Everything You Need to Know About Writing a 3rd-Person POV

Everything You Need to Know About Writing a 3rd-Person POV

Everything You Need to Know About Writing a 3rd-Person POVChances 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:

POV????!!!!panicked emoji

I’ve written primer posts about omniscient POV and first-person POV, but I realized I still needed to do one on the most prevalent of all POVs—the third-person POV.

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.

Emma Jane Austen Ender's Game Orson Scott Card

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.

This is in contrast to first-person, which uses the first-person pronouns I/me/mine, as in Rothfuss’s Wise Man’s Fear:

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.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss demonstrates a third-person POV, while The Wise Man's Fear demonstrates a first-person POV.

 

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.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis demonstrates an omniscient POV.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.
Infographic Third-Person Omniscient

Infographic originally from the article “Writing in Third Person Omniscient vs Third Person Limited” on Reedsy

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.

London by Edward Rutherfurd demonstrates a distant limited third-person POV.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.
Infographic Third-Person Limited

Infographic originally from the article “Writing in Third Person Omniscient vs Third Person Limited” on Reedsy

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.”

Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold demonstrates a deep third-person POV.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

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

Characters Emotions and Viewpoint by Nancy KressBefore 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.

Stand Up Guy Michael SnyderExample 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:

  • Saw/Observed/Noticed
  • Heard
  • Smelled
  • Tasted
  • Felt
  • Thought

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.

Cinder Marissa Meyer Lunar ChroniclesExample 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.

Duchess by Susan May Warren demonstrates proper narrative subtext in a deep third-person POV.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.

Indivisible by Kristen Heitzmann demonstrates multiple POVs in third-person.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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Kate Flournoy says:

    Ooh, good post! I always use multiple deep third person POV, partially because my books are really, really, really long. (Or maybe it’s the other way around 😛 ). Either way, I’ve found the changing voices give a very refreshing collection of different perspectives for a long, complex novel.

    Something I’ve noticed also about deep third person POV is it’s much easier to convey emotions without having to name them. You brushed on this briefly in your post, but I wanted to delve a little deeper. When you’re narrating through the character’s head, you can sometimes even dump the ‘showing’ bit— you don’t necessarily have to describe what the character is feeling. You could just offer his commentary on what he’s feeling, and that will be sufficient.
    So, for instance, instead of describing the annoying itch of exasperation, you could just offer one word from his mind— ‘Brilliant.’
    It’s pretty cool, actually. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. I have a rule that I call the “never name an emotion” rule. I don’t actually take the “never” part literally. I *do* sometimes find it expedient to simply say a character is “grumpy” or whatever. But it’s a challenge that keeps me on my toes in trying to always show instead of tell.

      • Kate Flournoy says:

        What do you think of adjectives— guiltily, gleefully, furiously, disgustedly, etc.? I have to really watch myself about using them too frequently, but in your opinion should they or should they not be replaced with something more ‘showing’?

    • Wynn Guthrie says:

      I love, love long books with multiple POVs. I often find myself bored with a single POV – but then, I cut my teeth on Elizabeth Jane Howard and Susan Howatch, and I find it sad that that type of storytelling has fallen out of favor. These days people seem to want a tight plot above all else, with multiple POVs (especially over *time* seen as very old-fashioned and not worth writing.

      • William K Elliott says:

        Writing has changed because what people already know has changed. In Tolstoy’s time, extravagant description was necessary as most had never seen the kinds of places in which he set his scenes. Today, if you say something happened in a “modern looking office,” most people have a pretty good idea of what that looks like.

        Don’t let that stop you from writing what you love! Just do so with the knowledge that you will have a much smaller audience for your writing.

  2. I’m glad you posted this topic because I’ve been wondering about it for some time now. Having said that, it’s complete Greek to me. I get the gist of it but it’s largely over my head. The example from the camera was helpful though. I just don’t understand the narration or POV that well. My brain is pretty fried right at the moment and I need to eat something.

    Question: So what POV did you chose to write Behold the Dawn? That’ll help me recognize it a little better.

    Thx

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      For all that POV is actually pretty simplistic, it’s a tough concept for almost all writers to get their heads around in the beginning. So you’re in good company! Trying to identify how POV is used in books you read is an excellent place to start. All of my books, including Behold the Dawn, are written in deep third-person.

