Chances are good you’re using a third-person POV (or Point of View) in your story right now. If not, then you likely used it in the past or will give it a try in the future. It’s a nearly universal writing technique and the most popular of all the POV choices. But are you using it correctly?
Not everything in writing comes easily. I often talk about how most of storytelling—particularly structure—is surprisingly instinctive for most writers. We understand it on a subconscious level, to the point we’re often on the right track with our books long before our conscious brains catch up.
But not everything’s like that. For most writers, POV isn’t like that. The gist of one of the questions I most frequently receive is:
This is the POV of choice in more books than not—everything from Emma to Ender’s Game. It’s arguably the least complicated of the POVs, so it’s a good choice for beginning writers. But it’s also arguably the most flexible of the POVs, which means it’s also a good choice for the most advanced and complicated of stories.
In short, third-person POV is pretty awesome—but only if you understand what you’re doing with it and how to properly put its mighty powers to work. Let’s kick that panicked emoji to the curb and start answering your most burning and fundamental questions about the third-person POV.
What Is Third-Person POV?
First off, the basics. What is this third-person POV gibberish of which I speak?
A third-person POV is a narrative in which the third-person pronouns (he/she/him/her/his/hers), as well as the characters’ names, are used to describe all the characters–including the protagonist and/or the narrator(s).
For example, from Patrick Rothfuss’s Slow Regard of Silent Things:
Opening her eyes, Auri saw a whisper of dim light. A rare thing, as she was tucked tidily away in Mantle, her privatest of places. It was a white day, then. A deep day. A finding day. She smiled, excitement fizzing in her chest.
Truth be told, I didn’t even know her real name. Auri was just what I had come to call her, but in my heart I thought of her as my little moon Fae.
Three Types of Third-Person POV
The reason the third-person POV is the most flexible of all the POV choices is because it offers a variety of “sub-choices” within itself. There are any number of degrees to these choices, but we can break them down into three basic categories:
1. Omniscient Third-Person POV
Omniscient POV is a technique unto itself. Usually, when writers talk about a third-person POV, they are talking about one of the following categories, rather than omniscient. But since the omniscient POV almost always uses third-person pronouns for its characters, it is technically a third-person POV.
The very essence of the omniscient POV is, of course, it’s all-knowing-ness. It doesn’t limit itself to a single character’s head, but flows from character to character or even beyond all the characters, sharing information only the writer could know.
Example: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids. They were sent to the house of an old Professor who lived in the heart of the country, ten miles from the nearest railway station and two miles from the nearest post office.
Pros of Omniscient Third-Person POV
- Allows readers to see everything by providing a panoramic view.
- Controls the narrative outside of the characters’ experience.
- Maintains distance from any one character.
- Adds dramatic irony or subext, via the contrast between the omniscience of the author/narrator and the characters’ “finite” perspectives.
Cons of Omniscient Third-Person POV
- Creates distance from the characters.
- Sometimes creates reader disorientation by delving into “head hopping.”
- Requires compensation in thematic questions, dramatic irony, or excellent prose, to make up for narrative distance.
2. Distant Limited Third-Person POV
A limited third-person POV is one that eschews omniscience and confines the narrative to only one character’s perspective at a time. It’s possible to employ multiple limited third-person POVs, but the changes between POVs much clearly indicated via scene breaks.
Have you seen the trailer for that new movie Hardcore Henry, riffing off first-person shooter video games–in which you see only what the protagonist sees? That‘s limited POV. What’s found in the narrative is only what the narrating character himself experiences: only what he sees, hears, tastes, touches, smells, or thinks.
However, remember this is also a distant POV, which means that while you’re limiting the perspective to a single character, you’re not in his head in the same way you would be in a deep POV (see below). What this usually comes down to is that you’re going be erring more on the side of telling about this character, rather than actively showing his experience.
Example: London by Edward Rutherfurd
Silversleeves had only gone three miles from the castle gates when he wished he hadn’t. The sun had been out when he left that June morning, but now it was raining hard. As the lush meadows all around roared with the din of falling water, and the raindrops gathered on the end of his nose, he cut a sorry figure.
Pros of Distant Limited Third-Person POV
- Creates a tighter narrative, compared to omniscience.
- Allows for deeper connection between narrating character and readers.
- Also allows for more distance than in a deep POV (which can be a pro, depending on the story and the character).
- Sometimes allows for narrative “explaining” from author (e.g., of backstory, setting information, etc.).
Cons of Distant Limited Third-Person POV
- Keeps readers at arm’s length from characters.
- Often creates a narrative that “tells” more than “shows.”
- Is rarely as colorful as deep third-person POV has the ability to be.
3. Deep Third-Person POV
Just as its name suggests, the “deep” (or “close”) third-person POV allows you to go deep into your narrating character’s head. In essence, this technique is no different from the first-person POV, save for the differing pronouns. You can think of it like this: every word in a deep POV is coming straight out of your character’s head. You’re trying to create the experience, for the readers, of actually being your narrating character.
As a result, deep third-person finds its greatest strengths when the narrating character provides a unique and vibrant narrative voice, in which everything he experiences or thinks is shown to readers, rather than simply told.
For example, in a distant narrative, you might write “he cut a sorry figure,” as Rutherfurd does in the previous section’s example, but in a deep narrative, you would instead show why the character felt like a sorry figure: “He slogged through the mud. His hair plastered his temples, his fine new clothes were filthy, and his nose was running egregiously. This was a fine state in which to be meeting the countess.”
