Writing in Third-Person Point of View

31 Jan 2023 Fiction, The Writing Craft

What is Third-Person Point of View? 

Do you wonder, as so many budding writers do, how to master Point of View?

Third-person point of view is most common in storytelling—and with good reason.

While first-person may be the easiest POV for readers to understand, because that makes it easier to avoid head hopping, third-person is one you want to learn to grasp and effectively employ.

In third-person you refer to your characters by their names or as he/she and him/her.

Subsets of third-person POV are called third-person limited and third-person omniscient.

Third-Person Limited

Limited to what? To the scope of the perspective of only one character, who serves as your camera and microphone and mind.

You limit yourself to your perspective character, recording only their interactions with the rest of the cast.

Only your main character’s thoughts and opinions are described, as you’re limited to their perspective.

This point of view allows the reader to experience the world from the perspective of one character—much like first-person, but instead of your character describing their own actions, a removed narrator does.

An example from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

Elizabeth felt herself growing more angry every moment; yet she tried to the utmost to speak with composure when she said,

“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me …” 

She saw him start at this, but he said nothing.

Elizabeth’s feelings and motivations are clear, while Mr. Darcy’s are detailed only from her perspective. The reader can guess or deduce Mr. Darcy’s motivations, based on  Elizabeth’s reasoning.

If you’ve read Pride and Prejudice, you understand how this builds tension in the plot.

Third-person limited can lend intrigue by providing setups that demand payoffs to keep your reader turning pages.

While this POV is, by definition, limited to one character at a time, you can switch perspective characters throughout your story.

But such changes must be crystal clear for the reader and should be plainly delineated by scene or chapter breaks.

Ideally, an entire book from a single limited perspective works well but is not always possible.

Do resist the urge to switch perspectives every time you want the reader to understand a new character.

Be willing to do the hard work of revealing that character through the limited perspective of your POV character.

Alternating between different characters’ points of view allows for events to be told through the eyes of the character with the most at stake in each scene, but avoid head hopping, which I cover below.

Third-Person Omniscient

In this perspective, the narrator writes from an all-knowing, all-seeing viewpoint not even limited by time.

As popular as this was decades ago, it is now largely considered archaic, and I don’t recommend it.

The omniscient perspective is still often seen in fairytales and other children’s stories where the all-knowing narrator sets up and explains the moral.

An example is the story of the Three Little Pigs, where the audience becomes aware of the pigs’ mistakes and the danger of the wolf before the pigs themselves do.

The third-person omniscient POV can work for nonfiction, as you are writing from a point of expertise the reader wouldn’t likely have.

How to Maintain Correct Limited Point of View

Avoid head-hopping

Restrict your story to come solely from one perspective character’s POV.

That person is your camera and recorder, and for each scene, you’re allowed only one — and it should be whoever has the most to gain or lose.

Ideally, that will be your main character, though in some bigger sweeping stories, you might alternate between a few others.

Just be sure you stick with one per scene.

Hopping between different characters’ perspectives within the same scene (and sometimes within the same sentence) takes you out of third-person limited POV and into omniscience, which is largely frowned upon in today’s market.

Here’s what it would have looked like if I had not limited myself to a single perspective character (an airline pilot) in the opening scene of Left Behind:

Rayford Steele’s mind was on a woman he had never touched. His co-pilot wondered what Rayford was thinking.

The problem is that in third-person limited POV, I can’t hop between the heads of two people.

I can speculate, from Rayford’s perspective, what his co-pilot might think, but I can state it unequivocally.

It would have to be rendered something like this:

His co-pilot’s look told Rayford the man was probably wondering what he was thinking.

Avoid changing tenses

Most novels are written in past tense, though some are written in present tense.

Either is acceptable, so do what works best for your story. Just don’t jump back and forth between tenses, which would look like this:

Katie slipped into her desk and sets down her coffee. She breathes in deeply and considered her next move. 

Fully flesh out your main character

Your reader will mostly experience your story from the perspective of your main character, so naturally, you must know that character inside and out.

Create a complex character worthy of serving as the embodiment of your story’s point of view.

Feel free to download my free Character Arc Worksheet below.

Need help creating your characters? Click here to download my character arc worksheet.