      For more info on POV, I recommend the books Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card and Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress.

      • Thanks for the recommended reads. I’m on a non-fiction kick right now anyways. I’m gobbling up the other book you mentioned, Write Away. She’s absolutely amazing in her delivery. Blew my socks off again.

        • Yes, isn’t Write Away great? It’s as much poetic memoir as it is writing guide. One of my favorites. Definitely a game-changer for me when I first read it.

        • Benjamin – I love both the books she recommended to you. They are both wonderful. I’m no expert, but for me, the easiest way to remember POV is “I went to the store” is first person (the use of “I”), and “He/She went to the store” is third person (using he/she or him/her). I like your idea of eating something first. I suggest chocolate. I think I’ll go get some myself.

      • Brian Cartwright says:

        Which answers my question below. I hadn’t refreshed the page before I posted my question – sorry about that!

  3. Thanks for explaining this. I hadn’t realised I was writing in ‘deep third person POV’, but it’s what I’ve been doing all along. I discovered that I was doing it when someone critiqued my first MS and commented that the language I used in one particular scene didn’t match the character the scene was describing. She told me that I’d used words that he wouldn’t use, yet everywhere else my vocabulary had been appropriate to whichever character I was writing about.
    When I edited that book, I was aware of this and made sure I’d got it right… mostly I had, whether by luck or instinct, I don’t know, but now when I read through a piece I’ve written, I’m aware of it.
    I also notice it when I’m editing others’ work for my publisher, and comment accordingly.

    Great advice… Thanks for giving the various POVs names… or for giving the terms I read about in writing posts and article meaning. It shows you’re never too old to learn.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks for posting this! What you’ve shared here is a really good, solid, simple tip for writing deep POV: use only language the narrating character would use.

  4. I’ve used 3rd person POV for my Abraham Frost series (first book will be up on Amazon next month)

    What I’ve tried to do is to go deep for scenes requiring more emotional connection, and to show Abe’s reaction to things. At times I italicise text to indicate his thoughts without quotes.

    And for more descriptive, matter-of-fact scenes, keeping it to more impersonal 3rd person language.

    Hopefully it works!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Congrats on your book release! It’s definitely a good rule of thumb to go deeper for more emotional scenes and pull back for less powerful scenes. Personally though (and this *is* a personal thing), I’m not a fan of “direct thoughts” (those you would tell in first-person and italicize). I find them counter-productive, in that they actually pull me, as a reader, *out* of the overall deep narrative by being so distinctly different from everything else that is supposedly coming right out of this character’s head.

    • Is there a rule about how to show internal dialogue or monologue? Is it always italicized? Or is it in quotes?

  5. I’m still trying to master the proper use of 3rd person POV. This will help. A few longer examples would have helped. Maybe a mini-book on the subject?

    Thank you

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I recommend reading any of the books I’ve mentioned here if you want to delve further into the examples.

  6. Hey, good article overall, but I’m afraid you made one major mistake in your reference to the movie Hardcore Henry and its video game inspirations: The type of games it’s based on are actually called first-person shooters, because you see the game world directly through the eyes of your character. Third-person shooters, by definition, employ a camera that lets you see your character – just like in a traditional film.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah! You can tell I’m not a gamer. My brothers would be ashamed of me. :p I’ll fix that.

  7. Brian Cartwright says:

    You had said that “Storming” was not omniscient, but the narrator is able to describe the thoughts of many different characters. Which category does that fall in?

    @Benjamin: Last year I discussed genealogy with Katie. Part of that was my wife’s 5th great-grandfather, who lived just a handful of miles from here, was named Benjamin Thomas, and his daughter Frances married a man named Abraham Weiland. However, none of their family moved to Nebraska!

    • Wow, that’s crazy!

    • In a deep 3rd-person POV–as Storming is–the narrator can observe and interpret other characters’ thoughts and feelings, to some extent, just as we do in real life. If you raise your eyebrows and nod your head at me, I can assume you’ve understood me, even though I can’t know that for *certain* because I obviously can’t read your mind. Same goes for narrators.

      • Brian L. Cartwright says:

        Sometimes your narrator seemed very intuitive in his observations, but yes, there was no explicit mind reading. I saw some ambiguity between those positions and thought that the narrator did know the thoughts of the characters, even if not admitting it.

