Writing in Third Person Point of View

Most authors today write their novels in Third Person Subjective. What does that mean, exactly?

  • When you write in First Person, you pick a character and write the story as if you were that character, ("I did this", "We did that").
  • In Third Person Subjective, you take a step back and refer to your characters as "he" and "she". However, you still write the story as if you were one (or more) of the characters.

Think of it like this - when you use Third Person Subjective, you become an actor. Before you start each scene, you can choose who you're going to play in that scene. Picture the scene through that character's eyes. Really imagine yourself as that person. Now write the scene from their perspective, including their innermost thoughts and reactions. Describe what that person sees, smells, tastes as if you were experiencing it yourself.

That's Third Person Subjective. It's not the same as the old-style Third Person (called "The Omniscient Narrator") where the narrator wasn't any of the characters in the novel. Instead, the author was a God-like observer who saw everything but didn't get involved. The Omniscient Narrator is too impersonal for modern readers, who like to get immersed in the characters' lives.

Describe what your character sees!
Describe what your character sees! | Source

First Person

But wait a minute, you say - why bother with Third Person when First Person is so much easier to do?

Because there's one big snag to First Person. If you’re writing in First Person, you can’t describe events that happen when your character is not there. Instead, you have to invent other ways to relate those events, such as getting other characters to report on them, or have your hero/heroine read a letter or newspaper about them. That takes ingenuity and if not done well, it can get very clunky indeed!

Your First Person character can't see inside the heads of the other characters, either. That means you can’t report on other characters’ thoughts or motivations – all you can do is interpret them based on what your character sees, (“I could tell by his eyes that he didn’t believe me” rather than “he thought I was lying”).

There is one way around this problem: you can use a style which clearly sets your character up as a narrator, constantly making asides to the reader - saying things like, “Unknown to me, while I was cheerfully planning my holiday, Sadie was planning to ruin it”. However, it's still limiting, because it isn't believable to recreate unseen scenes in vivid detail - and that can affect the overall color and excitement of your story.

Why Third Person Subjective is Useful

With Third Person Subjective, you can still get inside the head of your main character, just like First Person, just as thoroughly as if you were writing “I”. But you have the great advantage that you can choose another one or two characters and write some scenes in their POV (point of view) instead. That allows you to cover events the main character doesn't witness.

Also, Third Person Subjective provides a choice of characters for your readers to identify with. Some readers may want to be the heroine, whereas others may identify better with the hero. By including scenes or chapters “inside” both heads, you appeal to both sets of readers instead of just one.

Third Person Subjective allows you to reveal secrets the main character doesn't know, but other characters do. This can be very useful to create suspense as the reader waits on tenterhooks for the hero to discover the truth!

Who's Telling the Story?

The crucial thing when using Third Person Subjective is that the reader must always know who's telling the story. That's easier if you keep the number of different POV's to a minimum. Your hero and heroine are obvious choices, plus you may want to include the villain, or another key character - but any more than three or four, and the reader's going to lose track of who's who! That's why, if you are going to use Third Person Subjective, you should never be tempted to slip back into Third Person Omniscient at any time - because it's adding another POV.

It's important to really get into the heads of your characters when writing in Third Party Subjective. Think of it like this - YOU are not writing your novel any more. Your characters are! Become an actor: before you start each scene, decide who you're going to "be" in that scene. Picture the scene through that character's eyes. Really imagine yourself as that person. Now write the scene from their perspective, including their innermost thoughts and reactions. Describe what he sees, smells, tastes.

"Rules" for Writing in Third Person Subjective

When you start out with Third Party Subjective, it's a good idea to set yourself a rule - only change POV when you start a new scene. Again, the goal is to avoid confusing your reader. For instance, say you're writing a scene between two lovers. You're telling the story from the woman's POV and you suddenly feel you need to let the reader know what HE is thinking - so you switch into his POV. Oh, but now you need to show HER feelings - so you switch again, and so on. This is called head-hopping and to the reader, it's rather like watching a tennis match. It's hard to keep your eye on the ball!

By barring yourself from changing POV's mid-scene, you're going to force yourself to ask two things - "did I choose the right person to tell this scene?" and, "How can I convey the other person's reactions without switching?". By asking these questions, you'll learn how to choose the right POV more reliably, and you'll also discover ways to hint at a character's feelings by their movements or dialogue.

Once you've gained confidence this way, you can relax your guard and allow yourself to change POV once - but only once, please! - in each scene. Of course you'll find authors who break that rule and get away with it: however if you're tempted to switch more often, you need to be sure you've examined your reasons for doing so, and that it's definitely the best way (not just the laziest way) to achieve your goal.

