As mentioned in a previous article about point of view, third person is not an easy narration to tackle. Even still, there are plenty of novels written in third person—especially third person omniscient. Known as the emotionally coldest POV, when you write in third person omniscient you have to work extra hard to engage your reader. A lot of readers struggle with books written in the third person. Sometimes this falls on the author, but more times than not, it’s the reader’s lack of understanding of how it works.
I see the following time after time in reviews of very successful books written in the third person:
“The book was well written, I just couldn’t get into it.”
“I feel like the author was doing a lot of telling instead of showing.”
“It kept switching point of view and it distracted me.”
There are certainly cases where wordy prose and an emotional disconnect can cause a reader to lose interest, but when third person is done right, it can be extremely beneficial to the storytelling. Readers that do not understand third person omniscient often feel like the POV switches and it “distracts” from the story. It’s supposed to switch POV. That’s the beauty of having an all knowing narrator. The narrator is not limited to only knowing what’s going on inside of one character’s head. They know what’s going on with everyone at any time.
Just as a refresher, there are different types of third person narration:
Since third person omniscient, the all knowing, god-like narrator, is the most popular of the three, and arguably the most effective, I’ll focus on the advantages of using it.
Almost all our childhood stories were told in by an omniscient narrator. Once upon a time there was a… It’s very natural to read a story in third person as it draws on our earliest memories of storytelling.
First person narration can feel a bit claustrophobic at times. We’re only allowed to see events through the eyes of the main character. We only experience what they feel. Third person omniscient allows the author to expand the reader’s scope, especially when it comes to emotional responses. An omniscient POV can get inside the minds of multiple characters and delve deeper into emotions and relationships. Since each character tells the events of a story differently based on what they experienced, their take on things is somewhat limited. That’s why first person can hold you back. With a god-like narrator, you are able to see how multiple characters react/interpret the events. Since the narrator is all knowing, we’re able to see into the hearts and minds of the characters. There is usually a sense of detachment that goes along with third person omniscient, but that’s what third person subjective is for. In intense moments you can switch to it to give the reader an immediate sense of why the character feels a particular way, but still allowing the narrator the right to judge the characters if they see fit.
First person narration limits the text. The voice of your story is the voice of the main character. This can be extremely problematic if your story is about a teenage girl that has suffered a brain injury in a car accident. If you’re writing in her POV, you can expect her language to be a little incoherent. Using the third person, however, allows the authors voice to take the front seat. In third person there are no limits on the language. Your story can be about a unicorn or a toddler but the narrative will be written in the author’s language, not theirs. Essentially, the author is the narrator and the voice of the story is the author’s voice. This gives an immense amount of freedom when it comes to constructing the narrative.
Third person omniscient seems like an easy choice for stories of epic proportions. If your story has lots of main characters, spanning over several years and covering different lands/areas (think Lord of the Rings), then omniscient narration is the way to go. A limited POV (first person, third limited/subjective) can be—limiting. A limited perspective only allows part of the story to be told from only one filter and opinion. An omniscient POV certainly broadens the scope of a story.
Third person is all about the action. Since third person is not character driven like first person narration, it’s known for creating more distance from the character and his/her thoughts. That is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re writing a story where the plot is the central attraction for readers. Many crime/thriller books are written in third person. It allows the writer to focus on the actions rather than the emotions of the character. You know that whole “show don’t tell” thing I’m always harping on? Well third person forces action into the scenes and action is a way to show instead of telling in lengthy narration. In third person, even beginning writers are able to get directly to the action.
If your story has a very complex plot with several main characters and minor characters with their own story lines, that will eventually tie up at the end, then third person omniscient is perfect. It allows the reader to watch everything unfold even if the characters aren’t present. As long as your story doesn’t focus on the character arc—how your characters grow or change over the course of the story—you can use third person omniscient.
Third person limited (subjective) and multiple third person are the same grammatically to third person omniscient. The only difference is the perspective of the viewpoint. Limited channels the whole story through only one character’s POV, showing the reader a character’s inner thoughts and opinions, what the character sees, hears, and feels, while multiple can switch between different characters.
I’ve already covered how third person omniscient can be effective, but what about the others? An added benefit of using third person limited is that it closes the emotional distance by giving the POV character and the reader the same exact information. It’s very effective at allowing the reader to experience the story the same way the character is. If your plot is linear with minimal diversions or side journeys, it’s a useful narration technique as a single main character experiences and interprets the major plot events. It offers a nice balance between a plot-driven story and a character-driven story.
If you have a hard time answering the question, “Whose story am I telling?” then multiple third person may be right for you. It gives you the freedom to explore more of your characters. Romance novels are often written in third person multiple for this very reason. It comes in handy as the reader watches a blossoming relationship unfold and is given perspective from the hero and heroine. Third person multiple also works in crime/thriller novels because we can see inside the minds of the protagonist and the antagonist. Essentially, you’re giving the reader an in-depth look at characters who normally may not have the chance to give their input.
There are some things to watch out for when writing in third person multiple. Head-jumping. As a writer gets inside the mind of each of the characters, sometimes they jump from head to head too often. Frequent head-jumps can cause a reader to get annoyed and put them off from the story. It’s important to keep the head-jumps limited and you only focus on one character per scene.
The key is to stay grounded. No matter what perspective you choose, you have to let the reader know where they are in relation to the action so they can get their bearings and lose themselves in the story.Point of View third person