Writing (W.W. Norton and Company, 2007), defines tension as “the juxtaposition of two opposing forces.”

My dictionary ( lists two definitions that fit:
—mental or emotional strain; stress
—situation or condition of hostility, suspense, or uneasiness

In his Revision & Self-Editing—Techniques for transforming your first draft into a finished novel, James Scott Bell (Writer’s Digest Books, 2008) says “modulating tension is one of the keys to writing fiction.”


Stern identifies suspense “as the way you get your audience to worry.” It’s essential to any narrative; it’s the stakes. Suspense is that element that keeps your reader wondering what will happen next—“hoping for one resolution and fearing others.”

LaPlant defines suspense as “The state of being uncertain, unresolved. The sense that something of dramatic importance is about to happen.” says: a state or condition of mental uncertainty or excitement, as in awaiting a decision or outcome, usually accompanied by a degree of apprehension or anxiety.


LaPlant links conflict to tension: “Tension arising from opposite forces that is considered necessary by some to sustain a reader’s interest.”

The conflict—crisis—resolution model is the most predominant model for story telling. This is the model that defines a story as having an arc, or the Freitag triangle, named for the 19th century literary critic who developed the theory. Freitag identified five stages of the short-story: 1) the beginning exposition where the characters, setting and situation are introduced; 2) the rising action where the characters feel increasingly intense conflict; 3) the climax or the culmination of the conflict; 4) the falling action, denouement, when the tension is eased; 5) the resolution where the story ends.

This is the model taught in schools and posits that there are three kinds of conflict, those Stern lists under tension: man against man, man against nature, man against himself.

It is not the only model for stories! But it is a good starting point to understand the importance of suspense-tension-conflict in a work of fiction or creative non-fiction.


   [v. kuh; n. kon-flikt]

verb (used without object)

1. to come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition; clash: The account of one eyewitness conflicted with that of the other. My class conflicts with my going to the concert.

2. to fight or contend; do battle.


3. a fight, battle, or struggle, especially a prolonged struggle; strife.

4. controversy; quarrel: conflicts between parties.

5. discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles: a conflict of ideas.

6. a striking together; collision.

7. incompatibility or interference, as of one idea, desire, event, or activity with another: a conflict in the schedule.