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What Is Third-Person Point of View in Writing? Definition & Examples

Jakob Straub
Jakob Straub, Content Writer
Updated

The perspective from which a story is told is known as its point of view, showcasing the narrator's position and connection to the narrative. Commonly abbreviated as POV, it determines how near or far, and potentially biased, the narrator is.

In narratives using a third-person point of view, the storyteller addresses characters by their names and employs third-person pronouns. This creates a feeling for the readers as if they are observers of the protagonist and other characters, equipped with varying degrees of insight. We'll explore how to differentiate third-person point of view from other viewpoints, its various forms, and ways to effectively incorporate it into your storytelling! 

What is the third-person point of view?

In third-person point of view, the narrator is external to the story and doesn't directly address the reader. They depict characters' actions using names and third-person pronouns like "he" or "she."

“Ella cursed herself under her breath. With planning, her current situation could be so much better, or wouldn’t even exist. But once more, she hadn’t trusted her gut feelings. “When will I ever learn,” she muttered to herself.”

When employing the third-person point of view, a writer can closely follow a main character, switch between characters, or provide an overarching viewpoint. An omniscient narrator knows every character's thoughts; third-person limited centers on one character, and third-person objective narrates events without internal insights. The third-person perspective can vary in its focus, and a writer can adjust its proximity or bias. It's widely used in fiction but is also suitable for non-fiction. 

Third person compared to other points of view

Third-person point of view is distinct from other narrative styles due to its unique pronoun use. While third-person POV uses the third-person pronouns "he/she," first and second person deploy "I" and "you," respectively. Here's a brief breakdown:

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    First-person point of view: The narrator is a character within the story, often the protagonist, and uses "I" to describe events from that character's point of view. They typically convey their own opinions, emotions, and knowledge, although exceptions exist. First-person point of view can be both limited and biased, sometimes shifting between multiple characters. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a notable example, with Nick Carraway narrating while the story revolves around Jay Gatsby and Daisy.

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    Second-person point of view: This unique style features a detached narrator addressing a character, usually the protagonist, using "you." It immerses readers by making them feel they're in the protagonist's shoes. The narrator can possess omniscient or limited knowledge. This POV is rare and results in an ambiguous protagonist characterization.

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Which types of third-person perspectives exist?

The third-person point of view offers the freedom to either center on one character or focus on multiple. This viewpoint can be tailored to craft either an omniscient or limited narrator. The chosen type of third-person POV determines the narrator's proximity to the story. Let's delve into the different types of third-person points of view.

Third-person limited

Often referred to as "close third," the third-person limited point of view can be likened to a video game 'camera' that follows a character from behind or above. Here, the narration zeroes in on one character, potentially sticking with them throughout the narrative or shifting between different characters for various sections or chapters.

The "limited" aspect means the story is channeled through the current character, revealing only their experiences, actions, and thoughts. As a writer, you can delve deep into this character's emotions and inner workings. However, the character remains unaware of other characters' thoughts.

This third-person perspective, abbreviated as third-person limited, is effective for building suspense. Since readers and characters uncover details simultaneously, it's apt for genres like thrillers, mysteries, and crime dramas. If the narrative jumps between characters in distinct settings, it can depict simultaneous events across a vast (fictional) landscape.

While the narrator knows every facet of the story, they restrict their lens to one character at a time. This "limited omniscient" point of view enables a narrative where the broader story unfolds in the reader's mind, even if no character possesses the complete picture.

If the narrative imparts information unknown to the central third-person character, it feels as if the narrator is directly engaging the reader, creating a unique bond. This technique can break the fourth wall or introduce meta-fiction elements. However, it's essential to establish this narrative device early on. Introducing it abruptly can jar readers, potentially disrupting their engagement.

Third person omniscient

The term "omniscient" denotes complete knowledge. In the third-person omniscient point of view, the narrator has comprehensive insight into all characters, sharing this knowledge with the reader. They can seamlessly transition between characters, unveiling any character's innermost thoughts and emotions. This ability can be leveraged to build tension, such as by revealing underlying motives in a character conflict.

While the omniscient narrator knows all, they aren't necessarily impartial. They might show favoritism, perhaps by giving more narrative weight to the protagonist. The third-person omniscient point of view may also interject their personal beliefs, praising or critiquing characters and their actions. Due to this expansive perspective, third-person omniscient point of view narrators often directly engage readers, more so than their third-person limited counterparts.

Third person objective

In the third-person objective point of view, the narrator remains entirely neutral and detached. Unlike other third-person viewpoints, this narrator neither delves into a character's mind nor accesses their emotions and motivations. Instead, they relay events, actions, and dialogues as an unbiased observer, akin to a camera capturing scenes without commentary.

The objective point of view prioritizes factuality and observation. This absence of the narrator's voice, opinions, or judgements lends a voyeuristic feel to the narrative. Readers witness events unfold and draw their own inferences, creating an immersive experience. While particularly effective in short stories, this point of view can also be utilized in longer narratives when the story's essence aligns with such a detached narration.

