Points of View — Writing in the Third Person

Point of view is one of the most impactful decisions you can make about a novel, and sometimes the hardest both to decide on and to make happen beautifully on the page. It impacts the reader’s experience of the story and  limits what information you can easily reveal. 

Take for example a car accident. Described by the driver of one car, the driver in the other, and a bystander on the sidewalk, the entire thing will look, feel, sound, and emotionally impact very differently. 

Last month we provided an overview of the different points of view available to you, so now let's take a deep dive into the third person narrative. It’s one of the two most common. We’ll define it, look at why it’s used, and identify the most common mistakes people make while writing in it. 

What is Third Person Point of View?

In third person point of view, narration happens from outside of the story and its characters. Everybody is called by their name, instead of one person using “I”. The action is observed from outside any one character’s internal perspective, although the narrator might be close enough to know and report their thoughts and feelings. 

There are several species of third person point of view:

  • Third Person Objective, in which the facts of the story get reported by an impersonal observer who is (at least seemingly) neutral
  • Third Person Omniscient, in which the narrator knows all things and can report on the thoughts of every character, and about occurrences outside the main lens of the story
  • Third Person Limited, in which the narrator (although still outside of any person’s head) reports events from one character’s (or a set of characters) heads, often with the biases and interpretations of that character. 

Why Do People Use Third Person Point of View?

Third person is the most popular choice of POV in most forms of fiction, for a handful of very good reason:

  • Your narrator can leave any given character’s perspective when you need to impart knowledge the the reader, which the character does not posses.
  • The writer can divulge information whenever it’s most appropriate, unburdened by what’s actually happening in the story.
  • The writer can move around in space, time, and characters as best suits the telling of the story.
  • It’s easier to present “just the facts”, without interference from a particular character’s perspective, bias, likes, dislikes, or desires

The Ten Biggest Third Person Point of View Errors

1. Mind Reading

Although a third person narrator can be omniscient, not all are. Further, even with an omniscient narrator it can be awkward and off-putting to give the reader access to everybody’s thoughts. When writing in third person, always pay attention to if the narrator would and should know the emotions, cogitations, and other things going on in everybody’s heads.

2. Head-Hopping

Even if your narrator can jump from one brain to another at any time, there can be too much of a good thing. If you head-hop too frequently, it can be disorienting. At worst, this makes it hard for the reader to develop a meaningful attachment to any one character. At best, it just complicates scenes that would be made quicker and clearer by sticking to just a few character’s viewpoints. 

3. Seeing the Invisible

If your third person point of view is close or limited, it breaks point of view to reveal things the point of view characters can’t see or can’t know. In some kinds of third-person perspective, it’s fine to reveal everything. In others, it’s not. The key here is to choose one and stick to it. 

4. Voice Inconsistency

You can make this mistake in one of two ways. With a consistent third-person narrator, it’s important to maintain a consistent voice no matter who you’re describing and under what conditions. With a narrator that hops between different characters, each character’s voice must come through in the narration. Doing otherwise can break your reader’s immersion in the story.

5. Objectivity vs. Subjectivity

Another one you must choose early and stick to. Your narrator can either be objectively reporting the facts like a good news anchor, or they are reporting the facts with a bias toward making the reader believe their point of view. It’s okay to do either, it’s even okay to have it slide slowly from one to the other. It’s never okay to just do both randomly at different points in the story. 

6. Too Many Voices

Just because your narrator can hop between different characters doesn’t mean they should do it all the time. Even if your voices are consistent throughout, it’s usually best to stick with just three to five voices and perspectives most of the time. Some great authors use more, but those are rare talents. It’s something you can work up to, not something to start right away.

7. Too Much Backstory

One of the great things about third person perspective is you have the ability to deliver back story whenever you think the story needs it. One of the bad things about third person perspective is that you’re tempted to stick in way more backstory than the tale requires. Stay lean on backstory, giving only enough information for the reader to understand what’s happening right now. 

8. The Collective Perspective

Another hazard of this POV is to present multiple points of view collectively, reporting something like the average reaction in a scene to any given event. Crowds consist of individuals, and individuals have their own responses to things. This is best avoided unless you’re talking about mobs of faceless antagonists or similar features.

9. Bulky Scenes

When your narrator can know everything that’s going on, it’s easy to overdo it and provide far more details than a scene needs. This slows down the pace, and can contribute to the problem of a sagging middle. Like with backstories, put in just the information a reader needs to understand what’s happening in the scene. Any more risks making it too bulky.

10. The Interesting Other

When an interesting or colorful character enters a scene, but isn’t a main character in the story, it can be tempting to hop into that character’s point of view instead of sticking to the usual style of narration. Resist this temptation if you can, and instead spend the scene observing this colorful interloper from the angle of your closer scenes. 

What’s Next?

If you’re sold on third person, get to it! Use this advice, your own instincts, and the examples of authors you love to craft a wonderful story in this classic point of view.

If you’re not, stay tuned for next month. We’ll cover first person POV and see if that fits you better.