What Is Third-Person Point of View in Writing? Definition & Examples
- What is the third-person point of view?
- Which types of third-person perspectives exist?
- Examples of third-person perspective in literature
- Why use the third-person point of view in your writing?
The point of view in writing describes the narrator’s perspective and their relation to the story. Often shortened to POV, it will define the narrator’s distance or closeness, as well as bias. In a story with a third-person point of view, the narrator refers to the characters by their names and uses third-person pronouns. The effect for the reader is that of someone watching the protagonist, main characters, or all characters, with varying knowledge. We’ll go into how to distinguish third-person POV from other perspectives, the different types of third-person POV, as well as examples and how to use this POV in your creative writing!
What is the third-person point of view?
The narrator of a story determines the point of view. With third-person POV, the narrator is not part of the story and is therefore not among the characters. In a third-person narrative, the narrator typically doesn’t acknowledge or address the reader directly in the sense of addressing them as “reader” and involving them in the story.
Third-person point of view, third-person narrative point of view, and 3rd person perspective are all defined in the same way: a third-person narrator describes the actions of the characters, referring to them by their names and third-person pronouns, such as he/she, for example.
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 you write in 3rd person POV, your narrator can follow the main character closely, jump between characters, relate the story from an all-knowing overview perspective, or remain a neutral and impartial observer.
An omniscient narrator can go into each character’s head and narrate that character’s thoughts. Third-person limited stays with just one character (at a time), while third-person objective remains neutral and tells the story more like a camera, recording no thoughts. We’ll go into the different types of third-person perspectives in greater detail below.
Third person compared to other points of view
On the level of writing, you can distinguish third-person perspective from other POVs by the use of differing pronouns: instead of “he/she” for third person, they’ll use “I” and “you” for first and second person. Here’s an overview of the characteristics of these perspectives:
First-person perspective: In a first-person narrative, the narrator is part of the story and will commonly (though not necessarily) assume the role of protagonist. They use first-person pronouns to refer to themselves and can only reveal their own knowledge, thoughts, and feelings unless the narrator is omniscient. The first-person POV is usually limited and biased (think of first-person video games in which the ‘camera’ shows what the character sees). The first-person point of view narrative can jump between characters and alternate chapters between two lovers, or even the protagonist and antagonist. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is an example of a first-person POV. Nick Carraway is the narrator of the story and he himself takes part in it, but the focus is on the titular Jay Gatsby and his relationship with Daisy.
Second-person perspective: The second-person point of view creates a peculiar narrator who is not part of the story and addresses a character, typically the protagonist, with second-person pronouns. This address with “you” can help readers identify with the main character, though the narrator does not directly relate the story to the reader. Such a narrator can be omniscient or limited. The second-person point of view is less common and creates a somewhat nebulous protagonist.
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What about narrative voice and non-fiction?
The narrative voice differs from the narrative perspective or point of view. The term refers to the voice with which the narrator tells the story to the reader. It can convey a sense of learning or knowledge, wisdom, education, emotional involvement, bias, or motivation, as well as limitation.
The narrative voice will give readers an idea of who the narrator is, and what their reasons for telling the story might be, even though the narrator is not involved in the story themselves. For example, they might conceive of the narrator as a child, an old person looking back at their life, or even an alien or god-like character.
In fiction, the narrative voice is not the voice of the writer or author of the story. In non-fiction, however, it might very well be. Similarly, an author can use the various types of third-person POV to show their involvement with the subject, or distance themselves from it and remain impartial, merely relaying the facts or events.
The POV meme and confusing perspective
POV memes show a picture or video of an unusual situation or perspective, such as a person in an extraordinary, or unwitting situation. A caption accompanies the meme, typically in the format “POV: You’re [person/object in a situation].” The meme seems to have sprung from a similar one captioned “When you’re…” with nearly identical premises.
There is an ongoing discussion online about which perspective these memes show or should show. When the view is that of the person in the meme or caption, it’s a first-person POV; when viewers can see the person or object in the situation, it’s a third-person POV. These memes illustrate a point: first-person perspective is more immersive, but involves greater effort in filming or capturing, which is probably why many creators resort to third-person.
Which types of third-person perspectives exist?
The third-person perspective gives you the freedom to limit the narration to one character, or focus on several or all of them. The different types of this point of view allow you to create an omniscient or limited narrator. You can vary the distance of the narrator through your choice of third-person POV. We’ll go over the different types of third-person points of view.
We also call this perspective “close third.” When you think of video games, it’s comparable to the ‘camera’ showing a character from behind or above and following them. Similarly, the narrator follows one character at a time in third person. The narrator can stay with that character for the entire story, in which case the character will typically be the protagonist, or switch between characters and stay with them for a chapter or a part of the narrative.
This perspective is a limited POV because the current character drives the story, and the narration can only reveal what is happening to that character, what they see and do, and what they think. As a writer, you can give the reader insight into that character’s mind and psyche, their emotions and their inner world. But that character will not know what is going on in the thoughts of other characters.
Third-person limited, as it’s also called for short, is a solid choice when you want to build suspense and interest. The reader will learn information and receive clues at the same time as the character(s), so this POV can work well for thrillers, crime, mystery, and related genres. When you switch characters and follow a cast, you can tell a story that happens in several places at once, with characters possibly spread throughout the entire (fictional) universe.
In that sense, the narrator is omniscient: they are all-knowing because they’re aware of all the details of the story. However, when they follow a single character, they limit themselves to that perspective. Third-person limited omniscient, therefore, allows you to tell stories in which all the threads and details come together in the reader’s mind, even when no character holds all the pieces of information.