Examples of third-person perspective in literature

Let's delve into a few notable works by renowned authors to better understand the nuances of the various third-person viewpoints.

Third-person limited examples

harry potter

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series of novels use the third-person limited point of view. While the narrator remains outside the story, they closely follow Harry Potter, the central character and budding wizard. Through this point of view, readers gain insight into Harry's thoughts and emotions, but the omniscient narrator also provides glimpses into events outside of Harry's knowledge:

“A breeze ruffled the neat hedges of Privet Drive, which lay silent and tidy under the inky sky, the very last place you would expect astonishing things to happen. Harry Potter rolled over inside his blankets without waking up. One small hand closed on the letter beside him and he slept on, not knowing he was special, not knowing he was famous, not knowing he would be woken in a few hours time by Mrs. Dursley's scream as she opened the front door to put out the milk bottles, nor that he would spend the next few weeks being prodded and pinched by his cousin Dudley... He couldn't know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices: “To Harry Potter - the boy who lived!””

In a similar vein, George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series has a rotating focus. Though the narrative circles through a myriad of characters, it zeroes in on one at a time, confining the point of view to that individual for specific chapters or sections of the story.

More examples of the third-person limited point of view include:

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    Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
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    For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
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    The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
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    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
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    The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
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    Ulysses by James Joyce
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    Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Third-person omniscient examples

In Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, the third-person omniscient point of view is evident. The following passage provides insight into both characters' minds simultaneously:

“Often and much as they had both heard about the belief that whoever is first to step on the rug will be the head in the family, neither Levin nor Kitty could recall it as they made those few steps. Nor did they hear the loud remarks and disputes that, in the observation of some, he had been the first, or, in the opinion of others, they had stepped on it together.”

pride and prejudice

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice also employs this all-knowing third-person point of view:

“When Jane and Elizabeth were alone, the former, who had been cautious in her praise of Mr. Bingley before, expressed to her sister how very much she admired him. “He is just what a young man ought to be,” said she, “sensible, good-humored, lively; and I never saw such happy manners! So much ease, with such perfect good breeding!” ”

Further examples of third-person omniscient are:

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    Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
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    Middlemarch by George Eliot
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    The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
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    Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
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    A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

Third-person objective examples

Ernest Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants serves is a quintessential representation of the third-person objective narrative. The third-person narrator provides a view into the scene without adding any internal thoughts, feelings, or biases, solely presenting observable actions and dialogue:

“"What should we drink?" the girl asked. She had taken off her hat and put it on the table. "It's pretty hot," the man said. "Let's drink beer." "Dos cervezas," the man said into the curtain. "Big ones?" a woman asked from the doorway. "Yes. Two big ones." The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glasses on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry. "They look like white elephants," she said. "I've never seen one," the man drank his beer. "No, you wouldn't have."”

Another narrative employing the third-person objective point of view is John Reed’s The Rise of Pancho Villa. Similarly, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery gives us a scene through the lens of an unbiased onlooker:

“The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o'clock; in some towns, there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 25th. But in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o'clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.”

Why use the third-person point of view in your writing?

Many emerging writers gravitate towards the first-person point of view, finding solace in the intimacy it offers with the protagonist. This approach sometimes feels easier as it merges the narrative and authorial voices seamlessly.

Others are drawn to third-person point of view simply believing that it exudes a more literary tone. However, it's crucial that the story's essence and character dynamics guide your choice of narrative stance. Whichever point of view you adopt, maintain it consistently. Shifting perspectives can disorient readers, pulling them out of the narrative.

Here are some reasons why writers might opt for the third-person point of view:

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    Character Multiplicity: With multiple key characters, a third-person point of view grants you the liberty to delve deep into each character's arc and let them evolve autonomously. This doesn’t require that each character's perspective is adopted but allows a close following of their individual journey. For intricate stories with converging subplots, third-person limited or omniscient can be especially fruitful.
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    Bias Spectrum: The third-person point of view empowers you to decide the extent of subjectivity or neutrality in your narrative. An omniscient narrator might be impartial, while an unreliable one can play with perceptions, selectively revealing insights. A world of biases are at your disposal!
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    Adaptable Narrative: A third-person point of view is inherently versatile. It can encompass everyone's thoughts, emotions, and viewpoints or remain confined to a single perspective. You have the option of a detached observer or a deeply entrenched participant.

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The term ‘omniscient’ may appear overwhelming. But possessing knowledge doesn't mean disclosing everything. Your narrator needn't divulge every event or penetrate every mind continually. Concentrate on the immediate plot progression and the pivotal characters.

A pitfall inexperienced writers may fall into is “head-hopping”, or abruptly shifting points of view. To create suspense, concentrate on the evolving plot, divulging only essential backstories. Propel the narrative forward!

Always consider the information imperative for readers to grasp the storyline, recognizing that this might diverge from a character's knowledge at specific junctures. Balancing character limitations with the chosen point of view can be tricky, but mastering it ensures a captivating read and a gratifying writing journey.

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