The third person point of view is one of the oldest, and most common, forms of storytelling. Unlike first and second person, the reader is immersed in the story whilst remaining totally independent of any one character’s thoughts, feelings and experiences – free to roam around, privy to any information the author chooses to disclose.
Third person perspective uses pronouns such as ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘they’ to relate the action as it affects all characters. It’s such a broad means of storytelling that over the years it’s been separated into two distinct forms: Third person limited, and third person omniscient.
In third person limited, the reader’s insight is confined to the thoughts, feelings and knowledge of one character as they follow them closely throughout the narrative.
In third person omniscient, the reader has access to the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters in the story. For clarity, this is usually limited to one character per chapter or scene because it would be confusing and illogical to ‘hear’ multiple streams of thought at once.
Third person omniscient is usually the most objective perspective, since the narrator doesn’t exist as a character in itself and has a God’s-eye view of events. The narrator generally has no partiality in the events taking place, and has unlimited access to characters’ private thoughts and feelings, and events past, present and future.
The flexibility of the third person perspective lends the ability to have a single narrator, as in first person, without the limitations of having to stay in that narrator’s head. The story may be told from the point of view of one character, but be free of the biases and beliefs that would make the story unreliable if it were told by them personally.
For example, if your protagonist has been in an accident and is experiencing amnesia, telling their story using a first person narrative would limit the reader’s knowledge of that character’s past life to practically nothing – only learning about it as the character themselves tried to pick up the pieces. If you told the story using the third person, you could describe others’ feelings about the amnesiac and offer conversations about them they couldn’t have heard, letting the reader learn about their past life independent of the character requiring that knowledge.
As well-defined as these rules seem to be, like most rules, they can always be broken by a determined writer. Indeed, you shouldn’t treat the different iterations of third person as exclusive. Think of your third person narrative like a camera in a movie. Sometimes, for better effect, you need to get up close, and sometimes you need more distance.
If you’re writing in the third person and you find yourself slipping in or out of third person omniscient – if your ‘camera’ is sliding away and you’re trying to keep it close – take a step back and think about what impression you want your reader to have of the scene.
Is it emotional? Action-driven? Is a character relating a back story where a fleshed-out flashback would be most effective?
As third person is so flexible, it lends itself very well to mixing with other perspectives. Charles Dickens wrote alternating first and third perspectives in Bleak House. Many romance and young adult novels use a different character for their third person focus in each chapter. The most vital thing is consistency – without it, your story becomes a jumbled mess.
The third person perspective is a complex, limber and forgiving technique that suits any skill level from beginner to advanced, and can handle the most complex narrative requirements. Because of this, it is easy to master relatively quickly, allowing your best ideas to get off the ground with a minimum of fuss.
What’s your preferred perspective to work with? Which books would you recommend as examples of interesting use or mixing of the third person? Tell all in the comments below!