Picking a point of view for your novel can be tricky. After all, point of view has an enormous impact on the reader’s experience and on the meaning of the text itself. The character we follow will inform a lot of what we see and what we understand as we move through the story.
While you’re weighing your options, you’ll probably want to take a closer look at third person. It’s maybe the most commonly used point of view, and it’s not an accident that it’s become so popular. In fact, some will even consider third person point of view as the default point of view.
In this article, we’re going to talk about what third person is and go over some different types of third person point of view.
This guide on how to write in third person covers:
- What is third person point of view?
- Why is third person point of view used in writing?
- Different types of third person point of view
What is third person point of view?
In third person point of view, our narrator is a voice that exists outside of the story. The characters will be addressed by their names and appropriate pronouns.
This is different from the first person in a few ways. In first person, the narrator is our point of view character—-we’re stuck inside their head for the entire story. This means the character’s voice will impact the narration.
In third person, however, the narrator is like an invisible god, describing things to the audience. We’re not meant to take these descriptions as what the character thinks, necessarily (although this might be the case in third person limited, which we’ll talk about later). We also aren’t meant to assume that the main character is thinking everything that the narrator describes.
However, the narrator is still describing things from the main character or characters’ point of view. Their perspective is still the central focus of the story.
Why is third person point of view used in writing?
Why might someone reach for third person point of view? Like I said earlier, this is often considered the default, and it’s not for no reason.
Basically, third person is simple. It’s easy to understand, and it leaves a little room between the main character and the narrative voice. This means the writer doesn’t necessarily have to factor in the main character’s voice or opinions into everything being written, and the reader doesn’t have to worry quite as much about an unreliable narrator.
Let’s break this down into a few main points:
The narrator remains omniscient
In third person, the narrator remains somewhat objective. This might change if we’re in third person limited or third person close, but for the most part, the narration is impartial to the main character or their feelings. This is why we don’t have to worry as much about unreliable narrators in the third person—an unreliable narrator happens when the point of view character gives us untrustworthy information, making the story subjective. In third person, we have a more objective point of view.
Third person isn’t always completely omniscient, and we’ll talk more about different types of third person later.
The writer controls when information is divulged
Because the third person maintains a degree of separation between the main character and the reader, the reader doesn’t necessarily know what’s going on inside the main character’s head at any given time. This means the writer can withhold information and reveal it when they want to—a character might act in an odd way, but we might not have an explanation for it.
In first person, however, we would have to have an explanation. It’s almost impossible to conceal information about the main character in the first person because we’re in their head—hiding their reaction or feelings about a given situation is difficult to do.
Flexibility between locations and characters
Writing in the third person also gives the writer some flexibility when it comes to locations. In the first person, you’re committed to the point of view of the character—you may have a few different point of view characters, but you probably won’t have many, and while you’re in that character’s point of view, you can’t leave without a scene or chapter break.
Say, for example, you want to hop between a scene at a diner and a scene in someone’s home. If your point of view character is a detective sitting in the diner, you can’t randomly jump to the scene at someone’s home—the point of view character isn’t there. If you’re writing in the third person omniscient, you can jump to and from that house as you please, and if you’re in third close or third limited, you only need a scene break or something to indicate the change of perspective.
You also get more room to explore parts of a scene which the main character might not notice. Since the narrative voice is doing the describing, and not the main character, you can play around with what the narration describes more.
Writers can present the objective truth
In summary: the third person allows the narrator to present an objective account of events. This makes the story itself easy for the reader to follow, since they don’t have to worry about how the main character’s perspective would otherwise be coloring their account of the story.
If you’re not sure whether to pick third or first person for your story, here’s a question to ask yourself: does the way the character experiences the story have an impact on the story and its theme? In other words, if we aren’t inside the main character’s head, are we missing out on a huge chunk of the story? If this is the case, then the first person might be for you. Otherwise, third person might give you more leeway.
Different types of third person point of view
Now that we’ve talked about how third person works, let’s cover a few different types of third person point of view. Unlike with first person, there are a few different types which dramatically change the way the story is told, so it’s important to check up on all of them before deciding what’s right for your story.
Third person limited
In the third person limited, we are limited to one character’s perspective in a given scene or chapter. This means we only get one character’s perspective, and the reader will only notice and see what this character sees. This is arguably the most subjective point of view among those in the third person, and it’s closest to first person.
Third person limited is also sometimes referred to as third person close—however, some make a distinction between third person limited and third person close, labelling third person close as the most subjective. In third person close, the experience is almost identical to a first person point of view, except the main character is referred to in the third person.
If third person limited and third person close can be almost the same as first person, why does it matter which you pick?
It comes back to that sliver of objectivity. Third person, even when it’s very close, still allows the narrator to withhold a bit more information than would be possible in the first person. It also creates a bit of distance between the main character and the reader just by referring to them in the third person.
Just to recap: the distance created merely by referring to the main character in the third person is the chief difference between the third person limited and the first person. Third person limited will mean that your main character’s perspective informs a lot of the narrative voice, since we’re noticing what they’re noticing—we’re still very much stuck inside the main character’s head.
Third person omniscient
When something is written in the third person omniscient point of view, it means that the narrator knows everything that is going on and everything that’s happening. We aren’t limited to one or several characters’ thoughts. The narrator knows what everyone is thinking, planning, and doing, and can go anywhere at any time.
The obvious pro to this is that the writer has enormous flexibility. Anything can be revealed at any time, and the writer can go anywhere they want to go. The con is that having such a broad lens can take away some of the intimacy gained from a limited perspective. It can also make it harder to know who to focus on and what to follow.
Third person omniscient is considered one of the most objective points of view, since the accounts of the story we’re given are not coming from any one character, but instead from an invisible narrator.
An important note: the narrator themselves is not a character in any of these variations on the third person. The narrative voice is the voice which describes what’s going on and lays out the script—in other words, it’s the writing voice. This is not a character unto itself. It’s also not meant to be the writer’s perspective or point of view. Think of narration as a tool used to tell the story. In third person limited, the main character is wielding that tool. In third person omniscient, multiple characters are wielding that tool, which gives us a much wider scope.
Third person objective
Last but not least, we have third person objective.
Third person objective, on its face, looks a lot like third person omniscient, because it isn’t tied to any particular character. However, third person objective is completely impartial. It doesn’t know anything about any character’s thoughts or feelings—the third person objective describes character actions to the reader without offering insight.
In third person omniscient, we get insight into all or many characters’ thoughts and feelings. It’s more objective than third person limited or third person close because we have more information. Third person objective is the most objective because the telling of events isn’t colored by any character’s perspective at all. All we get are the events as they happened, and we have to piece together the rest.
This can be a tricky point of view to write from, and it’s uncommon to see novels written this way. More often you’ll see short stories from this point of view. It’s difficult to get readers to connect to the main characters when they aren’t shown the character’s thoughts, feelings, or motivations—but it isn’t impossible! This point of view just has the most space between the reader and the characters, so writers have to compensate for that.