55. Point of View Part 6: Third-Person

Author: Nola Published: 2 months ago.
Tags: POV, point of view, distance, third-person limited, third-person multiple, third-person unlimited Category: Writing tips

Elvis peeked out from behind the curtain and saw the reporter heading up the driveway. Sweat beaded on his brow as he padded back towards the bedroom, his blue suede slippers silent on the shagpile carpet. He opened the concealed panel in the back of his wardrobe and entered the secret tunnel. If only he hadn’t told the president of the kennel club that her pedigreed pooch was nothin’ but a hound dog.

Conspiracy theories aside, that passage is written in third-person point of view. If the style feels familiar, it’s because it’s the most commonly used viewpoint in contemporary fiction.

Third-Person Limited POV

Third-person limited POV allows you to focus on the main character and filter everything through his or her eyes. While that enables you to really understand his or her motivation and actions, you don’t have the same access to other characters. You only know them through the protagonist’s experiences.

Third-Person Multiple (or Unlimited) POV

Third-person multiple POV solves that problem by allowing you to see the story through the eyes of more than one character. If you’re writing a romance novel, you might include the perspectives of the hero and heroine. If you’re writing a cosy murder mystery, you might show the perspectives of the criminal, the victim and the sleuth. In theory, there’s no limit to the number of viewpoints you can have. In practice, it’s better not to overdo it because it splits your reader’s attention across the characters. Whose story is it? Who should you care about? There is no magic number of characters, but Jodie Renner suggests that you still tell most of your story from the protagonist’s POV even when using third-person multiple. She recommends that at least 70% of your story should be from the main character’s viewpoint, or perhaps a 60/40% split if writing romance.

What about Distance?

Another criticism of third-person POV is that it’s a step removed from first-person and therefore more distant. However, you can still achieve a level of intimacy by zooming in on the protagonist and entering deeply into his or her world. Consider the following passage from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Montag, a futuristic fireman who burns books for a living, has been asked if he’s happy. He initially brushes aside the question, but it’s playing on his mind as he enters his apartment.

He opened the bedroom door. It was like coming into the cold marbled room of a mausoleum after the moon has set. Complete darkness, not a hint of the silver world outside, the windows tightly shut, the chamber a tomb world where no sound from the great city could penetrate … He felt his smile slide away, melt, fold over and down on itself like a tallow skin, like the stuff of a fantastic candle burning too long and now collapsing and now blown out. Darkness. He was not happy. (pp. 11-12)

We see the bedroom as he sees it; not as something warm and welcoming, but as an impenetrable tomb he can’t escape. We’re watching him from close up, feeling his pain. This is third-person point of view at its best.

I’ll give more tips for dealing with this perspective in future posts. For now, can you give any examples of novels in third-person that have worked well or not so well? I’d love to hear your comments.

For Further Reading

Bell, James Scott. (2012). Revision and self-editing for publication: Techniques for transforming your first draft into a novel that sells (2nd ed.). Blue Ash, OH: Writer’s Digest Books.
Bradbury, Ray. (1953). Fahrenheit 451 (50th anniversary ed.). New York: Del Ray Books.
Renner, Jodie. (2015). Captivate your reader: An editor’s guide to writing compelling fiction. Kelowna, Canada: Cobalt Books.

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