Author Study: Genevieve Cogman, Writing in 3rd Person

Writing in 3rd Person
with Thoughts and Feelings

A couple summers ago I perused the shelves of a bookstore, called Book People, in Austin, TX while on vacation. I highly recommend it, but don’t take anybody with you that might rush you and plan to spend several hours there. It is HUGE!

The Invisible Library

I found this beautiful book called The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman. That began this whole fascination with stories about books and libraries. Irene is the main character, and she works for The Library–a place between alternate versions of Earth. There are numerous versions of Earth, most of which contain the usual famous authors throughout time, but sometimes in some versions of Earth, writers like Shakespeare, for example, writes an extra play. These works unique to that world are very valuable, as you might imagine. Irene’s job as a Librarian for The Library is to collect these unique books, which strengthens the Libraries ties to that version of Earth.

But it is never as simple as a smash and grab. No. There are Dragons and Fae which get in her way. All the while, the mortal humans are none the wiser.

Cogman tells the stories quite well. I just finished book 5. Normally, I don’t read past book 1 or maybe 2 of a series. I tire of series books easily. Cogman is the exception and has captured my heart with her stories.

And I want to learn how she does it!

Obviously, I can’t learn all her secrets in one sitting. 

After college and before family, I had time on my hands to write. I wrote half a novel. Then I decided I should probably learn how to do this right. I read a book on writing. I learned a lot. I read another… and another… and another. By then I knew for sure I knew nothing. I had made every mistake known to writers… INCLUDING purple prose! Oh, say it isn’t so!!! So I quit! Not intentionally. I just stared at my writing and knew it was a horrible, hot mess. I didn’t know where to start, so I didn’t. I stopped writing for nearly 20 years. When I turned 39, that changed. I needed to learn this writing thing.

I still have a lot to learn, but now I tackle the lessons one at a time.

Writing 3rd Person

I’m currently writing a novel that started out as a first person narrative. But one of my main characters (Albert) came across flat without his internal dialogue. So the story demanded a close 3rd person point of view. (I’ll explain this in a minute.)

3rd person– the narrator is not a character in the story, they are merely the voice telling the story. I view it as a camera person observing from slightly above. 

There are two kinds that I’m aware of: 3rd person limited and 3rd person omniscient. With third-person limited, the camera follows one character. The reader knows only the one character’s thoughts, feelings, and knowledge. 

The word omniscient means all knowing, so third person omniscient means the narrator knows all. The narrator might not tell all though. Gosh, those unreliable narrators are fun, but that is a topic for another day! 

The literary world seems to go through ebbs and flows. In the last 30 years, readers most enjoy the closeness of limited 3rd person or 1st person. (When I say that, I’m referencing trends I observe in YA, middle grade, and fantasy books in my realm of awareness. Don’t ask me about trends in contemporary literary works. I keep trying to read them and find them unbearably dull.) 

Limited third person allows the reader to get very attached to the protagonist, which is the advantage of this point of view (POV). The Invisible Library is a splendid example of a book written in limited third person. In some later books there are a few scenes here and there that follow another character, but mostly it follows Irene.

Many older stories and a portion of contemporary stories I’ve read are written in third person omniscient. You don’t get as emotionally involved with the characters, but you can delight in the many viewpoints. These stories are often more vast in landscape and in the massive cast of characters. Because the narrator is not just in one person’s head, it affords the author’s ability to give the narrator opinions. The Wizard of EarthSea by Ursula K. LeGuin is an excellent example of this POV. 

The dilemma I’m facing with my novel is logistical. Albert was the main character in my short story here. He is a young man with Autism and speaks with the help of a tablet. Fine for a short story. My readers read the short story and wanted to read more; they wanted a novel. Can you imagine a novel from the perspective of a person who is non-verbal? Impossible, no. But I didn’t think my skill was up to that yet. So his partner, Joan, became the main character for this novel. I wrote a few chapters in first person from Joan’s POV. The problem was that Albert felt completely flat because we couldn’t hear his snarky inner dialogue. So I had to rewrite it in 3rd person to get both of them. I’m not sure I’d really call it omniscient because the narrator only follows those two characters. I thought about alternating chapters or scenes, but Albert kept inserting his opinions in Joan’s scenes. So limited POV became what I am calling Close 3rd person POV. I follow two characters closely. It’s probably really considered 3rd person omniscient. Regardless of what it is called, I don’t write in 3rd person POV often, so I have some learning to do.

To begin, I knew the weakness of this POV was that you don’t get quite as attached to the characters because of the distance between them and the reader. So my first task was to study how to bring that closeness into the story. I learn best from a master author. The Invisible Library does this very well. 

How to do an Intentional Author Study

Years ago, I took a creative writing class at my local college. The professor had us type up a whole short story written by an author we loved. In doing this we would see at the sentence level what the author was doing well. We would get a sense of the writer’s rhythm. So this is what I did for a few pages of Cogman’s book. 

I took it a step further and highlighted the narrator’s voice and Irene’s thoughts and feelings. By color coding it, I could visualize how much and how often Cogman put in her thoughts.

The next step for me was to look at my writing and do the same. I suspected when I looked at mine I would see significantly fewer thoughts and feelings throughout my writing. Then when I edit, I can go in and sprinkle in more of that. 

Here is the link to 1,000 words written by Cogman in book one of The Invisible Library. This has my highlighting (and no spoilers). 

(Sidenote: You might be worried about copyright violation here, but I am using this for teaching purposes & I have shared only 1-2% of her novel with you. Usually people start questioning at around 10%, so I have not violated copyright law here.) 

Here is a link to the opening 1,000 words of my novel (This is the rough draft, so no judgement please!) 

Actually, in my draft I found 13 lines and in Cogman’s draft I found 17 lines. I did notice that mine were short and sprinkled throughout the scenes, whereas Cogman’s were mostly in one longer paragraph. That aligned with what I’ve noticed before in my own writing compared to many other authors. It is a weakness that I’m working on because if the reader can be in the character’s head for a longer stretch of time, then they will better understand and like the character. 

It is a process. I’m still learning, as always. Semper in Doctrina!