3 Tricks to the Third Person

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.)

3 Reasons to Imitate

The writing program at Northwestern University values as a learning tool the imitation. We read established authors like Chekhov, Carver, and Saunders (to name a few of the very long list) and then set out to imitate them. Now, this imitation can be very liberal–some of us use them merely to get the germ of an idea for a story–but it can also be a strict imitation, such as almost exactly following the plot of a different author’s story.

When I first heard this, I was skeptical. After all, aren’t we creative enough to come up with our own stories without having to copy another writer? But there are some good things to be said for an imitation.

1. It teaches you how to get from point A to point B.

Despite my snobbery at the beginning of the sequence, I actually jumpstarted my own writing path with an imitation. I loved Ella Enchanted so much that I wrote my own version. Now, my version has some serious character and plot inconsistencies, but I followed the structure of Ella Enchanted to the tee–I can still remember pulling down my copy to check what happened on page 153 and to make sure I was on the same track (I obviously didn’t understand the difference between Word Doc page counts and published book page counts). By following this so strictly, I learned how to move a story forward. And it’s paid off; several of my writing professors have told me one of my strengths is story structure.

2. It gives you characters and basic problems to start with.

Strictly imitating a story is almost like a ready-made story: you know you have certain characters with certain problems, and that you have to solve those problems. The wrench that gets thrown into this convenience store writing is then not allowing your characters to separate from their origins. For example, when I rewrote Ella Enchanted, my Ella was not cursed with obedience, so she did not have to do anything commanded of her. But I didn’t think to really explain why she then obeys her stepmother and doesn’t simply run away instead of becoming a servant in her own home because in Ella Enchanted, Ella is cursed so she has to do what people say and there is no explanation necessary. I relied too heavily on the story I was imitating and did not let mine grow and breathe organically.

3. It shows you how to get out of sticky situations.

The first story I wrote for the writing major this year was originally an imitation of a Lorrie Moore story, “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens.” Her story is about a woman dealing with grief, and what I admire about it is how it moves through the emotions without feeling heavy or cliche, and also how it ends with a sense of hope. There’s a moment in it when she’s talking to her therapist and he almost falls asleep, and so I started my story with a character dealing with feelings of depression whose therapist falls asleep on him.

But very quickly, my story fell into the track of most stories about depression: it was about a character in a dark place, and what could I possibly do about it? I looked to Moore and used some of her self-deprecating humor and situational irony. Still, I didn’t know how to end the story. How could I possibly get the character to confront his problem and to confront the people around him with his problem without being cliche?

I actually turned to Flannery O’Connor to avoid the cliche: I inserted a crazy plot twist that forces everyone into action. But further, I returned to Moore to see how, tonally, to end the story. Instead of ending on the same ironically depressing note (as O’Connor often does), I put in a line or two of hope. And that was when the story really clicked for me.

(I’d love to share the story here, but I’m hoping to submit it to some literary magazines, and some of them frown upon publishing online first.)

So, in the end, imitations serve as guides through the murky world of writing. As long as you remember to make it your own story in the end, you can write a truly worthwhile story through imitation.