The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction in Third Person

Diane Callahan
Sep 17, 2020 · 20 min read
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Third-person point of view feels like the default in the literary world. Many novels refer to main characters using the pronouns “he,” “she,” or “they,” rather than the “I/me/my” of first-person narration.

Let’s explore the advantages and disadvantages of this perspective, along with some other concerns unique to this point of view (POV), including:

  • Narrative Distance (Limited vs. Omniscient)
  • Multiple perspectives
  • Head-hopping
  • Third-person present tense

How Close Should You Get?

These levels of narrative distance give rise to different classifications of third person, namely limited and omniscient.

Imagine how different the Harry Potter series would feel if it had been written in first-person instead of third-person POV. Here’s my rewritten excerpt from The Chamber of Secrets:

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“Fascinated, I thumbed through the rest of the envelope’s contents. Why on earth did Filch want a Kwikspell course? Did this mean he wasn’t a proper wizard? I was just reading ‘Lesson One: Holding Your Wand (Some Useful Tips)’ when shuffling footsteps outside told me Filch was coming back. Stuffing the parchment back into the envelope, I threw it back onto the desk just as the door opened.”

And here’s the original version for comparison:

“Fascinated, Harry thumbed through the rest of the envelope’s contents. Why on earth did Filch want a Kwikspell course? Did this mean he wasn’t a proper wizard? Harry was just reading ‘Lesson One: Holding Your Wand (Some Useful Tips)’ when shuffling footsteps outside told him Filch was coming back. Stuffing the parchment back into the envelope, Harry threw it back onto the desk just as the door opened.”

Notice that I didn’t actually have to rewrite anything; I only changed four words. Either way, we’re very close to Harry’s thoughts.

With third-person limited, you’re hovering over one character’s shoulder throughout the story. It’s similar to first person in that the reader is given access to the character’s innermost thoughts — we’re limited to that perspective for that given scene. That character serves as an anchor, grounding the reader in the story.

Even though there is no “I” involved, the character’s opinions can intrude on the writing style, in what is known as “free indirect discourse.” This is when the language of the narration takes on the voice of the character.

We can see free indirect discourse at work in the internal questions that Harry asks: “Why on earth did Filch want a Kwikspell course?” It almost sounds like dialogue that Harry would speak aloud; the thought is phrased in his voice, despite the fact that the author is narrating.

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So why would a writer use third-person limited instead of first when they’re so similar? The answer is flexibility and tone. Harry Potter isn’t only written in third-person limited; it slips into moments that feel more like third-person omniscient.

With omniscient, the audience is watching the events unfold from an aerial view. “Omniscient” comes from a word that means “all-knowing” in Latin. The author and reader become god-like figures, able to see what every character is doing at any point — past, present, or future.

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Limited = close perspective from a single character; Omniscient = distant view from an objective narrator

The Harry Potter series zooms out onto other scenes. In the Filch passage, first person doesn’t sound too strange when we’re limited to Harry’s perspective, but when the camera shifts to omniscient, it doesn’t quite fit:

“October arrived, spreading a damp chill over the grounds and into the castle. Madam Pomfrey, the nurse, was kept busy by a sudden spate of colds among the staff and students. Her Pepperup potion worked instantly, though it left the drinker smoking at the ears for several hours afterward. Ginny Weasley, who had been looking pale, was bullied into taking some by Percy. The steam pouring from under her vivid hair gave the impression that her whole head was on fire.”

Harry may have observed these details, but the description is not directly filtered through his perspective; it feels broader.

The magical atmosphere of the Harry Potter series is due in part to the third-person perspective, which blends both limited and omniscient styles. We feel connected to Harry because we’re occasionally told what he’s thinking, yet we’re privy to all the magical details beyond what Harry himself might describe. With third person, the author acts as a mediator between the characters and the readers.

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Third person also allows Rowling to feature a different perspective for one-off chapters, such as in the opening of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which is told from the Dursleys’ perspective, during a time when Harry was a baby:

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”

Notice the free indirect discourse at work here, with the narrator “borrowing” language from the voices of the characters:

  • Perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
  • “They just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”

Those phrases sound like things the Dursleys would say, yet the author is incorporating those word choices into the narrative voice.

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Think of narrative distance like filming a movie: you can zoom the camera in or out, depending on what the moment requires. That ability to adjust the level of closeness is something you can’t do in first person; you’re stuck with a front-row seat for the course of the story unless you add in another point of view.

If you’re trying to choose between third person and first person, ask yourself whether your story calls for flexibility of perspective or a limited but intimate view.