Warning!

The ability to switch POV can make you lazy: it's very easy to start hopping into different heads all over the place, to let the reader know something important. Don't!

Frequent POV switching is bad writing. You know your characters well, so you have no trouble working out whose head you're in: but your readers will get totally confused if you hop around too much. And if you take the time to look, you will often find a better way of conveying that information than introducing yet another POV.

More Point of View Tips

Layout

Each time you switch POV, make sure the reader knows by leaving an extra line space between your paragraphs, then using the new POV character's name in the first line. To make it more obvious, combine that with a thought which obviously belongs to that character. For instance:

"Paul picked up the vase. It looked like something from a junk shop - surely she didn't believe it was valuable?"

Names

When you're thinking about yourself, do you ever think of yourself by name? No, and therefore neither should your characters. Using their name will spoil the reader's illusion that they're inside the character's head. So once you've established who's POV you're in, don't use his name while you're "in" that character's head (unless you absolutely have to, to avoid confusion about who's doing what in a scene). Your POV character is just "He" or "She" as much as possible. Don't be anxious about over-using "he" and "she" - it's perfectly fine to start sentences with them, provided you don't start every single sentence that way.

Used well, Third Person Subjective can really enrich your novel, imbuing it with all the thoughts and emotions of your characters and making them very real to your reader. It takes practice, but it is worth it!

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Comments 45 comments

KathyMcGraw2 profile image

KathyMcGraw2 2 years ago from California

Interesting. Reading this made me wish I would have taken some writing classes, or joined a creative writing group. I really did find this interesting and will look at my new story with this in mind.


chinared profile image

chinared 3 years ago from Asia, and all over

Useful and informative, thanks! I too struggle with revealing thoughts and memories while writing in 3rd person, especially during the first draft. It's often frustrating, but I force myself to be a wordsmith.. thanks again! Voted up, useful, and shared.


Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright 3 years ago from Sydney Author

Yes, I must say I struggle to write in first person because I feel my reader is missing out if they can't see inside the head of the other main protagonist.


Ceres Schwarz profile image

Ceres Schwarz 3 years ago

Interesting and useful hub. It's good to be able to write in different points of view. But I actually prefer the third person point of view to the first person point of view. Like you said, I think the first person point of view is rather restricting and limiting.


Jennifer 4 years ago

Thank you for this. I was looking for something to help define the POV for a book a friend and I are working on and this was amazingly informative.


Alyee 5 years ago

hi thanks for your very informational piece. We have to rewrite a chapter in our book from a characters point of view and my teacher doesn't explain very much to us... so thank you very much!!! :)


megni profile image

megni 5 years ago

Great article, excellent advice.

I nearly always write in third person since I find it easier. It's less confusing to the reader. Glad you reminded me it's still the preferred choice of most writers.

You can still use your own experience when describing something in non-fiction and the reader will be never see you hiding behind the keyboard.


Bbudoyono profile image

Bbudoyono 5 years ago

It is confusing for me. Maybe for the writer too.


Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright 5 years ago from Sydney Author

Multiple first person POV - I know some authors use it, and I have read a couple of great novels where there were two protagonists, and they took turns "writing" the chapters. It worked well but I could imagine it getting confusing if you used three or four protagonists - it's just too easy to forget whose turn it is.


Bbudoyono profile image

Bbudoyono 5 years ago

How about multiple first person pov? Orhan Pamuk used it in his novels like 'My name is Red'.


hungrymouse profile image

hungrymouse 5 years ago from North America

This is the kind of advice I need, to send a wave of sensation through to the end of my tale.

How do I bookmark this page?


Tahlia Newland 6 years ago

Thanks for this.

At my agent's suggestion, I'm just doing another edit/review of my YA fantasy ms, and this helped me to clarify my use of 3rd person. I had a mix of omniscent and subjective, but I think it will be easier to stick with TPS.


Steele Fields profile image

Steele Fields 6 years ago from drexel hill,pa

Excellent hub and very well-written and presented. As a writing teacher and novelist, I have read numerous books on the topic and found your article to be among the best I have read. Glad I ran into you:)


Tina Nguyen 6 years ago

Very useful info


ellynaylor profile image

ellynaylor 6 years ago from UK

Great writing hub, thank you!


Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright 6 years ago from Sydney Author

James, I should have replied to Jambo's comment because I was mystified by his "third party selective omniscient" description.

