Tips for Writing in Third Person

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Most novels are written from the third person point of view, so if you’re choosing this POV, you’re in good company. There are many advantages to writing this way. For one, it’s the most objective way to tell the story. After all, the reader isn’t bound by the narrating character’s point of view as she would be if reading a first-person account. With third person, the reader can also rely on the unseen, God-like lens of the narrator. You, the writer, can use multiple points of view, which gives you the freedom to share information that the protagonist might not know. Here are my best tips for writing in third person.

Decide Whether to Use Omniscient, Limited/Close, or Multiple POV

This is your first and most important choice. Which type of third person POV will you use? Remember the differences. Omniscient makes your narrator like God. They know all, are everywhere, have access to the past as well as the future, and can get into the head of everyone—main or minor characters. The narrative voice in omniscient can be neutral, but it can also be opinionated as well.

Limited third person is also known as close third person point of view. This means that while there is a narrator, the narrator only shares what a specific person is thinking, feeling, or seeing. The narrator here knows all too—but only about one person at a time. Usually the narrator will be neutral and invisible.

Multiple POV is the same thing as limited/close, except the writer is telling the story from more than one person’s point of view. Often this “head hopping” will occur in discrete chapters or scenes to avoid confusion. This narrator is also typically neutral.

You’re the writer, so you should choose whatever POV is best for your story. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that third person limited (including for multiple characters) is far more common these days than omniscient POV. Omniscient is a little 1800s-chic in that Jane Austen and her contemporaries were most likely to use it. That doesn’t mean you can’t choose this option, but keep in mind that nailing it is tricky, and it might make your work sound less contemporary. Of course, rules were made to be broken, so do what works for you.

How Many Points of View?

If you go with limited/close third person, the next question you must ask yourself is: how many viewpoint characters do I want? In other words, from whose eyes is this story told? On one hand, the obvious choice would be to tell the story from the protagonist’s point of view. However, you might want to include others’ as well.

Time for a tip: keep the mystery alive. Choose the POV that will provide for the most conflict. For instance, will it be more exciting for the reader to not have access to certain info? If so, maybe limit your perspective to one or two characters. Will it be juicier for the reader to know information the main character doesn’t have, and watch her unknowingly walk toward disaster? Then consider adding more POVs. Choose the most interesting way to tell the story.

Distinguish Between the Narrator and the Viewpoint Character

The narrator sets the scene. Think of it as a movie camera establishing an opening shot or a reporter explaining what’s happening. Usually this voice is impartial. As the scene develops and you start writing from the viewpoint character’s perspective, the voice shifts from the narrator’s to the character’s. The prose is now colored by this character’s POV.

Time for a tip: Once you’ve zoomed in on the viewpoint character for the scene/chapter, stay with that person. Zooming in and out of narrator’s voice to character’s voice can break the mood for the reader. Generally speaking, the intimacy of seeing the world through a certain character’s eyes is more interesting than that of the observing narrator.

Avoid Head Hopping

Head hopping is okay if it means you’re writing your book from multiple characters’ POV. Head hopping is not okay if happens by accident—if you forget whose head you’re in. A common instance of this is when your viewpoint character all of a sudden knows things she couldn’t. Maybe she has knowledge about another character that only the narrator knows. Maybe she notices things about her physical appearance when she’s not in front of a mirror.

Time for a tip: remember that when writing third person limited, you are “limited” to writing from that character’s perspective. One at a time!

Writers have to make many choices when writing a novel, and POV is a big one. If you write from the perspective of the most interesting character or the one with the most compelling information, you can’t go wrong.

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About Author

Mary is a young adult writer and archaeologist. By day she teaches at a local college, and by night she writes about the adventures of adolescence.

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