When you reveal information to the reader that the third person character cannot have or know at the moment, the effect is that of the narrator addressing the reader, establishing a relationship between them. This is a choice you can make to break the fourth wall or create meta-fiction. Yet it’s a device that you need to establish as well. When it happens unexpectedly and deep into the story, the reader will experience this as a break of perspective and might lose focus.
Third person omniscient
Omniscient means all-knowing. The narrator of the third-person omniscient point of view holds all the information at all times and knows the characters, and will let the reader know. This narrator can switch between characters freely and reveal the thoughts and feelings of anyone to the reader. You can create tension this way, for example, by showing exactly what’s at stake and what the motivations are in a conflict between two characters.
However, the narrator doesn’t have to be neutral and can be biased to any degree. They can favor the protagonist, for example, by devoting more time and focus to them. The narrator can also express their own opinions and pass judgment on characters or disapprove of the actions and events which they’re narrating. It’s therefore much more common for a third-person omniscient narrator to address the reader in asides than it is for a third-person limited narrator.
Third person objective
This third-person perspective is the most neutral and impartial one. The narrator doesn’t follow a single character and doesn’t enter a character’s perspective. They’re not omniscient and therefore don’t know what any of the characters are thinking or feeling, and cannot tell what motivates them. The narrator only relates what is happening and what the characters say and do. The effect is that of a camera that is recording the action. The narrator behaves like an observer who is watching the characters and listening in on their exchanges.
The third-person objective is a reporting perspective with an observational tone. Everything is matter-of-fact, and there can be no asides, opinions, judgements or comments by the narrator. When done well, you can give the reader the feeling of being a voyeur to interesting events unfolding before them, but they’ll have to draw their own conclusions and interpret the meaning as they see fit. This perspective can be a brilliant choice for short fiction, but you can also employ it for longer narratives if you think this narrative perspective and voice fit your story well.
Examples of third-person perspective in literature
We’ll give you a few examples from famous authors and their works, so you can best learn the aspects of the different types of third-person perspective.
Third-person limited examples
The Harry Potter series of novels by author J. K. Rowling is an example of third-person limited perspective. The narrator does not take part in the story and heels the main character, the titular, aspiring sorcerer. The reader learns what Harry is thinking and feeling, and the narrator proves to be omniscient, revealing what else is going on of which Harry knows nothing:
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!”
Similarly, the Game of Thrones series by George R. R. Martin features a cast of main characters and the narrator jumps around, but stays with one character at a time, limiting themselves for chapters or parts of the book.
More examples of third-person limited include:
- Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
- For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
- The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
- The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
- Ulysses by James Joyce
- Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Third-person omniscient examples
Leo Tolstoy uses the third-person omniscient perspective in Anna Karenina. In the following excerpt, the narrator knows and reveals the inner workings of both characters at once:
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 by Jane Austen has the same narrative perspective:
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:
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
- Middlemarch by George Eliot
- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
- Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
- A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
Third-person objective examples
The most-cited example of the third-person objective point of view is the short story Hills Like White Elephants — Papa Hemingway again. Take note how in the following excerpt, the narrator reveals nothing an observer of the scene couldn’t or wouldn’t know, see, or hear:
"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."
A similar example is The Rise of Pancho Villa by John Reed. Shirley Jackson in her short story The Lottery uses the same narrative perspective to relay the events of the story like an impartial observer:
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?
New writers sometimes prefer the first-person perspective for their creative writing, since they feel comfortable being so close to their main character(s) and feel like they don’t have to worry about the narrative voice and author’s voice that way. Others strictly stick to third-person, because they assume it’s more literary. Let your story and characters dictate the narrative POV and choose what you feel suits your work best. Consistency is key: once you’ve established the narrative perspective in your manuscript, stick with it. “Breaking” the POV will take readers out of the story and create confusion.
Here are reasons writers choose one of the different points of view and write in the third person:
- Different characters: When you have an ensemble cast or many important characters, the third-person perspective gives you a great range of freedom to develop these characters individually, progress them along their arc, and let them act independently of each other. Without writing from each character’s point of view, you can still follow them closely and develop the character’s voice one at a time. It works well for juggling many threads of the narrative that come together in the reader's mind. Therefore, consider third-person limited or omniscient for complex and dense multi-arc stories.
- Biased or unbiased: You have a great deal of leeway in how biased or unbiased and distanced you want to tell your story. You can establish your narrator as omniscient, authoritative and reliable, relaying all the information with no bias. You can also write an unreliable narrator, who withholds information from the reader, feeds them tainted asides, and only goes into the minds of a few characters. All kinds of biases are possible!
- Third-person POV is flexible: Your narrator can be everywhere all at once or divide their attention in a limited perspective. This POV can provide each person’s viewpoints, inner thoughts, and feelings as needed. You can also give a completely objective point of view and establish your narrator as a mere observer.
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Sometimes the word omniscient sounds daunting to writers in relation to the third-person perspective. But all-knowing doesn’t have to be all-telling: your narrator doesn’t have to relate every single thing that’s happening. They don’t have to tell centuries of history to establish the present, and they don’t have to be inside the mind of everyone all the time. Focus on where the action is in your story at that moment, and follow your proactive main characters.
It’s a common trap for new writers to engage in head-hopping, that is, to switch POV constantly and do a lot of explaining that way. Create tension by following the conflict and providing only as much detail and background as necessary. Move the story along!
Lastly, think about what your readers will and have to know in order to follow and understand the story — this can often be opposed or mismatched with what your characters know at certain points in the story! Limiting your characters and matching these limitations in POV is a challenge, but will reward your readers (and you in the writing process) with an enjoyable experience.