In every example of writing you can think of, there is a point of view at play. The point of view is the narrator’s angle on the piece, as well as their bias.
Whether they’re talking about themselves (first person), you, the reader (second person), or a third-party (third person).
Third person point of view is what we will discuss in this article.
What is Third Person Point of View?
In this case, third person point of view tells events from the perspective of the person being discussed. Pronouns such as he, she, it, and they are used to convey this, as well as the name of the subject if applicable.
For example, in a screenplay, the narrator would refer to “John sped down the corridor, his hair bouncing as he ran.” Notice how the character’s name John and the pronouns his and he were used.
In contrast, if we were referring to John in the first person, i.e., John was the one narrating, the sentence would change: “I sped down the corridor, my hair bounding as I ran.” Pronouns I and my are used to define the point of view used here.
Third person point of view often distances the reader from the subject, the narrative not including the reader or acknowledging their existence. Whereas first and second point of view may do just that: “I had not intended to love him; the reader knows I had wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the germs of love there detected…” (Brontë, 1992).
The Importance of Third Person Point of View in Writing?
Third person point of view is an extremely relevant and useful tool in all forms of creative writing. It allows us to explore and describe points of view that aren’t our own, even the complete opposite.
We can develop and delve into different types of characters, perspectives and worlds, and switch between them. Writers have been using these techniques for centuries to capture the imaginations of their audiences and offer them a view of the world they may not have previously considered.
Types of Third Person Point of View
1. Third Person Limited
Third person limited follows one character from beginning to end. We stay consistently with that person, the insight into the world all theirs. They are the ones moving the story forward. The narrator in this case is omniscient: they know the full story already and what is going to transpire. Your protagonist does not.
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Examples of third person limited works include:
- Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
- A Game of Thrones – George RR Martin (one character per chapter)
- Thanks for the Memories – Cecelia Ahern
This particular perspective allows you to really develop this character’s psyche, giving your audience an in-depth insight into their personal world, emotions, and reactions to what is happening around them. Your descriptions can also be specific, homing in on what the characters themselves focus on, rather than giving a more general description. You can be specific!
The audience learns about plot events, twists, and turns simultaneously with the protagonist, so they truly go on the journey with them.
Third person limited also allows you to build effective suspense and interest. If you write third person well, you can draw an audience in, meaning they buy into your protagonist and care deeply about what happens to them.
Of course, the caveat to writing in third person limited is that your audience only sees one point of view. The emotions and journeys of other characters are merely surface level, or there is less opportunity to develop them. Additionally, it can be easier than you think to slip into describing another character’s feelings or divert off into their story. Make sure to stick with your protagonist.
Consider role playing video games, where you take on the role of one character embarking on a quest or journey. As the player, you follow the protagonist’s path, but don’t have the opportunity to see things from other characters you may meet on the way. Games such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Dark Souls and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla are such examples.
2. Third Person Omniscient
We have already discussed that to have an omniscient narrator, they need to know everything that’s happened in the plot. The difference with third person omniscient as a sub-category is that the narrator doesn’t just focus on a single protagonist, but instead switches between multiple characters.
This means they can explore the thoughts, feelings, and actions of any character, each to a greater or lesser degree. The narrator can also have any bias and voice their own opinion throughout the plot.
Examples of third person omniscient works include:
- Lord of the Flies – William Golding
- Good Omens – Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett
- A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula K Le Guin
The freedom of third person omniscient is clear; the narrator can freely bounce between characters, their perspectives, and different motivations. Writers can create attention-grabbing conflict, building it over a series of chapters.
The narrator can also lean towards any bias, favoring one or more characters over others, most often the protagonist. This also means they can directly address the reader, unlike in third person limited.
Third person omniscient narrators can also explore context within the characters’ world. Instead of just being stuck to one character, they can build on details invisible to that character, by taking into account the emotions and actions of other characters.
However, with the wealth of views, feelings, and voices, it is easy for writers to fall into the ‘head hopping’ trap, where they easily confuse readers. Don’t fall into the trap of writing every single detail – not everything is absolutely necessary.
3. Third Person Objective
This third person narrator is the most neutral and impersonal of them all. Along with the reader, they discover the plot along with the characters, not privy to thoughts and feelings. No perspective is focused upon, with the narrator playing an observational role, meaning the audience is almost eavesdropping on the unfolding events.
Usually implemented within short fiction, the third person objective doesn’t reveal judgments or opinions on behalf of the narrator. It forces the reader to interpret and conclude events in their own way. When done well, you can spark insightful and interesting conversation between readers.
