Story Basics 101: The Third Person

Introduction

The third person is the stock standard perspective for fiction writing. Traditionally, most novels were written in the third person and the trend continues today. It should be noted, in modern times, the first-person narrative is growing in popularity, particularly for certain genres (Urban Fantasy and Young Adult spring to mind). Regardless, the third person is still a staple. (Story Basics 101: The First Person)

The third person is all about “them” — the pronouns; them/they, he/she, his/her.

Third Person Example

Bobby looked at her watch. Time flew. She was late. On an ordinary night, she would catch the bus, but the next one wasn’t due for another hour. The only option — to cut through the woods. Bobby threaded her house keys between her fingers. Better to be safe than sorry. A twig snapped. Bobby jumped, ready to fight. Nothing. Shaking her head, Bobby continued walking. 

There are three third-person perspective subtypes; omniscient, limited, and objective.  

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Third Person Objective

The third person objective is like being a fly on the wall or David Attenborough during one of his wildlife documentaries. The role of the narrator is to describe what they see and hear. There are no thoughts and feelings, only surroundings, sounds, action, and dialogue. 

Third Person Objective Example

“Shoot!”

Bobby stamped her foot on the pavement as the bus speed off down the road. She looked at her watch and threw her hands up. Taking a deep breath, she eyed her surroundings. She rummaged for keys in her handbag and laced the metal through her fingers. She walked along a well-trodden path, taking her into the woods and away from civilisation. A twig snapped. The girl turned around, her fist armed with her keys. She swiped at the air. Laughing, she shook her head and continued her walk. 

The third-person objective example was a challenge to write compared to the first example. I had to show she was late and missed the bus. There is no narrator commentary “better to be safe than sorry” or knowing character motives. I liken the third-person objective to scriptwriting in a prose format. Format aside, there is no real difference between scriptwriting and objective prose. Both writing styles operate on a “if you can’t see or hear, the story detail can’t be included”. Action, sounds, description, and dialogue only. 

Third Person Objective Advantages

The primary advantage of the third-person objective is the ability to let the reader draw their own conclusions. There is no bias within the text. Character thoughts and feelings aren’t present to bog down the plot. The focus is action-driven and character motives are easy to hide. For scriptwriters, the objective perspective might be easier to write because your brain is primed. After a year of constant scriptwriting for my master’s degree, I returned to prose and started writing a novel. The novel reads like the script with prose formatting… third person objective. The perspective doesn’t suit the story at all, because of the disadvantages the objective perspective inherent. There are stories where the objective voice works great. 

Tip:
Use objective for summaries or to mimic the classics. Mysteries, thrillers, and stories with loads of action can utilise the advantages the objective perspective offers. 

Third Person Objective Disadvantages 

From a technical standpoint, the third-person objective can be dull and dry. The writer’s voice is watered to a neutral tone. Much like classic news articles back in the day when only hard facts were reported. The matter-of-fact tone keeps the reader at a distance. The absence of character thoughts creates a challenge for the writer because direct thoughts humanise characters and act as an internal way to show their emotions. In the same vein, exposing character motivations in a concise manner might be challenging.  

Tip:
Don’t use an objective perspective for character-driven stories because of the distance between reader and character it creates. The lack of voice and internal dialogue will kill a character-driven story.  

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Omniscient

Omniscient — the almighty god narrative. The omniscient narrator knows everything, even more than social security. The omniscient narrator knows when every character has taken a dump and if they flushed. Hopefully, such details are omitted from the story. Jesting aside, the omniscient perspective jumps between characters, sharing with the reader the thoughts and feelings of several characters. Third-person omniscient is third-person objective with character thoughts and feelings added into the mix. 

Third Person Omniscient Example

The bus driver speed off. In his review mirror, he saw a girl stomp her feet on the ground. She reminded him of his daughter, but he couldn’t stop and wait for her to catch up. The service was already running late. 

Bobby flipped her finger off at the driver. Great. Her mother was going to have kittens if she didn’t arrive home on time and the next bus wouldn’t be for another hour… unless she cut through the woods. Bobby grabbed her house key from her bag and laced the key through her fingers. Armed, she walked into the woods. The silence heightened her senses. Why did she watch so many documentaries on serial killers? A twig snapped. Bobby twirled around. Her fingers tightened around her key. Not going down without a fight, she punched the air. Alone… so she believed. 

Behind a giant tree, a man hid. Bobby would be his next victim. 

This omniscient example allowed for more details to emerge. The focus jumped between the bus driver, Bobby, and the serial killer. Each character’s motives were stated; the bus driver didn’t stop because the service was already running late, Bobby needed to be home, and the killer wanted a new victim. An objective perspective would have kept the motives hidden unless I could show them. For example, the killer behind the tree could smirk and whip out a knife — rather direct, though, and no way of knowing he had a history of killing. More characterisation came through the omniscient version than the objective version. The omniscient perspective gave me more freedom to let the story flow and make statements like Bobby reminding the driver of his daughter. 