Advantages

1. Show more perspectives

George R.R. Martin is a master of the multiple-POV narrative. A Song of Ice and Fire switches between different third-person limited perspectives, where the reader gets up close and personal with each character while still not completely entering their viewpoint. Even though the POVs are largely written in the same narrative style, what differentiates the characters are the things they focus on — their dreams, their fears, their daily preoccupations.

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For example, in the first book, A Game of Thrones, there is a stark difference in what Ned, an honorable lord, and Sansa, his eldest daughter, care about in their lives. Here’s a passage from Ned’s point of view:

“Ned stopped at last and lifted the oil lantern. The crypt continued on into darkness ahead of them, but beyond this point the tombs were empty and unsealed; black holes waiting for their dead, waiting for him and his children. Ned did not like to think on that.”

And here’s what Sansa, an eleven-year-old girl, is thinking about:

“Sansa knew all about the sorts of people Arya liked to talk to: squires and grooms and serving girls, old men and naked children, rough-spoken freeriders of uncertain birth. Arya would make friends with anybody. This Mycah was the worst; a butcher’s boy, thirteen and wild, he slept in the meat wagon and smelled of the slaughtering block. Just the sight of him was enough to make Sansa feel sick, but Arya seemed to prefer his company to hers.”

Ned, being an older man and a father, has passing thoughts about his mortality and his children, with the crypt setting contributing to that. Sansa, on the other hand, is concerned about social status, friendships, and boys.

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When several POV characters are involved, each perspective adds something new to the story. In A Game of Thrones, there are eight viewpoints total, and they provide a window into the different sides of the Stark vs. Lannister conflict, with a couple of the perspectives being separate from the main storyline but still related.

In addition, multiple points of view allow for variety in terms of gender, age, and personality. By viewing the drama from contrasting angles, the reader realizes that no one side is all good (although some may be pretty close to all bad) because everybody’s flaws are on the table. Martin is savvy enough to make you root for players on every side, even though if you put your favorite characters together, they’d kill each other.

A Song of Ice and Fire could not be told in first person because one protagonist, or even multiple first-person protagonists, would be severely limited in what they could see and experience in this story world. Third person allows for character exploration on an epic scale.

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Leigh Bardugo’s “Six of Crows” series and Brandon Sanderson’s “The Way of Kings” feature multiple POVs

Multiple-POV stories let the writer switch between events as they’re happening. This builds suspense by showing readers both sides of the plot; even if you know the characters’ plans, you don’t know how they’re going to turn out.

2. Heighten dramatic irony

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Dramatic irony is often used in stage plays, such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth. When King Duncan decides to trust Macbeth, the audience already knows that Macbeth plans to kill him.

In her fantasy novel Vicious, V.E. Schwab employs dramatic irony through multiple third-person limited POVs. One is Victor, our anchor character, introduced first and sort of portrayed as the lesser of two evils, although he’s not a good guy, either. His antagonist is Eli, the holier-than-thou crusader type. The two friends-turned-enemies are bent on killing each other.

Because the reader has access to both their perspectives, we can see when one has the upper hand and the other doesn’t know it.

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We can also witness them crossing paths, yet not realizing it. Victor and Eli end up staying in the same hotel, unbeknownst to each other. There’s even a moment when Eli eyes one of Victor’s associates, whom the reader recognizes from his description, but Eli has no clue that his enemy is nearer than he thinks.

Using dramatic irony can be like sharing an inside joke with the reader.

3. Write in your own style

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Third person allows your narrative voice as the author to shine through. You can play with your prose without being accused of speaking for your characters.

In his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr uses third-person omniscient to follow two characters, and his lyrical style remains consistent throughout.

The first sentences of each perspective introduce the two characters in a parallel fashion. This is how the female protagonist is introduced:

“In a corner of the city, inside a tall, narrow house at Number 4 rue Vauborel, on the sixth and highest floor, a sightless sixteen-year-old named Marie-Laure LeBlanc kneels over a low table covered entirely with a model.”

And this is the male protagonist:

“Five streets to the north, a white-haired eighteen-year-old German private named Werner Pfennig wakes to a faint staccato hum. Little more than a purr. Flies tapping at a far-off windowpane.”

The author can quickly convey the characters’ backgrounds as a way to introduce them to the reader. Physical descriptions are also easier to state in third person. A first-person narrator wouldn’t be likely to say, “I’m a white-haired, eighteen-year-old German private.” Likewise, Werner doesn’t know he’s “five streets to the north” of Marie-Laure; the omniscient narrator is providing that information.

Third-person omniscient also allows the author to make sweeping observations about the human condition or convey themes that the characters themselves might not recognize. Anthony Doerr can write in his own poetic style because he’s not constrained by character voice:

“We all come into existence as a single cell, smaller than a speck of dust. Much smaller. Divide. Multiply. Add and subtract. Matter changes hands, atoms flow in and out, molecules pivot, proteins stitch together, mitochondria send out their oxidative dictates; we begin as a microscopic electrical swarm. The lung the brain the heart. Forty weeks later, six trillion cells get crushed in the vise of our mother’s birth canal and we howl. Then the world starts in on us.”

