Writing in Third Person: Omniscient and Limited

writing in third personWhen you start planning your short story or novel, one of the first decisions you must make is which point-of-view to write it in. First person, second person, or third person are your three options, and each one comes with advantages and disadvantages depending on your unique storytelling needs.

Writing in third person often offers the most flexibility, but what sort of grammatical, syntactical, and technical storytelling structures does writing in third person require?

Continue on, dear reader, and you shall soon find out!

For more help planning, outlining, and writing your novel, check out this novel writing workshop course or this beginning writers workshop, and follow along.

Writing in Third Person: Grammar

In order to understand points-of-view, you must first understand pronouns. Generally, pronouns are words used to substitute for nouns, making speech easier and personalized so long as there’s a referential element, or the implication of one, to contextualize it.

There are a range of categories for pronouns, including personal pronouns, reflexive pronouns, possessive pronouns, and more, but that’s getting into more complicated grammatical territory.

All you need to know to understand pronouns is that they substitute nouns and noun phrases. Below are a list of pronouns for the first, second, and third person, with some examples to help you better understand their general usage.

First Person Pronouns:

  • I
  • Me
  • Mine
  • Myself
  • We
  • Us
  • Our
  • Ourself

Examples:

  • I am not sure what time my party should start.
  • Our group presentation was a huge success.
  • What we should do next is entirely up to us.

Second Person Pronouns:

  • You
  • Your
  • Yourself

Examples:

  • You thought you did pretty well for yourself.
  • Did you manage to find your phone?
  • Your test results came back negative, much to your relief.

Third Person Pronouns:

  • She
  • He
  • Her
  • Him
  • Herself
  • Himself
  • Hers
  • His
  • It
  • Itself
  • Its
  • They
  • Them
  • Theirs

Examples:

  • Her hard work saved their team.
  • It isn’t always about him though,” she said.
  • He had only himself to blame for his mistakes.

It’s perfectly possible, and even necessary, to use first, second, and third person pronouns together. For instance:

  • I wanted to ask if you know where he is.
  • Her kind words meant a lot to me, especially after what the rest of them put me through.
  • Their report mentioned your strong work ethic, and the strength of our team.

When choosing to write in a specific point-of-view, you can still use all of these pronouns in dialogue, but the narrator of the story must conform to one set of pronouns only. This means if writing in third person is best for your story, you can’t have the narrator switch to first person pronouns in the middle. This would make your narrator an active participant in the story, meaning your story has actually been told in the first person all along.

Exceptions to the rule

Stylistically, it’s possible to tell a story entirely in one person, and then switch off occasionally to another, as demonstrated in Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. This book is told primarily in the third person, but there is occasional blocks of text in the first person, presumably from the main character, maybe from the author, perhaps even an omniscient, faceless narrator. Regardless, this is a stylistic decision.

It’s also structurally possible to tell a story in multiple points-of-view, as demonstrated in the extremely layered frame narrative in House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.

Wait, you might be thinking. You just told me it’s okay to use all pronouns, except for the narrator, who should conform to one set of pronouns, except sometimes if I feel like breaking the rules… what?

Creative writing is a very, well… creative medium, and you’re technically allowed to do whatever you want. Just make sure you have a stylistic reason for doing so, and you should be able to argue your point to any editor who’s open to hearing it. Let’s not debate style, and instead move on to how you should actually go about writing in third person.

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Writing in Third Person: Omniscient

This is a very common style of writing, and means exactly what the name implies. The story is told in the third person, and the narrator is aware of all information there is to know about the story’s events, characters, setting, and more. For instance:

Jill was scared to admit that she liked Jack, but little did she know, he liked her too. In fact, as she spent her days trying to think up creative ways to avoid him, Jack was planning out creative ways to ask her to the school dance.

In this story, the third-person narrator is aware of the feelings of both our protagonist Jane, and our supporting character Jack. With this technique, the writer is capable of staging opportunities for dramatic irony, and other forms of drama, where the reader is aware of certain information that certain characters are not. Through this technique, the writer can build suspense, and engage the reader more deeply into the lore of their world, because information is not limited to individual character knowledge.

Writing in Third Person: Limited

Unlike third person omniscient, a third person limited narrator can only convey the thoughts and feelings of one specific character. In fact, sometimes the narrator doesn’t even convey these facts at all, and sticks with describing the character’s external behaviors rather than the character’s internal feelings. This leaves a lot of room for reader interpretation, where a character’s personality is presented as something of a mystery.

This can also create a sense of drama, because the reader is kept in the dark about the same things the protagonist is. With third person limited, the writer can create twists and revelations! Example:

Jill was scared to admit she liked Jack, and feared his reaction more than anything. She spent her days avoiding him, too embarrassed to even speak with him. What if he hated her?

And then, of course, later when Jack asks Jill to the school dance, the event will come as much of a surprise to the reader as it does to its protagonist. Writing in third person limited is great for writers who want their readers to go on a journey alongside their protagonist, and not just on the outside looking in.

Writing in third person omniscient and writing in third person limited both have their advantages. If you need help determining whether or not to write your story in the third person, consider taking a writing course or two, and studying up on story structure. In your research, you may find a tip or two to help you decide!

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