The Ultimate Guide to Third-Person Writing: Tips and Tricks for Success
As an author, one of the most important decisions you have to make is what writing perspective to use. The most common are first-person writing, where you write from the perspective of one of the characters, and third-person writing, where you write as someone outside the story, observing the actions of the characters.
There are advantages to both the first person and the third-person perspective. Read on to find out more about third-person writing.
The third person is what you call it when someone writes a story from outside the action. On paper, that translates into using third-person pronouns (he, she, it, they) when talking about the characters in the story. There is more than one type of third person. Here are the three most common ones:
1. Third-person omniscient: third-person writing as a superpower
Omniscient is an adjective that means all-knowing. So if you choose to write in the third-person omniscient, you are writing as if you were entirely outside the story, and you have the ability to be inside all of your characters’ heads and know their thoughts and feelings. As an omniscient narrator, you can also travel through time and space. Obviously, this has many advantages for someone who wants to write a story because it makes it easy to show each character’s motivation.
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If you plan on writing an epic saga that has many important characters and is set over a long period of time or a large territory, then third-person omniscient is a good choice. For example, George R. R. Martin’s epic saga A Game of Thrones is in third-person omniscient. He is able to travel through time and space and flit in and out of his characters’ heads. An epic the size of A Game of Thrones simply wouldn’t work without this ability!
However, with great power comes great responsibility! If you choose the third-person omniscient, you need to follow certain guidelines to keep your reader interested and engaged:
- Be very careful about how and when you switch points of view. “Head-hopping,” when others hop from the inside of one character’s thoughts to another too often, is very confusing to the reader, causing them to lose interest. Only shift your narrator’s focus from one time, place, or character to another at the beginning of chapters or after clear breaks in the narration. Be sure to give your readers lots of clues to let them know that you’ve changed your point of view. For example, if you move in time, give hints about the characters’ age. If you switch to another character, mention them by name.
- An omniscient narrator should still show, not tell. If the narrator is omniscient, it’s tempting to tell everything instead of showing it. If you find yourself writing paragraph after paragraph about how your character is feeling and everything they’ve been through, you’re just creating info dumps. Those tend to make for tedious reading, so you should avoid them. It takes a lot of discipline, but as the author, it’s your job to show how the characters are feeling, not just tell the reader. You can do this through dialogue or descriptive writing.
- You are not the narrator. Even when the narrator is omniscient, you need to think of them as one of the characters in the story. Doing this will help you avoid making judgemental statements about your characters. For example, an author might write, “She got bored easily, so she gave up on yoga after just two classes.” Instead, an omniscient narrator might write, “Finding that her mind kept wandering to all the things she could be doing instead, she gave up on yoga after just two classes.”
2. Third-person limited, or the close third: third-person writing to build suspense
In the third-person limited, the narrator is still outside the story, but they closely follow one character throughout the book. If you write in the third-person limited, you can sometimes switch between two characters throughout the story. If you want to write a suspenseful story, or if your plot centers around a misunderstanding between two main characters, then the close third is a great choice for you. In The House on Vesper Sands, Paraic O’Donnell uses the third-person limited to focus on two characters who don’t meet in person until the very end of the book.
If you decide to write using this type of third person, the biggest risk is that you might fall into omniscience. You must have discipline and remember that you only have access to one character’s thoughts. You can’t get into everyone’s head!
For example, an omniscient narrator might write, “All the wedding guests shared Richard’s humiliation at Susie’s failure to show up to the altar.” As a limited narrator, you would have to change it to something like this: “Standing at the altar, Richard looked out into the stricken faces of his friends and family. No one could seem to make eye contact with him.”
3. Third-person objective point of view: third-person writing as a literary device
In this type of third person, the narrator is not privy to the characters’ thoughts and emotions. It’s also known as a cinematic type of narration. The narrator reports what they see, as a camera would. This type of narration is great for you if you’re trying to create some emotional distance between the reader and the story. It’s also a useful technique if you have a tendency to tell rather than show in your writing. If you choose the third-person objective, you’ll be using description to show what your characters are thinking and feeling.
Careful! Most writers try to avoid emotional distance between the reader and the character unless they want to convey a sense of emptiness and despair. For this reason, very few novels use the third-person objective. One that comes close (though it sometimes dips into the main character’s head) is The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The Road is set in a post-apocalyptic world. McCarthy uses the third-person objective to give the reader a sense of hopelessness and despair.
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A word of caution about using the third person
It’s very common for writers to slip into a first-person narrative without realizing it. It’s an understandable error: If you’re in the flow, with words pouring out of you onto the page, you can get so immersed in the story that you forget about things like the first- and third-person point of view. Just be sure to look for places where you switched voices when you do your self-edits.
One more thing about using the third person
If you are writing an academic paper, then your teachers will probably expect you to write in the third person. If you’re not used to it, it can be pretty tough to do! Here are some tips to help you:
- After you’ve written it, look over your paper. Find all the places where you see the words I, me, you, and your. Those are the places where you used the first person (probably to state an opinion) and the second person (which is too informal for academic writing).
- Getting rid of the first person is usually pretty easy: For example, if you wrote, “I think that capital punishment should be abolished,” you can simply delete I think that and still have a sentence that works: “Capital punishment should be abolished.” Not only did you get rid of the first person, but it makes you sound much more authoritative.
- Getting rid of the second person is a little tougher. It just feels more natural to write a paper that addresses the reader directly. Students usually use it when they want to illustrate something, such as in argumentative papers. In that case, you can replace you by one or people, like this:
- “If you like chocolate, you’ll love these cupcakes” becomes
- People who like chocolate will love these cupcakes.
Third-person writing can seem intimidating if it’s something you’re not used to. But with practice and persistence, you can do it! If you want to learn more tips and tricks to make an enticing novel, join us in learning how to write a novel.