4. Create tone via narrative distance

Typically, you want closeness so that readers can connect with your characters. But there are situations where it’s beneficial to create a little distance between the audience and the characters. It almost gives the writing a fairytale quality.

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Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is written in third-person omniscient as well, and it’s told in “Once Upon a Time” fashion:

“There was once a young man who wished to gain his Heart’s Desire. And while that is, as beginnings go, not entirely novel (for every tale about every young man there ever was or will be could start in a similar manner) there was much about this young man and what happened to him that was unusual, although even he never knew the whole of it.”

As with using multiple perspectives, third-person omniscient makes it easier for the action to jump between timeframes and locations. Gaiman can cover the history of the town and describe the various people within it across a single chapter. In a more limited perspective, he’d have to stick with the anchor character, but here he can branch out as his heart desires.

This level of narrative distance is not only good for being poetic or generating a fairytale feel, but it also works well when conveying humor. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams uses the distance third person creates to make funny statements about the universe writ large:

“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons.”

Because the narrator is all-knowing, they have access to information no character would, including the thoughts of dolphins. Hence, humor is born through the matter-of-fact tone and the narrator’s awareness of what everyone — and everything — is thinking. In this way, the author can turn the third-person narrator into a character themselves, with a distinct voice and personality.

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Books that use third-person omniscient to create a strong tone via narrative distance

Disadvantages

1. Potential loss of emotional connection

You can convey a character’s personality through actions and dialogue as well as descriptions of their desires within the narrative.

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In Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree, which is told in third-person limited, the protagonist’s defining feature is her hunger for knowledge. However, Hardinge doesn’t simply state, “Faith was a curious girl.” Instead, she shows that curiosity through hypothetical examples:

“It was the unexpected opportunities that she found hardest to resist. An unattended envelope with the letter peeping out, clean and tantalizing. An unlocked door. A careless conversation, unheeding of eavesdroppers.

There was a hunger in her, and girls were not supposed to be hungry. They were supposed to nibble sparingly when at the table, and their minds were supposed to be satisfied with a slim diet too. A few stale lessons from tired governesses, dull walks, unthinking pastimes. But it was not enough. All knowledge — any knowledge — called to Faith, and there was a delicious, poisonous pleasure in stealing it unseen.”

To create emotional connection in third person, you can use narrative flair that describes the nuances of the character’s inner life.

2. An overwhelming number of characters

It can also result in unnecessary chapters where one character’s story drags down the pacing of the entire novel, or the author repeats events from another character’s perspective without adding any new information for the reader. Thus, it’s important that each POV character has a distinctive identity — such as a blind French girl or a German soldier — and moves the plot forward in some way.

When a writer is including multiple viewpoints, the story might balloon to a 500,000-word doorstopper, given all the additional subplots tied to these secondary characters. It also presents the writer with many creative avenues to choose from, which can be paralyzing.

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This is easy enough to prevent — just choose an anchor character and let them guide the main plot. In the TV show Lost, even though each episode shifts to a different focal character, the series always comes back to Jack, whom we started with.

Before you begin writing, identify the story’s most essential POVs and cut any superfluous perspectives.

3. The danger of head-hopping

“Hello, Mary,” Bob said. He shifted from foot to foot, working up the nerve to ask her on a stroll. Perhaps he’d even hold her hand.

Mary glanced at him. “What is it?” She hoped he wouldn’t try to invite her on another endlessly boring walk through the gardens.

We switched over to Mary’s thoughts all of a sudden! This is a point-of-view violation because the reader assumes the whole scene will be from Bob’s perspective, and it’s jarring when the focus shifts to another character.

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But head-hopping isn’t inherently evil. In fact, one of the most celebrated sci-fi novels of all time uses head-hopping as a literary device: Dune by Frank Herbert.

Within one scene, we see into the minds of three different characters. Paul is our anchor character for most of the novel and for the story’s opening scene. Yet this part isn’t told solely from his point of view.

  • We start off close to Paul: “He lifted his right hand, willing the memory of the pain.” We’re clearly in his mind, since he’s trying to tap into his own memory.
  • But then, three paragraph breaks later, we’re inside the head of the old woman he’s talking to: “She extinguished the excitement, reminding herself: ‘Hope clouds observation.’”
  • And then, on the same page, Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, arrives and it switches over to her: “The door felt hard and real against her back. Everything in the room was immediate and pressing against her senses.”
  • Then the scene switches back to Paul: “He wanted to get away alone and think this experience through, but knew he could not leave until he was dismissed.”