        It’s more clear now, thanks

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          It’s definitely a tightrope walk, but one thing to remember is that we *all* think (without really thinking about it, if you know what I mean) that we know what other people are thinking. Sometimes we can create really interesting scenes by having the narrator completely misinterpret what the other person is actually thinking.

      • I find this raises an interesting point. The use of the third person can make it very tempting to over-interpret people’s reactions. And of course, since that interpretation is done through the author’s insight, more often than not, it is spot-on. Soon enough, interpretation becomes indistinguishable from omniscience.

        Lately I’ve been trying to scale back how much my characters interpret reactions or read emotions. I find that doubt, or better yet, misinterpretation, can be far more interesting. Opportunities for meaningful subtext, foreshadowing and misdirection abound in doubt and misunderstandings (when used judiciously).

  8. I’ve used it before, both omniscient and limited POV. Lately I write a lot in first person and I’m also trying to get out of the first person present tense habit as well.

    Third person can be versatile, but have to be careful because you can reveal too much story. Like, for me, thrillers are great for third person, but limited. We don’t need to know EVERYTHING everyone is doing and thinking. Just enough to follow the story.

    Some people LOVE romance in third person, or dual POV’s. I’m not such a fan, really but whatever floats your boat.

    • It’s important to remember that third-person can be every bit as limited as first-person. It *shouldn’t* tell readers everything everyone is doing or thinking–unless it’s omniscient or unless every one of those characters is given his own POV.

  9. Deep third-person limited, or what I like to call, “first person in the third person.”

  10. Adam J. Rickman says:

    I like the flavor of characterization you can utilize through deep 3rd person without limiting yourself to only one character’s view of his or her world. My stories tend to follow along with one central character, but feature scenes from a small handful of other POVs to offer plot and character advancement in ways that my protagonist’s limited view can’t.

    I enjoyed this post–particularly the distinctions you made regarding the degrees of varying character voice within the three major types of 3rd person. Thanks for the great content, Katie!

  11. Thanks for this great article. I think I understand the three types of 3rd person much better now.

    One thing I disagreed with though. You said that deep 3rd person generally has more emphasis on “showing”. In my opinion (while it can be done masterfully) it can very often be one of the worst cases of “telling” there is. Nothing makes me cringe so much as POV “telling”. I think it’s worse than narrator telling.

    I haven’t given this loads of thought, but I think POV “telling” mainly happens when the character’s internal thoughts focus on themselves instead of their surroundings. In real life, I tend to focus more on the outside world (like what I should say in this comment) than my inner self (like how I am being influenced by writing this comment). I mean, what do you call it when a character says what they feel like at a certain time? I call it telling. Now granted there are levels of telling within the telling. If we have, “John felt like all the stars in the heavens had zapped and then gone dark” that’s obviously better than, “John felt sad”. Still, what we have is basically a cheat sheet to the person’s soul. This provides us with great insight but the richness can sometimes be stunningly flat because there is no subtly. When somebody writes limited or omniscient 3rd person, they take you on a journey. If the writer is masterful, they can bring you to the same inner understanding of the character’s soul only you get the bonus of the journey. The journey is half the fun. You get to play the psychologist instead of having psychology fed to you. With a deep POV we are told most things about the character. With a limited view, we have only his body language, reactions, and speech to work with and I think that can sometimes lead to a deeper character.

    Now I certainly don’t think deep POV is bad. For instance, I love your book Dreamlander (I mean like it’s my third favorite book ever). Even still though, in that book (and more noticeably in Behold The Dawn) there were a few instances of POV telling that seemed to weigh the characters down. Still though, would I have wanted Dreamlander in limited POV? I don’t think so. I loved that book just how it was.

    So really, I’d like to know what you think about this. Obviously, you like deep POV (if done well, I do too) and I’m sure you’ve probably thought about this more than I have.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Two thoughts. Or actually three, first one being that I’m super-glad to hear you enjoyed Dreamlander so much! 😀

      Second: I totally agree that there are a gazillion examples of poorly done deep POV, in which far too much of the character’s internal world is told instead of shown. That’s just poor writing. But it’s important to distinguish between “telling” the character’s internal world (bad) and “sharing” the internal world (which is stylistic to some extent, just plain necessary in others, and never objectively bad).

