Guide Third-Person Cinematic & You


Queen of the Bored
Former Senior Staff
Aug 8, 2019
The Basics

Third-person perspective is a narrative mode in which a writer uses he, she and they pronouns (and derivations thereof) to describe their characters and the actions they take. There is no personified narrator, as in first- and second-person perspective.

The Nuance

There are three archetypal forms of the third-person narrative mode:

Omniscient, in which the non-personified narrator is all-knowing. In third-person omniscient prose, the author may choose to share the inner thoughts and feelings of any character in the story at any time.

Limited, in which the non-personified narrator only discloses the inner thoughts and feelings of one character. That character is the protagonist of the story, and while we may be privy to their internal machinations, we only know what they know.

Cinematic, in which the non-personified narrator is impartial; they can only observe events externally, like a fly on the wall. It is far and above the most common form of third-person perspective used in roleplay, whether it's on a play-by-post forum or a real-time video game, and it is the focus of this guide.

In Practice

Why is third-person cinematic the preferred narrative mode of most roleplayers?

While the temptation to emote our characters' thoughts and feelings can be hard to resist, making other writers aware of internal events that they cannot possibly know is, at best, amateurish writing; at worst, it is a concerted effort (conscious or otherwise) to influence the behavior of the characters around you.

Amateurish is okay. Most roleplayers are "amateur" writers. But anyone who writes should be invested in becoming a better writer.

When you write, ex., "On seeing Martha, Steven grimaces. He hates Martha." you are communicating to Martha's player that Steven does not like her somewhat gracelessly. On the face of it, this style of writing is as effective as saying, "((Hey, just so you know, Steven hates Martha!))"

In roleplay, when writing in third-person cinematic perspective, it's best to express your character's thoughts and feelings through dialogue or descriptions. How do we know Steven hates Martha? Perhaps he glares at her when she enters a room; maybe he's very curt, or even impolite, when he speaks to her; maybe he undermines her in public meetings. When you learn how to effectively portray your character's personality and cultivate an image that other players recognize, they'll notice the smaller details of your emotes. They'll notice what you aren't saying.

Consider Ernest Hemingway's thoughts on his own writing style, as expressed in Death in the Afternoon:

"If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water."

What Hemingway is saying can be more succinctly described as: less is more, when you know how to guide your audience. Given Hemingway's accolades and legacy, his advice is worth considering.

In limiting yourself this way—resisting the simplicity of just saying aloud what your character is thinking—your writing will flourish. Refusing to state the obvious becomes an exercise in problem solving. Turning words and sentences over in your head to determine the exact way you want to express your character's feelings makes your prose more complex and subtle. The intent of your words comes into sharper focus, and your in-character interactions benefit tremendously from it.
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