Some might call this third-person omniscient — which it is. But that doesn’t really distinguish it from head-hopping, since most of the scene is from Paul’s POV, yet we occasionally dip into the thoughts of these other characters. To prevent confusion, Herbert signals the shift to the reader with a paragraph break; he states the character’s name and usually includes a bit of italicized thought.

The advantage of such head-hopping is that the reader receives different characters’ reactions in real time. This is critical in suspenseful scenes, because the author can show what information each character knows — or doesn’t.

Granted, Dune was published in 1965, and publishing tastes have changed since then. But head-hopping appears in more contemporary works, too, like Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, published in 2014.

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Even so, be careful about switching perspectives in the middle of a scene. There needs to be a clear marker of the shift, and it’s easier to pull off if your novel feels omniscient from the start rather than having a tight third-person limited POV with one character. Head-hopping isn’t as amateurish as some make it out to be; it just requires a lot of skill to pull off and has largely fallen out of fashion.

As a rule of thumb, stick to one POV per scene or chapter.

Third-Person Present Tense

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Although it’s not as marketable as past tense, third-person present tense is not entirely uncommon. In this style, you’ll see sentences like, “The painting is stolen the same week the Russians put a dog into space.” That’s the first line of Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.

All the Light We Cannot See is written in third-person present, too, and you might not have even noticed earlier.

Like in a movie or screenplay, you’re watching the action unfold before you. Chuck Wendig, author of the writing blog Terribleminds, says his use of third-person present tense in his novels contributes to his “thriller pacing”:

“It lets me write a story that feels all the more dangerous because its outcome isn’t set — by making it now instead of in history, it becomes a living document. It’s an evolving narrative… As such, it lends itself to urgency — and you read less to find out what happened and more to find out what’s going to happen next. Every page feels like it exists only because you turn it. Less an excavation and an archive and more an act of shared narrative creation. The reader makes the story happen just by reading.”

Wendig captures the reading experience in a succinct sentence:

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In an interview for The Guardian, Kevin Barry, author of Beatlebone, similarly commented:

“I think it is a case of trying to plant a voice inside the reader’s head, to make him or her hear the words as they read them … to make them read with their ears, essentially. You’re aiming to mesmerise, and for me that’s the quality that the best fiction has. It’s a mesmeric force.”

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See how you feel about the effect in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, winner of the Man Booker Prize:

“It knocks the last breath out of him; he thinks it may be his last. His forehead returns to the ground; he lies waiting, for Walter to jump on him. The dog, Bella, is barking, shut away in an outhouse. I’ll miss my dog, he thinks. The yard smells of beer and blood. Someone is shouting, down on the riverbank. Nothing hurts, or perhaps it’s that everything hurts, because there is no separate pain that he can pick out. But the cold strikes him, just in one place: just through his cheekbone as it rests on the cobbles.”

If the style appeals to you, and that feeling is what you’re aiming for, give it a try. As John Updike said of his novel Rabbit, Run:

“I don’t know if it is clear to the reader as it is to the person writing, but there are kinds of poetry, kinds of music you can strike off in the present tense.”

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Choosing Between Third Person and First Person

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Certain POVs are more popular in certain genres; it seems like more YA fantasy is written in first person and more literary fiction in third person. Third-person omniscient has fallen out of favor across the board in recent decades, with contemporary authors preferring the emotional closeness of third-person limited.

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But when choosing your POV, don’t worry about what will sell. Instead, consider the demands of the story. Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Whose perspective is needed to tell this story?
  • What is the tone? Can I achieve that better through a distinct first-person voice or a more distant third-person narrator?
  • Which option am I most excited to write?

Key Takeaways

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  • When in third-person limited, see how you can “borrow” from the language of the character within the narrative using free indirect discourse.
  • Even in third-person limited, the character’s individual personality should come through in what they notice and think about.
  • When using an omniscient narrator, know what tone or atmosphere you’re trying to create.
  • Bridge the emotional distance by ensuring your protagonist’s feelings are clear in their dialogue, actions, and descriptions.
  • Don’t get carried away when it comes to multiple viewpoints; make sure you know where each storyline is going and what it’s contributing.
  • Avoid head-hopping and stick to one POV per scene or chapter, unless you can establish a strong omniscient narrator.
  • Third-person present tense is an option if you want to create a feeling of constant motion.

Writing Exercise

In the comments, I’d love to know your favorite book written in third person.

Whatever you do, keep writing.

If you liked this post, treat me to a cup of coffee on Ko-fi.

Read my list of published and forthcoming works here.

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Diane Callahan

Written by

Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer. www.quotidianwriter.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

Diane Callahan

Written by

Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer. www.quotidianwriter.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

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