Part iv. Third-Person POV

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The third-person POV is the most commonly used mode of POV. When it is used, the narrator relates all action in third-person, and each character in the story is referred to third-person pronouns such as "he," "she," "it," or "they," but never as "I" or "we" (first-person), or "you" (second-person).

The Writer as a Movie Camera

Third-person POV allows the author to be like a movie camera moving to any set and recording any event, as long as one of the characters is lugging the camera.

It also allows the camera to slide behind the eyes of any character, but beware—do it too often or awkwardly, and you will lose your readers very quickly.

When using third-person, don't get in your characters' heads to show the reader their thoughts, but rather let their actions and words lead the reader to figure those thoughts out. Show rather than tell.

Why Write in Third-Person POV?

If you want to insert distance between a single POV character and the narrative, write in the third-person instead of in the first-person. You'll be able to draw back the camera, from time to time, and show the reader the bigger picture that your POV character may not be able to see.

But third-person is more difficult to control than first-person. It's easy to find yourself slipping out of one character's head and into another. And you're still limited in what you can show the reader since there's still just a single character that tells the story.

There are three main types of third-person POV.

Third-Person Limited

The most commonly used viewpoint in novels in the third-person limited—a single character, usually the protagonist, narrates throughout and the story is told in the third-person.

With this viewpoint, the author can bring the reader close inside the character's head, or pull back and insert more distance, while still providing a single narrator's filter for the events of the novel.

Avoid overt authorial description of physical appearance and authorial commentary on character traits, qualities, attitudes, assumptions, concerns, and the like (unless you have a really compelling voice). Instead, erase the narrator as much as possible and internalize these details in your character's mind. That is, make the character know these things, not the author. And don't forget that some points you want to make about your character can be handled using the indirect method—through scene.

Writing in the third-person limited viewpoint gives you more flexibility than writing in the first-person. It allows you to pull the camera back at times and bring it in close at others.

Third-Person Omniscient/Authorial

The third-person narrative mode includes the omniscient, or authorial, which allows the author to comment on the world of the character, and the characters themselves, and enter the minds of any of the characters in the story or the novel. In omniscient third-person POV, the narrator knows everything about all the characters in the story; almost godlike.

A great example of this POV is in Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." She took the reader inside the heads of Jane, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bigley, and all the rest of her characters, while at the same time providing her own satiric running commentary on the mores of the time. You can easily see this omniscient narrator's voice from the novel's first line:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

The omniscient narrator can go anywhere and see anything. But many modern authors shun the omniscient voice because it seems stilted and old-fashioned. It can also hold readers at a distance and prevent them from identifying with the protagonist.

However, you can still find omniscient narration often used at the beginning of a novel, or in the first paragraphs of a scene or chapter. Omniscience is particularly useful for showing a vast landscape or giving the perspective of a scene viewed from the future. It's best used sparingly and for effect.

Third-Person Dramatic or Objective

With the dramatic or objective POV, we do not have access to character thought, but only action and speech.

The narrative in the story observes and reports in a seemingly neutral and impersonal way. The writer tells what happens without stating more than can be inferred from the story's action and dialogue. The narrator never discloses anything about what the characters think or feel, remaining a detached observer.

In some stories, the dramatic viewpoint is used to a great extent, which reads almost like a play. It's not likely you would use this POV entirely for a novel, though. Instead, you can use it to great effect in sections of a novel.

With the dramatic POV, readers are not inside a character at all. They learn what characters think and feel from their actions and speech alone—keeping the writing objective rather than subjective.

Here's an example from "Fat City" by Leonard Gardner:

On the dusty floor of the closet was a clean square where the carton of Earl's clothes had been.

"Is Earl out of the bucket?"

"Huh?"

"Was Earl here?"

"Earl?"

"Did Earl come in here today?" Tully demanded, hanging up his jacket.

"Yeah."

"Why didn't you say so?"

"He was just here long enough to get his stuff."

"Is that any reason for not telling me?"

Notice that no one's thoughts are represented here. Sometimes it's best to just let characters talk. If characters' thoughts are included, the writing might become cluttered and lose impact, distracting readers from what they can see and hear. But, certainly, in some cases, characters' reflections and thoughts are essential to driving the scene. So make your judgment scene by scene.

Each of these narrative modes provides different access to character, and thus your choice of narrative mode will affect characterization.

A writer may rely on a multiple or variable third-person POV, in which the perspective shifts from that of one character to another during the course of a narrative. Actually, many writers today are choosing multiple POV, where the author is more or less out of sight. That's the next part.

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