Other than first-person POV, third-person is the other viable perspective for telling your story. (Second person—using the “you” pronoun, as though you’re writing a letter to the audience, is unusual.) In fact, third person is the most common choice of perspective. Deciding what POV to write in is an essential choice as an author and one you’ll want to consider carefully. In this post, I’ll share POV options, advantages and disadvantages, and other information that will help you decide if you want to use the third person perspective.
Types of Third Person Perspective
Unlike first person POV where there is only one type of perspective—that of the narrator who is also a character (using “I” and “me” pronouns), third person can take, well…three forms. There is third person objective, limited, and omniscient. In all cases, the narrator’s voice is separate from any of the character’s.
With third person objective, the narrator is neutral and not privy to any character’s thoughts or feelings. The tone is observational—sort of like an announcer at a sporting event calling plays.
Limited or close third person means the narrator is deep in the head of one character at a time. The narrator knows this person’s thoughts and feelings but cannot know another’s—unless the narrator gets into the head of someone else. Dual (or even more perspectives) are fine, but sometimes close third person sticks with only one character.
Omniscient means the narrator is God-like. She knows all characters’ hopes and dreams, what has come before and what will come later, and can tell you, the reader, all about it. This narrator has no limits.
Which is best?
As always, the best choice depends on what type of story you want to tell. Do you have a complicated plot where you want the reader to know everything and then wait on the edge of his seat to find out what happens next? Maybe omniscient or observational will do. Do you have a family saga where getting deep into a character’s emotions will be most important? Perhaps limited third person is best.
I personally think the best question to ask is: who’s story is this? Who has the most to gain or lose? What would make for the highest stakes? Would it benefit the plot to inform that character? Keep her in the dark? Let the action speak for itself? Get deep into someone’s psyche? Thinking about what elements are most important/interesting about your story can help you decide on POV. The conventions of your genre might help you make that decision too.
Third person POV is by all means the most flexible, expected, and commonly used perspective. It ranges from in the head of a character to an all-knowing god. You really do have many options. But, as with everything, there are downsides too. Let’s start with the limitations. If there’s a narrator, characters will always be held at an arm’s length because the character and narrator are not one in the same. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it won’t be as personal a book as one written in first person. You also risk jumping into the head of too many characters and diluting the voice. Finally, it’s hard to have an unreliable narrator because that’s you! (It can be done, of course, in limited third, but it might be hard to pull off.)
The advantages of third person POV are many. There’s a certain objectivity with it because the narrator is not a character. As a writer, you can provide insight into the motivations and desires of more than one or two protagonists, and you have the freedom to set the scene beyond what one person would notice or know about it. You’re able to increase tension and play up suspense by keeping secrets from your main character…but not your reader. In short, third person POV helps you avoid limits—which might be what you’re looking for as an author.