      Third: You’re absolutely right that this “sharing” of the character’s internal world inevitably saps some of the story’s subtext. I’m a *huge* fan of subtext. It’s the secret ingredient that takes stories from good to great–and one of the reasons, I think, that I am sucked in and personally moved by more movies than I am books. Books just *aren’t* as good at subtext as movies are, for the simple fact that they almost always have to share more of the character’s interior world.

      In that sense, this “sharing” *is* a downfall of a deep POV. But, from other angles, it’s also a pro. One of the reasons books are often touted as being better than their movie adaptations is for the very reason that they dig down deeper and reveal more of the characters’ interior world.

      That said, finding the right balance between sharing and subtext is, of course, key in any narrative, but it’s also one that’s often very subjective to the individual story.

      Good thoughts. Thanks for sharing!

      • Thanks. I hadn’t been thinking about how that can actually give books an advantage. That’s a good point.

        I’ve actually used deep 3rd person once before so I’m a fan of it too. It’s just takes keen perception of what you are doing – like all writing.

        Now you’ve done it. I’m recalling Dreamlander and I feel like I have to go write that five star review I never got around to. *Goes and give it raving review*

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Hey, thanks so much for the review! Totally appreciate you taking the time to do that. 😀

  12. Thanks so much for your timely post. I am writing my mother’s story as though it is a diary and it also needs 3rd person POV narration. I was wondering how mixing POV is done and your examples have given me some ideas to further explore.
    I had copied and pasted your article and was going to get the pdf narrator to read aloud. I was so glad when I came across your audio version – listening to your voice, its inflections bringing life to your article certainly made a difference to the strident monotone that I was mentally preparing for with the ‘Read Out Aloud’ facility.
    Many thanks for your continuous generosity in sharing your knowledge.
    blessings
    Suzanne

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Mixing 3rd-persona and 1st-person POV is a style that goes all the way back to Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. It can be used to great effect, since it definitely slants the story’s emphasis to the first-person narrator. The most important thing to be aware of in using this mix is to make sure the voices are distinct from one another.

      Glad you enjoyed the podcast! 🙂 If you’re interested, you can listen to past episodes here and subscribe to it on iTunes here for future episodes.

  13. I thought I knew who and what “person” I was going to use in my current story…. Then I started working and thinking about the charaters and their stories…. And where they were before and after this story. I had found I needed two main characters, because they would need to be in completely different places at different times to tell this story and others. I then found your article on separating the protagonist from the main character…. Bing! Then I pulled a play from James Patterson. I’m using first person for my protag and 3rd person for my main character. I’m still determining how close and figure I can fix and even things out in editing. Most writers tend to like one or the other. Sometimes 3rd seems harder, because you do have to watch to make sure “what they see, feel, or know is possible for them to do.” For me first person feels more natural and less easy to cock up. This is going to be interesting to see how things come out… It is a huge and scary thing to be doing on a freshman outing. But it’s kind of really exiting too.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Although third-person is usually recommended as being the easiest type of POV, first-person often comes more intuitively. And mixing both is a good tradition that offers a lot of narrative control. Have fun!

  14. Yes, and not only that, so are we from God’s point of view.

  15. Thanks for the post. I’ll be using deep third person POV in my upcoming novel, so I’ll be sure to reference this.
    Do you have any ideas on how to show their thoughts without saying thought or just randomly inserting them?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Actually, I have a whole post for you! 5 Ways to Write Character Thoughts Worth More Than a Penny

      One key thing to remember is that, *technically*, every word written in a deep POV is the character’s thought.

      • I’ve realized this truth recently as I was doing edits. I do occasionally have an italicized thought, and I put my finger on why: these are the rare occasions when I have the characters mentally talk to themselves, or pray to a god in their pantheon. Something like, Oh please be with me now. Or, Did I just say that? I was using first person for those moments, hence the italicizing.

        Reading this post I’m more confident now about my decision to rephrase those italicized instances with “Did she really just say that? Oh, by the gods she was bad at this.”

        I don’t know why I had that weird hangup, but it’s as if you’ve given me permission to get over it 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yep, I totally agree with this take. Prayer is one of the few exceptions I make as well, since the “direct” phrasing is important.

      • Thanks for that post link. I’ll be sure to remember both of them for my novel.