Third Person Omniscient Advantages

Writers can explore everything – every character’s action, thought, emotion. The sky is the limit. Jump between multiple characters and tell a large story. The narrator has their own voice, essentially the story is theirs. 

Tip:
Use Omniscient for epic storytelling. Great for fantasy stories with a large scope (*cough* Lord of the Rings *cough*).

Third Person Omniscient Disadvantages 

The biggest disadvantage to using an omniscience narrative is the skill needed to write well. Many writers fall into the dreaded “head-hopping”. Head-hopping occurs when the point-of-view character suddenly changes to another character. The flow of the story is compromised, creating confusion; whose thoughts and feelings belong to who? The sudden change, or jumping back and forth between focal characters, gives readers whiplash if not written with care. There needs to be a smooth transition.

Because the narrative is god-like, hiding story details from readers is harder. Hiding details is a tool for creating plot twists. 

Even done well, omniscient by nature creates a distance between characters and readers. The focus is on several characters, not just one. However, omniscient keeps the reader closer than an objective perspective. 

Some say the omniscient perspective is dated or old-fashioned. Like anything, old always makes a comeback. Lots, if not most, great classics are omniscient stories. The head-hopping threat gives omniscient a bad reputation. 

Tip:
Don’t use omniscient unless you have mastered the head-hopping demon. 

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Limited/Close  

A limited or close perspective — when the third person meets the first person. Consider a limited/close perspective as the first person with third-person pronouns. The narrative follows one character at a time, and the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist are explored. The protagonist is telling the story (like the first person) through their eyes rather than the unseen almighty narrator. The limited perspective is very popular in modern times (Harry Potter or A Song of Fire and Ice).

A close perspective is a limited perspective but encourages thought and feelings from the protagonist, creating a character voice, almost to the same degree as the first-person but with third-person pronouns. A standard limited narration can have a neutral voice like a third-party narrator. Not all limited perspectives are close, it’s a sliding scale. Some stories will share the protagonist’s every thought (close perspective) and other stories will rarely share the protagonist’s thoughts, creating a distance between character and reader (standard limited perspective). Most limited stories fall between the ends of the scale.   

Third Person Limited/Close Example

Bobby panted, her bus already at the stop. Please wait. Out of luck, the bus drove off. She stomped her feet on the pavement and caught her breath. What was she going to do? Her mother expected her home and walking would take as long as the next bus. Hello grounding. Of course, she could take the shortcut through the woods. A big no, no. But who would know? She’ll be home in time. Her feet followed the worn path into the woods. Shadows fell upon her. Alone… How many bodies lay hidden away by the bushes? Stop it, brain. A twig snapped. Bobby swung round. Nothing. Too many horror films. 

Third Person Limited/Close Advantages

A limited perspective is easier to write well than omniscient because following one character per scene eliminates head-hopping. It’s easier to hide details from readers. There is no way Bobby could know she was being stalked unless the killer was discovered by her. If she discovered she was being stalked, it would change the story’s outcome by bringing forth a confrontation and eliminates any “stalking” story build-up. The reader can only see and hear what Bobby does, unlike the objective and omniscient example of the story. 

Like the first-person perspective, direct thoughts and emotions are explored. However, the level of closeness the reader has to the character is up to the writer. Direct character thoughts can be few and far in between. The reader isn’t permanently in the protagonist’s head, unlike the first person, there is some distance. For larger stories with multiple protagonists, switching point-of-view characters is also easier because the third person creates enough distance in the narrative. A bit like watching a movie or tv hopping from scene to scene and switching characters. Jumping from a first-person point-of-view character to another first-person point-of-view character is jarring if the voices aren’t unique, because the ‘I’ pronoun is the same for all protagonists.

Tip:
Use limited/close if don’t like first-person but like some direct thoughts (the best of both worlds) or you want multiple point-of-view characters telling your story. 

Third Person Limited/Close Disadvantages

Many writer guru types claim a disadvantage the third person has is the distance between the reader and the characters. This might have been true in the past — objective and omniscient are colder by nature and limited can have a neutral voice. However, modern writers have embraced a close perspective. The first-person perspective may still be closer to the reader, but it’s debatable and depends on the story. 

Like the first person, limited/close can be restrictive because all story information is filtered through the point of view character. There is no other input. It might be easier to hide story details from the reader, for example, the stalker following Bobby, but that can be a disadvantage if I want the reader to know. My only option would be to write another scene with the stalker as the protagonist. 

Tip:
Don’t use limited/close when you want your reader to know details, but not your protagonist, like the axe murderer waiting behind the tree. 

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Conclusion

Each third person type has its own personality. Objective and omniscient perspectives are considered dated, but all good things come back into vogue. There is the perfect story for all narrative types; first person, second person, objective, omniscient, and limited (close or not). Mix and match, it’s the 21st century. 

Exercise

Write a flash fiction story three times using the different third-person perspectives. Try writing the same story in first-person and second-person. Compare the differences. 



Categories: Writers' Tool Box, Writing

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