[Tipster] How to Write Third Person Point of ViewNov 09, 2023
By: Allison Parks
I have a Kindle Unlimited membership.
It’s a monthly membership that gives me access to hundreds of thousands of books I can read for “free.”
To make the most of my membership, I spend some time reading self-published books.
One book I tried to read this last week—and ultimately didn’t finish—had a major problem. The author's point of view was inconsistent.
This is a common problem new writers struggle to recognize. And overcome.
Point of view (POV) is the narrative voice through which the author tells a story.
There are three types of POVs: first person, second person, and third person.
Today, I want to focus on third person—specifically the challenges that writers face when embracing this point of view.
A Breakdown of Third Person Point of View
When an author writes in third person POV, s/he is narrating the story about the characters through third-person pronouns (“he/she”).
Third person is then subdivided into two categories: third person limited and third person omniscient.
There are subtle differences between these two. So it’s important to understand and clarify which third person POV you’re writing in.
In third person limited, the narrator is an external voice that observes the story from the outside.
The narrator has access to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of ONE character at a time. This character is usually the protagonist.
In third person omniscient, the narrator possesses complete knowledge of all characters, events, and settings within the story.
The narrator can access the thoughts feelings, and experiences of multiple characters simultaneously.
Here’s a comparison.
From Suzanne Collin’s The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, page 12.
As she led Coriolanus into the kitchen, he reminded himself that self-control was an essential skill, and he should be grateful his grandmother provided daily opportunities to practice it.
From Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, page 104.
As they drove to Mr. Gardiner’s door, Jane was at a drawing-room window watching their arrival; when they entered the passage she was there to welcome them, and Elizabeth, looking earnestly in her face, was pleased to see it healthful and lovely as ever.
Did you notice the difference?
The first passage, from The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, is told through Coriolanus’ perspective. This is third person limited. The reader is inside Coriolanus’ head. And his head only.
The second passage, from Pride and Prejudice, narrates both Jane and Elizabeth’s actions, even though they’re in separate places at the time. This is third person omniscient.
When it comes to writing third person omniscient, new writers try to write the thoughts and feelings of all their characters. But they fall into the trap of head-hopping.
Head-hopping vs. Omniscient: Do You Know the Difference?
Head-hopping is when an author abruptly shifts between the POVs of characters in a single scene. The author tries to write in omniscient, but actually writes with the voice of the individual character.
It’s important to remember that omniscient POV means the reader is inside the narrator’s head. Not the characters’ heads. The narrator takes the reader on a tour of the thoughts and feelings of the characters in the scene.
Let’s look at an example from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast.
The old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him.
Others, of the older fisherman, looked at him and were sad. But they did not show it and they spoke politely about the current and the depths they had drifted their lines at and the steady good weather and of what they had seen.
Note how the narrator knows the feelings and thoughts of the old man, the boy, and the other locals. The narrator is omniscient.
But the narrator has its own voice. It relays the thoughts and feelings of the story’s main characters through its voice, and not the voices of each individual character.
Let’s look at the same scene. But this time, the scene is written with head-hopping.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream. He had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish and he was frustrated. He didn’t understand why it was so difficult to catch a fish.
The boy watched the old man come in each day with his skiff empty, and he was sad. The old man had taught him how to fish. He loved the old man, and he didn’t like seeing the old man return empty-handed.
To show his gratitude and love, he always went down to help the old man carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The old man thought the boy’s help was unnecessary, but he appreciated the boy, nonetheless.
In this version, both the old man and the boy have distinct voices. They are narrating the story through their individual perspectives.
The inconsistent narration is awkward to read.
Remember: Writing within the voice of a specific character is writing in third person limited point of view. And switching between characters voices (POVs) requires a break in the scene.
Take a look at your own manuscript. Which point of view are you writing from? Are you trying to write from third person omniscient but actually writing third person limited?