  16. Am plotting a book for deep 3rd person, and I’m trying to figure out whether or not to have 2 POV’s. When doing two, should you make sure both narrators have equal stage time? Should they follow a similar character arc, or can you tie in 2 different themes?

    First person has always been my go-to POV, so this post helped a lot. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      What’s important in handling multiple POVs isn’t so much that they’re “equal” as that they’re “consistent.” You want to establish a pattern early on, so readers have a sense of when to expect the second POV to pop up. Let’s say you only want to feature the second POV four times throughout the book. What would be ideal is if each of those four instances were evenly spaced to every quarter of the book. It doesn’t always work out that neatly, of course, but when you can create a consistent pattern like that, it does good things for narrative cohesion and flow.

  17. Clint Gibson says:

    Once again, this had gotten me seriously thinking out multiple POV’s in particualar , especially the deep POV (both first and third).

    I’ve recently started writing a scene in my story which is not from the POV of a person, but actually his mobile phone. The phone is almost literally glaring at the person who’s actually leaving a video message.

    For me, my problem is destinguishing the difference between a third person POV from a fitst perosn POV, especially since the star of the scene in an inanimate object. But it’s not, the fact that it’s switched on indicates that the phne is very much alive.

    What would you take be on this? First of third person POV?

    Cheers 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The difference between first- and third-person has everything to do with which pronouns are used.

      First-person: I glared at my owner. Sometimes I hated him.

      Third-person: The phone glared at its owner. Sometimes it hated him.

      • Wow. That’s a huge difference, it totally gives it a different meaning. Mysteriously poetic.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yes, it’s subtle, but very powerful. I almost wrote my WIP in first-person. Almost all of the words would have been the same, save for the pronouns, but I quickly realized the narrative intimacy of first-person would create entirely the wrong tenor for what I was aiming toward.

          • I find the relationship between narrative and POV very fascinating.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            It is! And it’s one that a lot of writers take a long time to get their heads around. If you can recognize that relationship upfront, it will save you a lot of hassle and misconceptions down the road.

  18. Kate why have you chosen to write in 3rd person deep POV for your novels?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I like it because of its flexibility. It’s just as deep as first-person, while still providing just a little bit of distance, and it’s easy to include multiple POVs when necessary.

      • Flexibility is the name of the game.
        And thanks for the recommended reading on POV. It’ll take some time to wrap my head around it. Good thing it’s elastic. To become an author you have to become PLASTIC MAN. Lol!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Story theory really is a head game. But it follows logical and consistent patterns, so if you keep at it, it all becomes clear with time.

  19. Jacob Bradshaw says:

    When it comes to Deep Third-Person POV, is it a bad idea to describe long actions of characters that the POV is not focused on? An action scene, for example, that has several characters taking on the antagonist, is it a bad thing to describe somewhat lengthy (like entire paragraphs) worth on other characters?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If the main POV character is not in that scene or present for certain actions, you’ll either need to cut that scene *or* tell it from the perspective of a different POV character.

      • Jacob Bradshaw says:

        But what if the primary POV character *is* present, but I want to dedicate a moment of action to another character? I know I could switch the POV to that character, but from what I’ve read, switching the POV mid scene can cause the reader to get irritated—especially in a moment so small. It it better to just keep the reader’s attention to one person?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yeah, I wouldn’t recommend that. It’s not worth the risk. Pretty much the only way to pull it off while technically remaining within the POV is to have the POV character focus all his attention on this other character and his actions.

  20. Katie – Great blog, as usual. I love the discussion of “deep third person.” It’s my favorite to read, so I write in that as well. Do you have a recommended rule of thumb for the amount of POV’s in a single book? I have counted anywhere from two up to a dozen. To have a dozen, I think it needs to be a longer book or series. What do you think?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There is no “rule” on the correct number of POVs, but my personal recommendation is always the fewer, the better. Three is a good number. You’ll get a tighter, more intimate story with fewer POVs. It can be more challenging to write, but the rewards are almost always worth the payoffs, in my experience as both a writer and a reader.

  21. In study-mode right now and just finished rereading this post. Definitely makes more sense the second time around.

    Thx

  22. It’s interesting that you bundle person in with POV – and I can see how that can be helpful in explaining the principle; I usually keep tense, person and POV as a Saint Patrick shamrock because in some cases, even though the writer uses grammatical 3rd person, the actual point of view is as restricted as 1st person. I also find Emma Darwin’s description of ‘free indirect’ a very useful way of handling 3rd person that isn’t quite omniscient (http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2013/09/free-indirect-style-what-it-is-and-how-to-use-it.html).