Examples of third person objective include:
- Hills Like White Elephants – Ernest Hemingway
Of course, an advantage of using this point of view is one which we’ve discussed; the ability to keep your audience guessing and drawing their own conclusions from your writing. However, it is a tricky art to master. You must be one hundred percent sure it’s a good fit for the story you’re trying to tell.
How to Write in Third Person Point of View
First, consider which basic point of view is most appropriate for your story. First person, second person, or third person?
Once you have ultimately chosen third person, it is time to look at which of the three sub-categories we’ve discussed are most fitting.
Are you looking to have a single protagonist or an ensemble piece? For an ensemble, you have a range of perspectives and arcs to reflect upon. This means a web of narratives to weave together. In this case, third person omniscient or limited would be a good fit.
Alternatively, if you have a single protagonist, third person limited would work, or if you’re up for a challenge, third person objective.
Next, you’ll need to work out how distanced your narrator is going to be from the action. Do you wish for them to be reliable and authoritative, open with their knowledge? Or are you looking for them to keep things to themselves, twist the plot, their bias obvious?
If your narrator has an agenda of their own, the third person limited could be a good bet; one viewpoint, close to the action. Or if they’re giving an overview of events, giving all sides of the story, third person omniscient or third person objective are both good fits.
Remember, you don’t need to follow all characters; for not all perspectives will be required at any one time. Follow those characters who are high stakes, those who lead a particular chapter or scene. Who has the most to lose? Whose emotions and actions matter the most?
When you’ve decided who the focal characters are at each point in the story, ensure you only reveal what the audience needs to know in that moment. It’s no use showing your whole hand early on; spread character detail throughout the narrative.
Similarly, remember that every character is different and will act/react in different ways. So, ensure that everything a character says and does is within the personality remit you’ve created for them; it must make sense to the reader!
Advantages of Third Person Point of View
- Limitations of First and Second Person POV: Both first and second person points of view can be fairly limiting, allowing only the authentic description of the actions and emotions of a single character.
- Unique Advantage of Third Person POV: Third person point of view can eliminate the limitations of first and second person points of view, especially with an ensemble cast of characters.
- More Narrative Opportunity: The third person point of view provides more narrative opportunities. It offers readers a more comprehensive view of the plot, the key characters within the plot, and their interrelationships.
- Authoritative and Reliable: Having a narrator who sees from all angles in third person point of view can come across as more authoritative and reliable to the reader.
- Depiction of Multiple Recollections: A third person narrator can portray the memories of multiple characters, as well as different perspectives on a single character.
- Creation of Dynamic Characters: By shifting to different characters in the same situation, a third person point of view allows for a variety of perspectives. This diversity can make it easier to create dynamic and well-rounded characters.
Disadvantages of Third Person Point of View
- Difficulty in establishing intimacy: With too many perspectives in third person narration, it can be challenging to establish a deep connection or intimacy with specific characters. The ease of ‘head-hopping’ between characters can cause the loss of the central thread of a scene or chapter, leading to potential reader disinterest.
- Risk of confusing the plot line: Having too many perspectives can cloud and complicate the plot line. The narrative might become confused and directionless.
- Challenge of managing multiple characters: With multiple perspectives, it may become difficult to effectively manage character development and progression. This could lead to inconsistent characterization and conflict, causing further confusion for the reader.
- Importance of careful character selection: It is advisable to stick to a small selection of characters that the narrator gets close to. These characters should ideally serve as the main guides for the reader, providing consistent characterization and conflict throughout the narrative.
Let’s conclude with a recap on each of the three third person POVs!
- Third person limited – focuses on one character’s perspective only, where the reader journeys with them.
- Third person omniscient – focuses on multiple character perspectives and is usually an ensemble piece.
- Third person objective – can focus on either one or multiple character perspectives, but is usually distanced from the action, merely observing and providing no specific bias.
Ultimately, third person point of view gives you an objectivity as a writer. It allows you to tell a story with multiple points of view. Yes, the protagonist’s may be the most important and prominent, but other characters and events will inform that perspective.
Real life always has multiple points of view, and so reflecting this in literature is important. Yes, the first-person experience is sacred, but the objectivity we have looking from the outside in with multiple sets of emotions and thoughts is also valuable.
Remember, if you do decide to tackle the third-person point of view, ensure to continuously check your writing. Are you maintaining third-person objective, omniscient or limited throughout? Take care not to slip out of your intended point of view. The less confused your reader, the better!
Overall, consistency is key!