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What Is Third-Person Point Of View in Writing?
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.
The 3 Types of Third Person Point of View in Writing
There are three different ways to approach third-person point of view in writing:
- Third-person omniscient point of view. The omniscient narrator knows everything about the story and its characters. This 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.
- Third-person limited omniscient. This point of view (often called a “close third”) is when an author sticks closely to one character but remains in third person. 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 and control what information the reader knows. It is used to build interest and heighten suspense.
- Third-person objective. Third-person objective point of view has a neutral narrator that is not privy to 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.
3 Reasons to Write in Third Person Point of View
Third person is one of the most common points of view used in storytelling. Third person has the following advantages in writing:
- Robust character development. Third person has a wider narrative scope than its first and second-person counterparts, and can shine the spotlight on more than one character. These multiple angles give a reader a 360-degree view of the plot, each adding information that another character doesn’t have, creating a rich, complex narrative.
- Narrative flexibility. Third person can offer more flexibility—you can be everywhere, help your reader see everything, and switch between various characters’ stories. You can go from complete omniscience to a limited or close third point of view. This latter style gives you the ability to be inside a character’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations, which can give readers a deeper experience of character and scene.
- An authoritative, trustworthy narrator. Writing from third-person stations the narrator above the action, creating a bird’s-eye-view of the story. This angle, along with the ability of the narrator to know at least one character’s thoughts—in both omniscient and limited third person—gives the narrative a more authoritative, reliable voice, since the narrator has nothing at stake.
4 Tips For Writing in Third Person Point of View
Telling a story in third person seems straightforward, but it is more than just a play-by-play of events. Follow these tips to help you get the most out of writing from the third person:
- Determine which third person approach fits your story. As you start to write, consider which third-person perspective can best tell the story of your protagonist—omniscient, limited, or objective. There are advantages to each, depending on the genre of your story. For example, author Dan Brown uses a close third narrative to add depth to his villains. Brown humanizes his characters by revealing their innermost thoughts.
- 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.
- 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.
- Be consistent. It’s fine to have different subplots told from different points of view throughout your novel, but make sure that it’s 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.
Learn more about narrative point of view with Margaret Atwood.