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Writing

4 Tips for Writing a Novel in Third Person

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

Settling on the right style of narrative voice can be a process of experimentation and elimination. The first-person point of view might seem fast-paced and intimate—until it becomes tiresome, or limiting. Second person point of view is a great way to help the reader insert themselves into the story, but it might not be right for a complex, full-length narrative.

With a third-person narrator comes the option of omniscience, and a full field of vision. It allows you to pull on every last one of your writing skills to reveal every detail at just the right moment, to give the world of your novel immediacy and intrigue, and capture as many different points of view as you need to.

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What Is Third Person?

In literature, a third-person point of view follows a single character or many different characters and narrative arcs, zooming in and out of a story the way a camera does in a movie. A third-person narrator can be all-knowing (aware of every character’s inner thoughts and feelings) or limited (focused on a single main character, or aware only what certain characters say and do).

In third-person point of view, the author is narrating a story about the characters, referring to them by name, or using the third-person pronouns “he,” “she,” and “they.” The other points of view in writing are first person and second person, with each revealing different aspects of a character’s perspective.

The 3 Types of Third-Person Narratives

First things first: Decide which form of third-person might best suit the story you want to tell.

  1. Third-person omniscient point of view. The omniscient narrator knows everything about the story and its characters. This “godlike” narrator can enter anyone’s mind, move freely through time, and give the reader their own opinions and observations as well as those of the characters. For example, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is told from a third-person omniscient point of view, giving the reader full access to the main character, Elizabeth, as well as the characters others around her.
  2. Third-person limited omniscient. A limited third-person narrative (often called a “close third”) is when an author sticks closely to one character but remains in the third person. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a good example of this, where much of the series revolves around Harry and his actions but the narrator occasionally jumps to other characters. The narrator can do this for the entire novel, or switch between different characters for different chapters or sections. This point of view allows the author to limit a reader’s perspective to a character’s head and control what information the reader knows. It is used to build interest and heighten suspense—and can also be a way to play off an unreliable narrator.
  3. Third-person objective. The third-person objective point of view has a neutral narrator that is not privy to the characters’ thoughts or feelings. The narrator presents the story with an observational tone. Ernest Hemingway employs this narrative voice in his short story Hills Like White Elephants. An unknown narrator relays the dialogue between a couple as they wait for a train in Spain. This point of view puts the reader in the position of a voyeur, eavesdropping on a scene or story.
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4 Tips for Starting a Novel in Third Person

  1. Follow high-stakes characters. When choosing which character will serve as your main point of view for any chapter or scene, hone in on the person who has the most to lose or learn. Whichever character is facing the highest stakes—the one who has the most to lose in a particular scene—will be the one to follow closely, because their thoughts and reactions will carry the most tension. The character who has the most to learn is often an equally good choice.
  2. Reveal only what your character knows. While point of view is an essential tool in character development because you’re describing the world through a character’s eyes and letting readers know what they think and feel, you should be aware of what your characters’ limitations are. Review your writing frequently to scan for mistakes you might have made in giving a character information or opinions they wouldn’t normally have.
  3. Be consistent. It’s fine to have different subplots told from different points of view throughout your novel, but make sure that they’re consistent. If you’re narrating from your hero’s perspective, don’t suddenly switch to another character’s point of view in the middle of a scene. It will be jarring and confusing for your readers.
  4. Resist the list. Just because the third-person narrator has all the information doesn’t mean they must spill it all at once. Resist the temptation to introduce your characters through lists of attributes and backstory upfront; try opening mid-action, and show the reader those characters instead.

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