February 8th, 2017


Third-Person POV

I’ve been discussing point of view in the last couple of writing posts. This week, I’ll delve into third-person POV. Third person is when the story is told by a narrator who’s not a participant in the story. Therefore, the characters are all referred to in the third person — he, she, they, etc.

Third-person limited POV is probably the most common and widely used in modern fiction. This is when the narrator gets into the head of only one character at a time — usually one character in a scene, with the perspective only changing at scene breaks. While the narrator is in the head of that character, it basically works like first-person POV with different pronouns. We’re in that character’s head, seeing through his/her eyes. We don’t have access to any information that the character doesn’t have. Sometimes the narrative even takes on the flavor of that character’s voice in those scenes. The main difference, other than the pronouns, between third-person limited and first-person narration is that the first-person narrator is aware that she’s telling a story, while with third person, the reader is getting to eavesdrop on the thoughts of a character who doesn’t know she’s a character in a story. That means that the thoughts are less censored. The character doesn’t get to decide what to tell readers and what to leave out. We’re seeing every thought, feeling every emotion. The viewpoint character with limited third has no secrets from us unless it’s such a secret that she doesn’t even let herself think about it.

That means that it’s hard to use limited third for an unreliable narrator or a character who’s keeping secrets. If you’ve got a character with secrets that have to be kept from readers, you can’t use that character’s POV. You have to stick with other characters observing that character and not go into that character’s head. On the other hand, that uncensored perspective makes limited third good for books that involve sex scenes, since it means you can convey all the thoughts and sensations and the character doesn’t have the option of modesty or shyness. Limited third can be far more intimate than first-person narration, depending on the character.

But you still need to keep in mind that you’re limited to what the character sees and experiences. A line like “His brown eyes widened when he read the letter” can only work if you’re in the viewpoint of a character observing this person. If you’re in his head, he’s not going to be noticing his brown eyes, and the way he notices his reaction won’t be to think about his eyes widening. He’s going to be thinking about how he feels.

One benefit of third person is that you can get into the heads of multiple characters, but changing viewpoints can be tricky. If you switch during a scene, going back and forth to make sure the reader knows what everyone in the scene is thinking, that’s generally referred to as “head hopping.” There are very successful authors who do that, but it’s probably best not to try that as a beginner. The danger of head hopping is that it confuses readers who don’t know whose head they’re supposed to be in at any given point, and the constant switching makes it difficult for the reader to settle into any one character’s perspective. The result is that readers will often distance themselves entirely and never really dig into the book. It’s best to let readers have the time to settle into a character’s head before you change viewpoints, and have a reason for changing viewpoints — the next viewpoint character is in a different location or has a truly different perspective. Don’t just change because you want us to know what everyone is thinking.

Having multiple viewpoint characters, especially if they’re in different locations, can be good for maintaining tension and suspense because you can leave one viewpoint character in a cliffhanger at the end of a scene or chapter and then go spend time with another character, delaying the resolution of the cliffhanger. Then cliffhang the new character and go back to resolve what was going on with the first character. You can have one character not knowing what’s going on with the other character, while the reader knows, which creates suspense, but then there’s also the danger that if the reader knows more than one of the characters, it can make the character seem dumb.

Third-person omniscient narration is when the narrator is outside the story and knows all. I’m not going to try to delve into it because I’ve never tried it, and it’s really tricky to pull off well in modern fiction. It’s most often used today for satire, in which the narrator is commenting on events, or pastiche of 19th century fiction.

Next, I’ll get into how you decide which POV to use in a book.