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Third Person Point of View: Definition, Types and Tips!

Woman pointing - 3rd person

The third person point of view (or 3rd 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. They’re free to roam around, privy to any information the author chooses to disclose.

Third person point of view 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 point of view, and third person omniscient point of view.

And for a bit of an extra tweak, there’s even the third person objective point of view.

 

The Different Types of Third Person

In third person limited point of view, 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. This is because it would be confusing and illogical to ‘hear’ multiple streams of thought at once.

Third person omniscient is usually the widest 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. Those, plus events past, present and future.

We say generally in the previous description because an omniscient narrator is not necessarily without their own opinions. They may indeed interject with their own observations or wisecracks (common in comedic writing), and have no problem revealing the workings of characters’ minds. In cases where this does not happen, the narration is considered to be in the third person objective point of view.

As you can expect from the name, in the objective form the narrator relays solely the visible facts of the matter. They will not delve into the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters – remaining, instead, as a wholly impartial observer who is only capable of relaying what they observe.

The flexibility of the third person form 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 unfold from the perspective of one character, but be free of the biases and beliefs that would make the story unreliable if it were to be told by them personally.

 

A Third Person POV Example

A good example to demonstrate this difference would be 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. You would only learn about it as the character goes through picking up the pieces.

If, however, you told the story using the third person, you could describe others’ feelings about the amnesiac. You can bring up conversations about them they couldn’t have heard, letting the reader discover more about their past life independent of the afflicted 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. On the other hand, 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 in alternating first and third person POV in Bleak House, which is a strong approach when your third person narration remains strictly objective. 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 can become a jumbled mess.

Writing in the third person 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 POV 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!

 

Join the Discussion on “Third Person Point of View: Definition, Types and Tips!”

  1. Bill Zahren says:

    Third person omniscient, always. It lets me (and my readers) get into the heads of anyone in the book AND be completely independent of all heads when appropriate. I find first person too limiting. A big challenge for third person is point of view, as mentioned above. Staying in one head (or no heads) for a whole chapter or scene was one of my early writing lessons. I change the point of view with a chapter break or a +++ break in the text.

  2. Ian Miller says:

    I also favour third person omniscient, and I am prepared sometimes to skip between heads, but ONLY for the purpose of focusing one one person, particularly a character aspect. For one example, I had scenes in one novel where A and B had different objectives, and the point was to show that character A could not read character B, and in fact was poor at reading character in general. This was necessary to be established because the novel trilogy was to run as a rather complicated Greek-style tragedy, and I felt the need to properly establish the character weaknesses before the events of the tragedy began to run its course.

  3. My first novel was 1st person from the perspective of an amnesiac for exactly the reasons you mention. Now, in the 3rd book, I’m looking for the right way to wrap the story up, but still from the 1st person perspective.

    I’ve also inserted 3rd person asides into 1st person stories. As long as the reader knows, or can suss out, what’s happening, and it doesn’t break the flow of the story, it doesn’t seem to hurt.

  4. Hywela Lyn says:

    I love reading and writing first person. Despite the limitations, I find the challenge of writing in the first person very exciting as it enables me to really get inside my character’s head. For the same reason I try to keep to deep P.O.V. when writing in third person, and limit it to two or three characters at the most, I really think this helps the reader identify with the protagonists. My first (published) novel was in three sections, with the middle section being told in first person, as a journal, and the first and last sections in third person. I had a reason for doing it this way and feel it worked well for this particular book
    , although I wouldn’t lie to mix first and second person every time!

  5. Tyburn says:

    I prefer third person limited as a reader and a writer. I read mostly mystery novels, and for that third person ltd following the detective’s perspective, with snippets of first or second person following the killer are usually the best way to tell the story. First and second person are great to hide the gender and identity of the killer. A good example of it is Private: India by James Patterson and Ashwin Sanghi

  6. Petra Bosse says:

    I definitely prefer third person omniscient. I’ve read many first person books that I enjoyed, but always feel somewhat slighted that I don’t know what some of the other characters were thinking. In my writing, I use this style, of course, and stick with the rule of one POV per chapter or scene break.

  7. Greg says:

    I have always thought that mixing first-person with third-person is incredibly lazy. The author wants the immediacy of first person for her hero, but also wants the flexibility of telling the story from everyone else’s perspective. None of the writers I’ve read does it, except the newest authors. James Patterson may be a bestseller and a household name. but he is lazy and gimmicky and cranks out books of low quality, knowing his name guarantees sales.It’s all about the Benjamins to him. Anyway, there’s a reason a POV has limitations. It forces the writer to think. And that’s difficult

  8. I’ve tried all of them! My first novel (in first person) alternated between the two characters in alternating chapters. I found that worked very well, and I could still tell the story in one continuous narrative. My second novel was first person, all in my heroine’s POV, There were some challenges, when important scenes took place and she wasn’t there. But I found my way around them. My third novel, SHADOW OF ATHENA, published this year, was all in third person omniscient, where I was in the POV of one character in each scene. My memoir is in first and third person. The first person parts are in my POV, and the third person parts are in my mother’s POV, since it’s as much her story as mine.

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