5 Tips for Writing Third-Person POV
Third-person narratives are one of the most commonly used points of view. This may give new writers the impression that it’s a fairly simple viewpoint to write. However, it’s easy to fall into pitfalls and clichés without even realizing it. Knowing the ins and outs of writing third person will help you create a confident and compelling voice right from the start.
Third-person point-of-view (or POV) is a story told using the pronouns “he”, “she”, or “they”. Whether it’s told from one character’s perspective or several, it’s a step back from the intimacy of the first-person POV, since you see a character’s actions from outside the character, rather than from inside their head.
In this post, we’ll discuss how to choose these viewpoints, how to use them for maximum effect, and some of the common mistakes writers make.
Know the difference between third-person limited and third-person omniscient
One of the greatest benefits of writing in third person is the ability to visit different characters’ thoughts throughout the story. But it’s important to stay consistent with the style you choose, so you don’t risk your reader being turned off by uneven writing.
Third-person limited means we only know one character’s thoughts at a time. We’re still outside of them, but we see the world through their eyes, and hear their inner judgments and opinions. In books with more than one POV, a viewpoint shift will allow us to see the thoughts of a different character. But we only ever see one character’s thoughts at a time—never simultaneously within the same scene. Viewpoint shifts are clearly delineated by scene or chapter breaks.
Third-person omniscient means the narrator is “all-knowing”. An omniscient narrator can visit different characters’ thoughts during the same scene, or even describe things outside of any character’s knowledge.
For example, in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, we follow several different POVs, all in third-person limited. Each character’s chapters are clearly marked, and during each one, we only know what that character knows. By contrast, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens is told in third-person omniscient; the narrator is an outside observer with a witty voice, who comments on the characters and their thoughts throughout the story.
Don’t infodump characters’ appearances
Because a third-person POV is outside a character, many writers are tempted to fully describe the protagonist when the reader first sees them: the color of their eyes, the length of their hair, the clothes they’re wearing. But a bland recitation of a character’s looks isn’t the vivid character introduction these writers seem to think. There’s nothing wrong with sharing details, but a couple unique facts related to the scene will tell us far more about the character than a block of text.
Take this example from page 6 of Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys:
Blue opened and closed her chilly fists. The top edges of her fingerless gloves were fraying; she’d done a bad job knitting them last year, but they had a certain trashy chic to them. If she hadn’t been so vain, Blue could’ve worn the boring but functional gloves she’d been given for Christmas.
Based on only one piece of clothing, we instantly know that: 1) Blue makes her own clothes, 2) she likes a “trashy chic” look, and 3) she’s willing to be uncomfortable rather than compromise that style. It’s infinitely more informative than her hair or eye color.
Choose the right characters to follow
If you’re planning a large cast, sometimes it can be hard to determine which characters should be POVs and which ones should be kept as side characters. A good question to ask is, who has the most at stake? Some characters have more to lose than others, and these are the ones who’ll have the most interesting stories.
In Neal Shusterman’s Scythe, although we have a large cast of grim reapers, or “scythes’, we mainly follow the POVs of two teenage apprentices. Both characters face the loss of their families and risk losing far more, including morals they’ve lived by their entire lives. With so much at stake, you know you’ll get a rich and interesting exploration of these characters.
Introduce setting with character interactions
Think of setting the same way as a character’s appearance: don’t stop the story’s momentum to share a paragraph of details completely isolated from the action. Instead, show the setting through your character’s eyes. How does it make them feel? How are they interacting with it as they move forward in the plot?
Consider this passage from page 31 of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park:
Alan Grant crouched down, his nose inches from the ground. His knees ached, despite the rug-layer’s pads he wore. His lungs burned from the harsh alkaline dust. Sweat dripped off his forehead onto the ground. But Grant was oblivious to the discomfort. His entire attention was focused on the six-inch square of earth in front of him.
In this paragraph, we feel the setting as vividly as if we’re there. And it isn’t because the author said it’s a hot day in the desert. It’s because Grant is interacting with the setting through his physical sensations of it: the pain in his knees, the sweat on his face, the dust in his lungs. Not only does it bring the setting to life, but it immediately gives us insight into his character, too.
Match your number of viewpoints to the story you’re telling
Stories in third-person limited can range from a single character’s perspective to ten viewpoints or more. Epic fantasies like A Song of Ice and Fire and Wheel of Time are infamous for their numerous POVs. But it’s important to weigh the benefits and sacrifices of multiple POVs, so you can make the right decision for your story.
The main thing to consider is that each POV character should have their own character arc. A character arc means they undergo change throughout the story and learn some kind of lesson by the end. The fewer viewpoints you include, the easier this is to pull off. With a single third-person viewpoint, you can dive deep into a character’s story, which is great for a more intimate and meaningful arc. Dual POV stories are popular too, because it’s easy to handle full arcs by trading off between two main characters.
As you start including three viewpoints or more, however, the less you’ll be able to dive into each character arc. Stories with high numbers of POVs are usually milieu stories, meaning the plots are more focused on a cultural or social setting, and detail how different types of people navigate its dangers. Multiple POVs give the reader insight into the world from different angles. However, the sacrifice is that character arcs will be shallower, since you won’t be able to dive as deeply into each character by balancing so many.
Third-person POV offers the freedom to explore more of your world and characters than you would otherwise. With the tips in this post, you’ll have a strong command of the voices you choose and know how to integrate them with the world they inhabit.
Writing in first-person? Check out Writing Mastery’s 5 Tips for Writing First-Person POV!