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Third Person POV—An Overview


Third Person POV is one of the most flexible, favored writing styles. Of the big three (first, second, and third person), third person POV is by far my favorite. I've thought long and hard about why this is. Why do I prefer third person when so many seem to love first? I've concluded that I love it because of the narrative distance. I'm not the sort who wants to plant myself in the character's Head with the intention of living there. I want to be told the story, I want to watch the movie while I read, and third person is the perfect device to get me what I want, preferably with a healthy dose of omniscience sprinkled among the pages.

There are a lot of rules and demands for writing in third person, but the truth is it's all about what you can get away with. A writer can get away with many sins in third person POV. We can skip around a little bit, take a look over the hedge to see what the neighbors are up to, and even sprinkle in a touch of Head hopping if we do it right. Whereas it will almost always startle the reader if a first-person POV character suddenly develops the ability to read another character's mind. Third-person limited can sneak in a bit of the all-knowing, so long as it's done right. A cinematic POV zoom-out to peak over the neighbor's walls isn't unheard of in third person limited (ask JK Rowling), and it's only Head hopping if you get caught.

It's not Head hopping unless you get caught.

What Is Point Of View?

Point Of View or POV is the perspective a story or narrative is being told from and how it is being told.

The POV that you write in defines the style of your narrative. How plot points are conveyed, what information the reader and the characters have at any given time, and how your reader relates to the character. POV Is vitally important and will impact how your write and how that writing is received by the reader.

What Are The Primary POVs?

In writing, there are four primary kinds of POV:

  • First-person POV: "I walked down the hall."

  • Second Person POV: "You see, dear reader, Mark walked down the hall." or "You walked down the hall." **

  • Third Person POV: Mark walked down the hall. He didn't know why.

  • Omniscient POV: Mark walked down the hall, not knowing that a sharp knife was waiting at its end.

*technically there is an emerging fourth Person POV, but I don't want to talk about. Yet.

**There is some debate around what constitutes second Person POV. Read Everything You Need To Know About Second Person POV to further unravel the mystery.

What Is Third Person POV

Pronouns and proper nouns define Third Person POV. Everything else is window dressing. Important windows dressing, but window dressing. When a narrative is relayed to the reader through the pronouns he, she, and they, and/ or by the character name, you are in third person POV.

She went to buy milk.
Mary went to buy milk.

Third person comes in three main flavors of perspective: Third Person Limited or Close Third, Third Person Neutral or Objective, and Third Person omniscient.

What Is Third Person Limited/ Close Third

The narrator has a limited perspective on the story. They have access to one character's thoughts and feelings at any given time in the narrative. The narrative can switch viewpoints, but the reader is only granted access to one character's thoughts and feeling at any given. When the narrative switches POV in close third, it is called Head hopping and is generally frowned upon as it can confuse the reader if it isn't managed well.

John and Mary went to the shop to buy milk. Mary wished they were going to buy beer instead. Who knew what John was thinking.

What Is Third Person Omniscient POV

Omniscient means' having infinite awareness, understanding, and insight' or 'possessed of universal or complete knowledge,' which is fun. The omniscient narrator knows everything that is happening in the story. Has access to characters' thoughts and feelings as well as larger happenings in the world. Third Person Omniscient is almost indistinguishable from omniscient POV. The story is told using pronouns (he, she, they) from the POV of an all-knowing narrator who can dip into characters' thoughts and feelings at will.

Mary went to buy milk, thinking longingly of pizza.
John followed her, thinking longingly of Mary.
Three blocks away, the sun thought of the moon and prepared to crash into the earth.

What Is Third Person Neutral/ Objective

The narrator has no insight into the character's thoughts and feelings except what they can observe through facial expressions, dialogue, body language, etc.

"I would rather buy milk with anyone but you," Mary told John. Her face twisted like a gnarled lemon.