    Thanks for such a concise and effective explanation!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The “persons” have become the standard way of addressing POV, but you’re right that there is distinction between person and the POV. I actually really like the shamrock idea!

  23. Due to the complex nature of my storylines, I have always written from a third-person POV. One of the hardest struggles that I have is the balance between focusing on the characters and focusing on the events of the plot. But I have almost always found third person to be preferable to the more restrictive first person (although I do prefer using first and second person in short stories).

    Thank you for this article; I found it very informative and I shall refer back to it as I edit my third-person works.

  24. Hey Katie, great blog, very helpful!
    I have a question for you:
    Let’s say you’re writing in deep third person limited, and the narrating character is talking about her mother, in that case would you call the mother by her name or call her ‘mom’ or ‘mother’?
    Would you write it like this:
    “It was a typical thing for Julie(the mother)to do.”
    Or this:
    “It was a typical thing for Kimberly’s(the narrating character)mom to do.”

    The reason why I’m wondering is because I would never call my mother by name I would call her mom, as I’m sure most people would, so if every word is coming directly from the main characters voice – even though it’s in third person POV – then wouldn’t that mean that the character should call her mother ‘mom’ and not call her by name?
    Or would you still use the mother’s name in this case even though the character wouldn’t call her mother by name?
    I hope you understand my question, English is not my first language.
    Thanks

    -Kira

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good question! Generally, when you’re in a deep POV, you want to refer to other characters in whatever way the POV character would naturally think of them. So, usually, “I looked at Mom” would be appropriate. My critique partner Linda Yezak wrote a great post on this.

  25. Mallory G. O'Bier says:

    This article is really helpful. I know now that some of the books I own are Third Person Deep.

    The only thing is, I’m still struggling a little trying to figure out for sure which type of Third Person Narrative voice I am using in my own writing. It’s got to be either Third Person Deep or Third Person Limited. (I think it’s Third Person Limited)

    Do you have any advice for identifying it?

    What is the strongest difference between Third Person Limited and Third Person Deep?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is where it gets a little confusing, because Deep is always Limited, but Limited isn’t always Deep.

      Basically, the differences in a nutshell:

      Deep POV: Goes *deep* into a character’s head and presents the entire narrative in his “personality” and voice.

      Limited POV: *Limits* the POV to a single character’s perspective. Can go deep, but can also be presented as mere surface observations.

  26. K.m. In my co-author book I have third person and first person for speaking.

    Why can’t writers use telling vebs?

    Saw/Observed/Noticed
    Heard
    Smelled
    Tasted
    Felt
    Thought

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s not that they *can’t*, it’s that you’ll usually get a more vivid experience by avoiding using them as crutches.

      • Ms. Albina says:

        K.M.,

        Thank you. In your book dreamlander your main character does have parents yes?

        When you write do you use said a lot or add stuff to said.

        “Arg,” The pirate said in a pirate voice.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yes, the main character in Dreamlander has parents.

          As for punctuating dialogue, “said” is a sturdy dialogue tag that can usually be used by itself. However, I prefer to rely on action beats when possible, since they both indicate the speaker and show the scene via the character’s thoughts and actions: E.g., “The pirate brandished his sword. ‘Argh!'”

  27. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M,

    Okay, I got it. In some young adult books I have read some of the writers use first person and some use third person.

    What do you use?

    I use both first and third only first when the character is talking.

  28. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M,

    When you write dialogue -do you write long dialogue or short dialogue?

    My examples:

    “I will teach you how to write in runes,” Delphina spoke in a friendly voice.

    “I’m her second messenger, the first messenger is my sister Arella,” Delphina replied. “I send messages telepathically to Maia. She gifted my sister and I with immorality and we both became messenger goddesses,”
    “ I did not know that,” Jewel said. “I know how to read,”
    “Do you know how to write in runes?” Delphina asked.
    “No, I don’t,” Jewel, said.
    The man stopped and said. “My name is Zane Merrick,” he continued, “I wish you no harm,” The mysterious stranger smiled. Halt!!” commanded the priestess holding her hand up.
    “State your business!”

