The Pros And Cons Of Writing In Third Person


I have discussed first and second person during the last two weeks, this week I want to talk about third person. Remember, the viewpoint you use will either bring your readers closer or take them further away from your story. First and second, for example, are closer than third person – attached or omniscient – or a narrator.

We use the pronouns he, she, it, and they, for third person. We often use third person in crime and romance novels. Back in the day, before self-publishing, we had to cater to very rigid genre demands, but as the rules of genre and of writing in general change and evolve your choice of viewpoint is, mostly, up to you and your story. We have a lot more room to play.

Consider this example of third person attached or limited:
He didn’t know what to do. He held on as tight as he could. His fingers were aching, a numbness spread, his arms began to cramp. Below him. Feet, thousands of feet. A gaping chasm of nothingness. He stretched his toes and felt nothing. No ledge. No foothold. His calf burned from the strain. It hurt. His fist was stuck, the crevice was small, just enough to lock his hand in. His knuckles were raw. He had to get up, he had to pull, once more. He made it onto the ledge. He flipped onto his stomach and looked down, trying to see where she had landed.
Third person seems to be common ground, for readers and writers. It is a space where most people are comfortable. You can divide third person into attached, omniscient and narrator. 

Third person attached gives you one person’s perspective. You, attach the ‘camera’ to their shoulder and tell everything from their perspective. As with first person, the telling of the events will be biased according to their experiences, upbringing, age or gender. Unreliable narrators can completely alter the events to suit themselves. 

Third person omniscient is a know-all, tell-all viewpoint. Instead of attaching the camera to one character, the camera hovers over the story. The camera, who is the teller, knows everything. This doesn’t mean the reader knows everything upfront, it is up to the omniscient teller to reveal details as they see fit.

A narrator is an observer. He tells us a character goes into a store, but he doesn’t know why. He can only tell us what he sees, he can’t explain the motivations behind the character’s actions. It makes for a non-judgemental telling.

Six Rules For Writing In Third Person
  1. You can use multiple viewpoint characters to tell your story. All types of third person viewpoint can be used for more than one character, but be careful. The golden rule is to stick to one character per scene. Do not head-hop.
  2. Your characters must be distinct. If they all sound the same, I won’t believe your story. Your characters will be dull and flat. 
  3. Do not choose too many viewpoint characters. The fewer viewpoint characters you have, the stronger your story will be. There are, of course exceptions, but as a beginner, I’d encourage you not to use more than three.
  4. Try not to make every character a viewpoint character. It is annoying getting to know a character in a scene and then never seeing or hearing from them again. Viewpoint characters should make frequent long appearances in books. 
  5. You’ll know which viewpoint character to use for which scene by establishing which character experiences the biggest emotional change. This should be the viewpoint character. 
  6. Make sure your character doesn’t have information they shouldn’t have. How does your character know the secret for example? Just because the narrator knows and the reader knows it doesn’t necessarily put your character in a place where they will know. Consider an affair. If the ‘cheater’ is a viewpoint character, the reader will be aware of the subterfuge, but the spouse can still be blissfully ignorant. How will they find out?
Have fun with your viewpoint. Challenge yourself; we tend fall into ruts because we repeat the same thing. Changing viewpoint is a great way to spice things up.

Last week I suggested that you try to write the same scene in different viewpoints, because I always follow my own advice (Insert hysterical laughter here). I have added my exercises. I hope they help. 

Example of third person omniscient:
Two wrongs don’t make a right, but they sure made a great baby. But as Alison Peters would soon learn, raising a baby right costs money and when Mister Wrong is your only support you’re in for a tough ride. But Alison wasn’t going to risk her baby on a bad decision. She’d do anything to save her little one. Anything.  
Example of third person attached:
Alison slammed down the phone. It was hopeless.
“Bloody bastard.” She muttered, sinking into the hard back chair. 
“What did he say?” 
“Not now, Mom.” She sunk her head into her hands and tried to breathe.
“Well then, when?” Her mother loomed in the kitchen doorway, hands on her hips.
“Mom, please.” She bit back tears. The rent was due. She needed to buy diapers. How did he think she would be able to raise his child if he didn’t contribute? Babies cost money. Much more than the cheap drinks that got her into this trouble. 
Example of first person:
I sink into the chair. This is bad. 
“What’d he say?” 
“Not now Mom.” I need that money. His money. For his child.
“Well then when, Alison?” 
“How should I know, Mom?”
“Yes, how should you know? How you are going to support a child? You can’t even support yourself.” 
“Mom, please. I can’t do this now.” I hate that I am pleading. 
“Well, you did this. You made this baby. You chose that loser.”
Example of second person: 
You slam down the phone. You try to calm your breathing. You need to make a plan. You cannot live like this.
“What’d he say?” 
“Not now, Mom.” You can’t do this. You run your thumbnail along the ridge in the table. 
You need help. You need money. You need to raise your child. His child. If only you knew what a few cheap drinks would end up costing you.  
Happy writing.

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 by Mia Botha

If you enjoyed this post, you will love:

  1. The Pros And Cons Of Writing In First Person
  2. The Pros And Cons Of Writing In Second Person
  3. A View To A Skill

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    11 responses
    Great article, Mia! Thank you for the much needed insight, I know the groups I have joined (and stayed on) discuss this often.
    Thanks for your examples above if writing in 1 st, 2nd, and 3rd person.
    Some helpful advice and good things to think about, but I disagree with some of it. Film has the luxury of (usually) not being inside characters' heads, and thus it has more freedom to jump around to any scene involving anyone without a main character present. We can see things a main character did not witness. I don't see how it's a bad thing if a book does the same thing, as long as it's done well. If the story you want to tell NEEDS to be able to jump to many scenes involving many people, go for it. It's silly to limit yourself and it'd be even sillier if books were not allowed to tell those kinds of stories. I don't think it's necessarily annoying to have a short-lived pov that never pops up again. Viewpoints don't need to be frequent and long if it's obvious this is just a small scene with one-off characters. Though I guess these small scenes don't always need to be inside someone's head and can just be omniscient, with just the narrator witnessing the event. You could harp on about how that's lazy, impersonal and distances the reader by not letting them experience the scene through a character, but eh again if film can do it why not books? I just feel instead of just telling people that they shouldn't do something, explore all sides of it. Tell them the benefits of doing the opposite. You say there are exceptions. What are the exceptions?
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