Point of view: Writing in third person (with infographics)
Third person writing is the most common writing form, not because it’s easy, but because it’s versatile. You can use more tenses in third person than you can in first person, but I’ll leave it to a previous article I wrote on verb tenses to show you that one.
Writing in third person, however, requires a little more thought. There are three common third person writing styles, which we will discuss: objective, omniscient and limited. All three are used interchangeably, none of which overrule the other in the imaginary third-person hierarchy. Simply put, you have to figure out which benefits your story the most.
I won’t go into detail about what third person point of view is. It removes the first person perspective, “I,” and replaces it with an indirect pronoun: he, she, it, his, hers, they, them, its, etc. A proper noun is used, too, but the list of proper nouns is…un-listable…so just take my word for it.
Third Person Objective
If you think of a feature news article you read about political candidates, you’re most likely reading a piece written in the third person objective. This is an unbiased replication of a scene, whether fiction or non-fiction, although you will see this used more with non-fiction pieces.
Don’t think this isn’t used in literature, however. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is an example of a third person objective piece of literature—I promise, this isn’t the only thing I’ve read and enjoyed; somehow, this book fits in with a lot of my articles. Another example of this perspective, which offers another approach, is Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway.
The third person objective has a few specific characteristics that stand out from most others, which make it difficult to write but interesting to read when done well:
- the narrator is essentially an “eavesdropper”
- the reader never knows the characters’ direct thoughts
- the reader might know of things the character does not
This is a great perspective for stories that have a lot of dialogue that explains the story. It’s also great for stories that have a lot of symbolic meaning to them. There are dozens more, but keep in mind what stands out in your story—what makes your story important—and figure out what fits best from there.
Third Person Omniscient (infographic below)
This perspective isn’t only popular, but it’s one of the most convenient. When writing in third person omniscient, you have your characters, as well as your narrator. Your readers can know things before your character knows things. Keep in mind, however, that this perspective is far from easy and it’s not commonly used because it’s confusing for readers. It’s flexible because you can do a lot with it, but it’s not a free-for-all excuse to use ten perspectives with a narrator who tells the reader about the guy watching the main character through a window every night. If you use this POV because it’s convenient, you’re using it wrong.
Don’t think this perspective offers an easy way out of delving into a single character—consider this as a way to get into the head of multiple characters to explain the complex story you can’t seem to expound upon with one or two characters. It’s the huge, original story that can’t be seen through one pair of eyes.
There are a few neat characteristics about the omniscient perspective:
- knowing multiple thoughts in the same scene
- narrator with insight into multiple characters
Keep in mind that you have to separate these bullets. You can jump in the same mind as a character to share their thoughts. If you have a scene where three people are talking, you can, as the narrator, know exactly what each character is thinking. But this is hard to master and if done wrong, the writer will simply look like an amateur and every reader will be confused.
If you’re looking at the last bullet, understand that you can have both or one. You can use multiple perspectives: Scarlet, Graham, and Carlos.
Example for multiple perspectives: Carlos stared at the sand, counting the random black specks while Scarlet ranted about her boyfriend. He didn’t care, though he knew he needed to act like he did if he wanted her story to end.
The sun burned Scarlet’s skin, reminding her that she forgot to bring sunblock. Although she hated asking for help, she wondered if Carlos would have any that he would share with her. “Carlos?” she started, pausing when she realized he wasn’t paying attention. She shouldn’t have been surprised; he never listened anyway.
These are two different scenes with two different perspectives. This is possible, but notice I remained in one head at a time? It’s necessary. Now, let’s look at the distant narrator as … the narrator.
Carlos tried to listen to Scarlet’s rambling about her cheating boyfriend. Scarlet didn’t actually care if he listened, but she needed to get it off her chest. Carlos had experienced a cheating ex in his past, and although he knew what she felt now, he didn’t feel like reliving his own past.
I still struggle with writing the third person omniscient narrator, but that’s a general idea. Don’t jump in someone’s head because it’s convenient. Figure out what you’re doing, first.
Stories that benefit from this perspective are those that are mostly plot-driven and don’t have a lot of emotion required to understand or empathize with the characters. Since there isn’t a dominant character-narrator, stories without an emotional allure might benefit in a fast-pace-encouraged style.
Here’s a handy infographic offered by Reedsy for this post.
Now we have the most commonly chosen third-person POV: limited. This is most common for one reason—intimacy. We’re human, it’s okay. We love to hate, hate to love, and the other way around for both. What the limited perspective has that the others don’t is the power of emotion. Throughout the story, you can have a few different perspectives, but only one at a time. The narrator is the character. You cannot separate to have an overview or birds-eye view of a scene. You’re in a character’s head at all times.
The difficult thing about this limited perspective is that you can’t tell as often. You have to “show” things. It’s not enough to say: “Bella hated the beer.” No. “Bella swallowed again, hoping to rid herself of the bitter taste that remained after her first sip of the brew.” This is better.
You have to use all senses with the limited perspective. Where writers get this wrong is in mixing omniscient with limited. You cannot do this. They’re separated for a reason. This isn’t a writing rule but a courtesy to your readers. Let them know what they’re supposed to expect, not what they need to adapt to since it was easier for you to write.
Here are a few characteristics of the limited POV:
- in one character’s head
- the character is the narrator
- no overview of a scene (if your character doesn’t know, neither does the reader)
With the limited perspective, you have the ability to use your character’s internal dialogue and thoughts when laying out a scene or emotion. This perspective is best for stories that are character-driven or stories that need a character’s input to move the story forward.
Any perspective can be expanded upon, and there are many books on it that can help, as well as articles that go into detail. The best way to figure out what perspective to use isn’t just to write, but to think. Is your story driven by plot or character? Do the multiple backgrounds make the story? Is your story complex? Can your story be told from specific perspectives?
If you want me to go into detail on any of these three, let me know. Now, at least, I hope you understand that third person isn’t just a preferred perspective, but a versatile and detailed list of paths to take when writing in third person. Find which fits your story, then research it. Remember, breaking rules is only okay when you first know what rules you’re breaking, and why.
Here’s another handy infographic offered by Reedsy for this post.
Originally published March 5, 2016
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