The Benefits of Third Person POV

  • It is considered more objective than First Person POV

  • Third person offers more flexibility to the writer who can switch POVs, zoom out and in of the narrative

  • Third person is more conducive to stories that involve multiple plot lines

  • It can help establish other side characters' importance

  • It is easier to world-build and provide information through multiple POVs and more distant perspective

  • There is an increased tension that the POV character might die

  • As there is more distance, it is easier to set scenes and describe characters

  • When using a narrator, the writing style can be more fluid and descriptive without the characterization being attached to the personalities of the POV characters.

The Disadvantages of Third Person POV?

  • Greater risk of Head Hopping as the narrative lends itself to the fault

  • Objectivity can make the plot duller

  • There is a risk of confusing the reader with multiple plotlines, POVs, and writing voices

  • Less intimate than first person POV, it is harder to connect the reader to the POV character/s. In third person character are more likely to be described by readers as 'underdeveloped' or 'one-dimensional.'

  • Unreliable narrators are often frowned upon in Third Person. While it can be done, there is an automatic assumption that the information being relayed to the reader is factual. This is not true of first person, where the narrator's unreliability is almost assumed.

The Difference Between Omniscient and Third Person Limited/ Close

The main difference between close third and omniscient third is the narrator. In close third, the story is conveyed through the POV of POV characters. The narrator only knows what the POV character knows, nothing more. An omniscient narrator knows everything. They know all, and they choose to relay information or withhold it. In third person omniscient, the narrator can know things that the characters in the story don't, and the narrator can relay that information to the reader.

Another difference is the way in which multiple POVs are handled. In Close Third, the POV is 'limited' to one POV at a time. Whereas in an omniscient third, POVs can switch at any point, the overarching omniscient narrator of the story can dip into any character's thoughts and feelings at any given time.

In Natural or Objective Third the narrator has no access to any character's thoughts and feelings.

11 Top Tips For Writing in Third Person POV

  1. Use third person (duh)— Use names, and pronouns like she, he, and they

  2. The types of third person (limited, objective, and omniscient) are different and have different approaches, styles, and rules. Pick carefully.

  3. Head hopping is the negative, very bad, and evil version of switching POVs. Learn about it so you can manage switching POVs in your writing

  4. Establish and stick to rules to maintain consistency and limit reader confusion.

  5. In third person limited your narrator only knows what the POV character knows. In omniscient, the narrator knows all. Remember what viewpoint you writing from

  6. Switching POVs can make keeping track of plot holes, character developments, and information the characters have and don't have harder to keep track of. Keep a spreadsheet if necessary.

  7. As a result of the narrative voice, Third person POV writing lends itself to Showing, Not Telling. Avoid distancing the reader from the characters by limiting filter words (she saw, he noticed, they heard) and showing the world and characters rather than narrating the story.

  8. Don't assume your reader will know whose POV they are reading. Let them know as soon and as clearly as possible.

  9. Decide if you are going to write and relay the story through a narrator's voice or through the voice of POV characters.

  10. Limit the number of viewpoint characters

  11. POV switching, whether in limited or omniscient, runs the risk of confusing the reader. Only do it when you have a good reason.

The Only True Rule Of Third Person POV

The story's events are always conveyed to the reader in third person, i.e., he, she, they, or by name. The narrator NEVER retells the story using first (I, me, we) or in second person (you, yourself)

What Genres Shine In First Person And Why?

  • Mystery Books—third person limited is an ideal style for mysteries and thrillers that need the story to unravel while withholding information from the reader. Omniscient POV is not as effective in these genres, but it can help to foreshadow events and expand the narrative.

  • Epics, trilogies, and series—complex storylines and tangled plots can be built up and unraveled through multiple POVs. As the narrative is not reliant on a single POV character (such as first and second person), there is an increased tension and risk that the protagonist or primary POV character could potentially die.

  • Fantasy and Sci-fi—often fantastical worlds require a lot of world-building that is harder to convey through first or second person POV. Third person gives the writer space to expand their world and improve the story's building.

  • Historical novels and biographies—Third person POV has more reliability built into the narrative style allowing for more objective and factual retelling.

  • High literature—Third person POV lends itself to a more descriptive writing style. As the narrative is not being told directly by the POV character/s, the no requirement for the tone and style of writing to reflect the character's personality.


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