One of the techniques I’m working on this year is writing in the third person. Because most of the literature I read as a kid was in first person, when I started writing, I started with first person, and I’ve never quite moved out of that mode. I’ve written a couple of short stories in third person, but I always feel distanced from the characters as a narrator, which results in distancing from the reader. Not a good thing.
So I decided to look at how one of the American short story masters deals with third person. Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find is told with a third-person limited narrator about a family on a road trip that ends up [spoiler alert] running into an escaped serial killer. In particular, the story focuses on the grandmother, and anyone who’s read the story can tell you: she’s pretty darn annoying. It’s her idea to go down the road that gets them killed, and it’s she who flags down the serial killer for help once she causes a car accident. Of all the protagonists to have, she is the most annoying and most bumbling to try to sympathize with. So how does O’Connor make us care?
1. She makes the grandmother a very active character, making sure no one else takes our sympathies away from her. When describing the road trip, every single paragraph starts with the grandmother’s actions: she is sitting, she is taking off her gloves, she is commenting on her son’s driving. She is also the only adult doing anything in this scene–her daughter-in-law is only described as sleeping and her son isn’t mentioned at all–making sure that she is the focus of attention and we don’t start sympathizing with anyone else. (Her grandchildren do interact with her, but they’re even more annoying than she is so they don’t threaten her status as sympathetic protagonist.)
The emphasis on her activity in the first part of the story cues us to feel great sympathy for the grandmother when The Misfit (the serial killer) shows up. As soon as he takes control of the scene, all language surrounding to the grandmother switches to the passive voice: “she found she was looking at The Misfit…” and “Alone with The Misfit, the grandmother found that she had lost her voice…She opened and closed her mouth several times before anything came out. Finally she found herself saying, ‘Jesus, Jesus,’ meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing.” Because we know her to be an active character, this sudden shift in language cues us to feel great sympathy for the grandmother because she has already lost her characteristic language.
2. She makes the grandmother childlike. During the car ride, she is the restless one in the back seat, not the children. When they stop for lunch, she wants to dance to the juke box while her son Bailey is “nervous” about the trip and refuses to dance with her. She shows great imagination in the stories she tells while her grandchildren merely sit there and read comics; in fact, it is through getting carried away in telling a story that she convinces the family to take the road to a plantation house (that isn’t actually there), which leads to calamity. But the most condemning evidence that marks the grandmother as a child is when her son admonishes her by saying “something to his mother that shocked even the children.” This is clearly a reversal of parent-child roles and makes us sympathize with the grandmother as though she is the innocent child of the story.
3. O’Connor emphasizes the importance of family to this grandmother. This is evident from the fact that we know her only as “the grandmother.” Her son, Bailey, is introduced as “Bailey, her only boy.” Her daughter-in-law is called simply “the children’s mother.” If O’Connor hadn’t put this emphasis on relationships, the grandmother would seem unconnected to the other characters because none of them have good relationships; but by pointing out several times that this connection, no matter how bleak, exists at all, the ending is so much more devastating. In fact, the children are the only ones not defined by a relationships, and they are the ones mourned for the least by the grandmother and by the reader.
I don’t think I’ll ever be as masterful of the third person as Flannery O’Connor, but these tricks she uses proves that even when a character is bumbling, annoying, and in the third person, it is possible to make them sympathetic. All you need is a careful eye for craft. (Easier said than done.)