    Leilani and Cara both have telepathy, and healing powers. Cara who the mer-priestess does not have visions-Leilani does.

    When Leilani has her visions her spirit body or self sees the vision in her dreams since she travels in the vision.

    Since she saw two children who were ill with the yellow death in co-author book 1.

    Do any of your characters in your dreamlander series have powers or abilities?

  29. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M.,

    Thank you,

    How do I write in deep third person like you do you have examples of deep third person?

  30. Does anyone know of any editor that know about deep pov and won’t try and put back in everything I’ve worked so hard to take out? The editer I found was find the first couple of chapters then on chapter three she’s putting stuff back in like: He saw, she saw, she look and making my inner thoughts in italics.

    The italics have to stay out not just because it’s deep pov but because in the next couple of chapters the god that in the same body with her starts talking in her head and I need the italics to separate his thoughts from hers.

    The editer also needs to like fantasy. I just a proofreading and simple error fixing atm.

    Thanks.

  31. Apologies that was a little hard to read, I better go have a coffee. xD

  32. Very informative read, and I finally have a name for the POV I use. Thank you. I’m not a native speaker, but I always write in English (I’ve only ever written fanfiction so far) and in my native language “deep third POV” is known as “indirect free speech.”

    Two questions:

    1) Any thoughts on second person POV? As a reader I find it disturbing but oddly appropriate if, for instance, we’re inside a serial killer’s head.

    2) For deep third, is it alright to be deliberately confusing in specific portions of your writing or is it simply not done? In one of my Harry Potter fics a character (Severus Snape, in this instance) who has been running on barely any sleep for over four days watches someone he cares about (and has been trying to save) die in front of him and decides to go back in time (and, in this story, in space as well since she’s stuck in her own mind by a curse) to rescue her despite not knowing what killed her in the first place.

    My beta reader hated the sequence I wrote, said she didn’t think the readers would be able to follow the action, but I left it as I’d written it because it was meant to be confusing in the first place, not only because of the lack of sleep but also because he was running on autopilot, all instict and no conscious thought. I’ve often wondered in the years that followed that particular decision, if it’s just that I’m overly attached to my writing and can’t let go, or if stylistically it was alright to go with my gut. Here’s the offending excerpt:

    – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    “Severus, it’s Miss Granger… Her vitals are failing, Albus said you should know.”

    Without a word Severus ran to the infirmary, panic speeding him until he was out of breath. Oblivious to everyone surrounding him, he made straight to her bed. There was still no outward noticeable change, she appeared to be sleeping just as she had five days ago, but Poppy’s wand showed otherwise. All of her body seemed to be shutting down, as if someone somewhere had pulled a plug: her heart rate was slowing, her brain activity rapidly decreasing. Helpless to do anything but watch, Severus stood transfixed, the scene in front of him unfolding itself as if through a haze. Poppy giving her yet another potion, stronger than the last. Now a spell that was supposed to make her heart beat stronger. Still her pulse was fading. Another potion, last attempt. Pulse gone altogether. Poppy, giving her a cardiac massage. And then, finally, nothing. Defeat and sadness in the mediwitch’s eyes, and a quiet acceptance of the inevitable.

    “NO!” The howl of pain tore at his throat even before he was fully conscious of her death, shattering the solemn aura of the room. Albus, moving forth to reason with him, and suddenly Severus was gripping the older wizard by the shoulders, demanding to know where the parchment was. Albus’ answer, Severus dropping him and running once more like a madman, as he had so long ago when he had first fallen under the influence of the Purgatorium. Only now it was that much more important that he make it on time. Screaming a nearly five-month old password to a gargoyle that refused to budge. Albus’ kind voice supplying the correct one, and Severus was now flying up the moving staircase. Bursting into the Headmaster’s office, reaching inside his robes. Turning the hourglass back, one, two, three, better make it four turns, he didn’t know what she’d been fighting. “Accio Purgatorium Æternus parchment”, thinking hard of the dungeons where he knew she would be, his fingers clutching the letter as if for dear life only harder, stronger, for it was a much more valuable life than his own. And then there he was, screaming her name at the top of his lungs, trying to ignore the terror that he might not have gone back far enough, that he might have lost her already. Running through his chambers, still calling her name, searching every corner where she might be. Then, finally, opening the bathroom door to find her fully clothed in the same dress she’d been wearing five days before, inside a full bathtub, vacant eyes, razor blade – his razor blade, he realised irrelevantly – slowly cutting one exposed wrist, the second one already bleeding. She had been fighting only herself.

