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Subjective third person narrative

When I was a child, like most young readers I wanted to identify with the characters in books. I didn’t have the life experience, or the inclination, to keep my distance and think in a detached way about David Balfour, in Kidnapped, or Mary Lennox, in The Secret Garden. I wanted to be them, hiding out in the heather or opening the door into the garden. It was an experience like ‘dressing up’.

Both those books invite the reader to identify with the main character, but they do it in different ways. The first-person narrative of Kidnapped lets the reader share David’s feelings and see exactly what he sees—but we don’t see him. It is Alan Breck Stewart whose image dominates the book.

The Secret Garden, on the other hand, is told in the subjective third person. We see the story through Mary’s eyes, but we are also able to see her objectively, as if we were watching a film. The reader feels as her, but also about her. That’s a powerful combination. I believe it’s very close to the experience of performance that children have when they dress up and pretend to be someone else.

The difficulty with telling a story from one viewpoint is that the character whose viewpoint we share may not always be present. Often, the best solution is to switch between the viewpoints of two different characters, but some young readers find that confusing in a first-person narrative. When ‘I’ becomes someone different, the reader has to spot that and step back from the narrative, to re-engage in a different way.

Using more than one third person viewpoint is much subtler and less disruptive. The pronouns don’t alter, and young readers can follow the story without consciously noticing the change. It’s important to give equal weight to both viewpoint characters—so that one isn’t just a clumsy sticking plaster to make the plot work—and important to stick to one point of view at a time, especially when both viewpoint characters are present. Otherwise, the story slides into being an objective narrative and the sense of identification is lost.

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