Example: Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster-Bujold
She leaned between the crenelations again, the stone abrading the lavender sleeves of her court mourning dress, catching at its silk threads. Her eye followed the road in the morning light, starting from the stones below and flowing downhill, through the town, past the river… and where? All roads were one road, they said. A great net across the land, parting and rejoining. All roads ran two ways. They said. I want a road that does not come back.
Pros of Deep Third-Person Person
- Grants readers complete access to narrating character.
- Offers the potential for strong narrative voice.
- Demands more “showing” vs. “telling.”
Cons of Deep-Third Person
- Limits narrative to a single character at any given time.
- Puts more pressure on excellent characterization.
- Can be wordier, due to emphasis on “showing.”
A Caveat: Forget Everything I Just Told You About the “Three” Categories
Before we move on, I must offer a word of caution: The three categories I’ve presented here are the three obvious distinctions found within the third-person POV. But that does not mean they are always distinct. As Nancy Kress says in Characters, Emotion, & Viewpoint:
It’s important to emphasize that close, middle, and distant third-person viewpoints are not really separate and discreet categories. Rather, they’re a continuum, just as a camera moving progressively farther away from a film subject would have no absolute point labeled “far.” The terms are relative and flexible.
4 Considerations for Deep Third-Person POV
Before we leave the subject, let us look a little, well, deeper into deep third-person. I’ve written extensively about omniscient POV here, and distant limited third-person is comparatively intuitive and easy to figure out. Deep third, however, is a little more complicated. Before you dive into your third-person narrative, here are four important aspects to keep in mind:
1. Narrative Voice
Your ability to bring your narrating character to life through his voice on the page is one of the greatest benefits of deep third-person (just as it is and must be with first-person). If you’re going to succeed in giving readers the impression they’re in this character’s head, then every word in the narrative must be spoken in this character’s voice. Don’t settle for a bland voice; search and experiment until you can bring that special “it” quality to the narrative, from the very first page.
Example from A Stand-Up Guy by Michael Snyder
It was obviously Oliver’s turn to speak. But every time he opened his mouth the sluicing roar of adrenaline made it impossible to focus on forming words. His addled brain peppered him with unanswerable questions: When had she come in? How much did she hear? What had she thought of his material? What must she think of him? Not to mention his idiotic uniform. The question he finally settled on was So, how may I help you? But it came out like: “So, what are you doing here anyway?”
2. Showing vs. Telling
Out of all the POVs, deep third (and first) put perhaps the most emphasis upon “showing” rather than “telling.”
Avoid “telling” verbs, such as:
Instead, show what your narrator is experiencing. Instead of saying he “felt angry,” show him going all green rage monster and throwing crates at the wall. Instead of saying, he “smelled burnt bread,” describe the scent of char. Instead of saying “he saw a disturbance on the street,” describe the brawlers and the flash of lights on the cop cars.
Example from Cinder by Marissa Meyer
A stained tablecloth divided Cinder from browsers as they shuffled past. The square was filled with shoppers and hawkers, children and noise. The bellows of men as they bargained with robotic shopkeepers, trying to talk the computers down from their desired profit margins. The hum of ID scanners and monotone voice receipts as money changed accounts. The netscreens that covered every building and filled the air with the chatter of advertisements, news reports, gossip.
3. Using But Not Abusing Narrative
Especially in a deep POV, it can be tempting to allow the character’s internal narrative to do the heavy lifting. Now, granted, this is sometimes not only acceptable, but unavoidable, if you’re going to properly advance the character’s inner growth.
However, whenever you find yourself writing paragraphs upon paragraphs about how your character feels or in which he explains the situation to readers, you’ll want to double back and consider ways in which you can dramatize these events. Show readers what’s going on, and use your subtext to strengthen the overall reading experience.
Example from Duchess by Susan May Warren
Palace Studios has bleached her hair to starlight white, plucked her eyebrows clear off her face, and penciled in a line of black. They’d framed her lips in a bloodred cupid’s bow and honed her figure into something that added mystery and allure under her teal blue satin evening gown….
“But it’s not real. It’s not me.”
“Make it you, doll. If this is what you want, you’ll have to become Miss Roxy Price.”
The actress in the mirror found a smile for him. Nodded.
4. Multiple POVs
Just because you happen to be deep inside your protagonist’s head doesn’t mean his is the only head you can explore. You may choose to use multiple deep third-person POVs (or even a mix of third- and first-person, as Charles Dickens did in Bleak House). This allows you to get around many of the limitations of the form by showing other characters’ perspectives as well.
However, always consider carefully. For every POV you gain, you also risk a little something in overall narrative cohesion and focus. To quote the Roman poet Horace:
Nothing is beautiful from every point of view.
Never give a character a POV “just because.” Always consider the overall effect you’re trying to achieve in the narrative. Will this extra POV enhance or weaken that effect? And when you do choose to include more than one POV, seek out vibrant and unique voices for each character and delineate between POV switches with a clear scene or chapter break.
Example from Indivisible by Kristen Heitzmann
Pain speared. [Tia’s] foot slipped, and the other leg buckled. Her staff tumbled over rocks and juniper, as her hands scraped, her cheek burned, her head and shoulder banged. She grasped for tree trunks, ripping bark and moss and the flesh of her palms before she lodged with a thud in the crook of the ravine.
Piper paced. It was way past time for Tia to call or come home. Even if there’d been an emergency, wouldn’t she make contact? Piper fingered her phone. She’d left three messages. No response. She looked out through the streaming pane.
The third-person POV is a magnificently complex and flexible technique that adapts itself to any number of skill levels or narrative requirements. A mastery of the third-person POV will allow you to write a book that instantly conveys to readers they’re safely in the hands of a master storyteller.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you used third-person POV in any of your stories? Why did you choose it? Tell me in the comments!
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