    Severus’ mind, jolting him at last into context, and he was inside the bathtub with her, the water so cold – how long had she been there? -, yanking the razorblade from her hand even as he cut his own fingers, his blood mingling with hers in the water, pain he wasn’t even registering, razor blade flying to the floor, wand on her wrists, wounds closing and her eyes now focusing to see him for the first time.

    “S… Severus?” Chin trembling, whole body shaking, and Severus lifting her from the cold water with strong arms, laying her down on the bed, warm blankets over her and his arms never leaving her, murmuring words of comfort.

    “It’s alright, love. It’s alright. You’re not alone anymore, I’m here with you.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Very interesting about the term “indirect free speech”! Can I ask what *is* your native language?

      In answer to your questions:

      1. Second-person is an extremely tricky POV that should only be used sparingly. But, as you say, it’s very effective in certain situations.

      2. Anything you do “deliberately” in a story is fine, as long as it’s achieving the desired affect. Personally, I didn’t find your excerpt confusing (at least, I don’t think I did–since I have no other context, of course).

      • Apologies for the late reply, I didn’t realise you’d responded. My native language is Portuguese, it’s an incredibly rich and poetic language – and yet I always find myself writing in English, with no idea why.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Very cool! I dabble in French and Italian, but I’m nowhere near fluent enough to actually write in them.

  33. Very nice summary of POV, though I disagree that deep limited 3rd person MUST be in the characters voice. Even in deep 3rd, the narrator is still a distinct character from the protagonist, so can choose not to follow the voice.

    I have a quick question, and am hoping you could offer some advice. I am currently writing a fantasy story in limited 3rd, but am not sure how deep I should go with the POV. I originally wrote it somewhere in the middle regarding distance, the narrator was able to notice things the character was not and often used “he thought” or “he felt” to highlight deeper dives. One of my readers suggested I might go deeper into the character’s head. I’m not sure. It will certainly help to focus on and build up that main character. The problem I have is that there are really three important characters in the story, the protag and two followers. And as I review the story, I almost feel like the story is about one of the other characters mostly, despite being told through the main hero’s perspective. The side character is the one who is most fundamentally changed by the events of the story. So should I stick with a more distant POV or go deeper? I know its hard to say without reading the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m a fan of deep POVs. I see no reason *not* to go deeper. But the ultimate question is: which narrative is more engaging?

  34. Oh, great post! I always write in first person or multiple-person deep third person POV’s, but I always had trouble getting my characters to get outside their head and into the real world–if you know what I mean. This post gave me some great ideas though, and was a wonderful help for helping me to figure out my complex brain children.

  35. M.L. Bull says:

    Apparently, I’ve used deep-third-person without even knowing it. I never heard of it before. Just needed a refresher about third-person point of view and the difference between omniscient and third-limited. Thank you very much! 🙂

  36. I really wanted to write with deep third person POV. And I still want to write it, but well. Thank you for the reminder, especially the prohibited verbs and the show don’t tell.

  37. Thank You! But can you please give us some more popular examples for deep third POV – novels that are very famous so they are translated in many languages…

Trackbacks

  1. […] bring your characters to life, Becca Puglisi discusses friends as enemies, K.M. Weiland tells you everything you need to know about 3rd person, Marcy Kennedy explores using deep POV to capture readers’ emotions, and Joanna Roddy shares the […]

  2. […] Everything You Need to Know About Writing a 3rd-Person POV […]

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  4. […] Helping Writers Become Authors – Everything You Need to Know About Third Person POV […]

  5. […] Everything You Need to Know About Writing a 3rd-Person POV […]

  6. […] learn how to start a novel in third person, the best thing to do is to read the openings of published novels that use third person POV effectively. There is no single ‘right’ way to start a story in first person. Reading examples by respected […]

  7. […] K.M. Weiland‘s article details three types of 3rd person POV, explains the difference between distant and deep 3rd, and gives pro’s and con’s of each as well as examples of published works using each one. […]

  8. […] reader in rather than distancing. If you go “deep,” then the connection only grows. Kim Weiland does a much better job laying it all out than I ever […]

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