Omniscient is when you write as an external narrator, period. If you are mainly writing from the protagonist's POV and occasionally "get inside the heads" of other characters, you're using third party subjective, which is the POV I describe in the article.


James McV Sailor profile image

James McV Sailor 6 years ago from Northern California

Like Jambo87 I have been writing in what he terms the "third person selective omniscient" POV when I write fiction, and find it a good POV for relating shifting emotions and reactions in several characters, in heated situations particularly..... the weakness perhaps is that I sometimes find myself being too much of a "teller" and not enough of a "shower", which can make the story a bit lazy and dull. I like the freedom of the Omniscient POV but it is easy to be lazy.

Thanks for your insight here, it made me think again about how I write and why. JM


Jazmine Dede 6 years ago

Hi im 13 years old and i love writing, this is helpful thank you. :)


wordpainter07 profile image

wordpainter07 6 years ago

Really thoughtful hub and very informative. I have always been a fan of third party POV. Lately I become attracted to the first person POV. Not every writer can accomplish it without losing the attention of their audience but there are several young adult authors that have succeeded very well. I am going to try out both POV's and see which one works for me.

I will continue to follow your hubs for helpful advice. Thanks!


jambo87 profile image

jambo87 6 years ago from Outer Space / Inner Space

Good tips! A great example of this PoV style is George R.R. Martin's series "A Song of Ice and Fire". Despite your advice, he writes using upwards of twenty characters. His brilliance is that they never get confused because he defines and details each vein of the story so clearly.

I personally like third person selective omniscient: centering around the protagonist but being able to go to scenes where he or she is not present, and getting inside other characters heads. Kurt Vonnegut does this really well in "Sirens of Titan" and "Galapagos". It can be tricky too.


4FoodSafety profile image

4FoodSafety 6 years ago from Fontana, WI

This is what has confused me out on Hub Pages - I see too much of the "I" - will follow your rule - once and only once per scene. I am learning - thank you for the guidance - very much appreciated.


Rismayanti profile image

Rismayanti 6 years ago from Tropical Island

Owww.. so informative Marisa, you share valuable information to every one, thank you very much


Dobson profile image

Dobson 6 years ago from Virginia

Very good information. I must try writing in the difierent voices.


sophs 6 years ago

Brilliant hub Marisa thanks for the helpful info :-)


Windsweptplains profile image

Windsweptplains 6 years ago from The windsweptplains of Colorado

Thank you for this thoughtful hub. Your writing hubs have been very useful and helpful.


Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok 6 years ago from Long Island, NY

Marisa, I bookmarked this so I can come back and read more when I'm not so tired. End to a long day. Saw you in one of the forums earlier. Glad I found you because this is very educational. Thanks.


Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright 6 years ago from Sydney Author

Yes Casey, you're welcome. A reference to my profile would be appreciated!


casey.zvanut profile image

casey.zvanut 6 years ago from North Carolina

Marisa - great hub! May I use parts of it with my creative writing class next semester?


Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright 7 years ago from Sydney Author

Michael, I value your opinion so thank you! I must look for that book - the idea of 20 main characters makes my head spin!


Michael Ray King profile image

Michael Ray King 7 years ago from Palm Coast, Florida

I knew your hubs would be excellent. I've been reading a George R. R. Martin series called "A Song of Ice and Fire". Martin maintains over 20 MAIN characters. I mean MAIN characters. Each chapter bears the name of the POV main character so you know going in the POV. His books average nearly 1300 pages. Book 5 "A Dance with Dragons" is due out in 2010. An HBO series is being made based on these books as well.

Martin is masterful with his POV usage. Studying his work would give fiction writers an education in POV. He's made me toss a book at the wall when he kills off one of these main characters too. You get so invested in the characters that when one dies, it's like losing a family member (especially when you've followed the character for 3000 pages...).

Your hub did a great job of breaking down Third Person Subjective. I'm sure I'll be referring back to this hub many times (please don't delete it!)


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 7 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

Thanks for the review and I like the inviting style/tone of your words. I've made more headway writing self help nonfiction lately, but I've been toying with First person POV in a fiction side project. I see all of your points as valid. Funny, for some reason I see Third Person Subjective sort of as my daughter's virtual world video games...

Thanks for the great article.

Ben


Elyse Eaton profile image

Elyse Eaton 7 years ago

I have read many articles on this very subject. Yours, by far is the most well thought out and fully explained. Kudos.


Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright 7 years ago from Sydney Author

Arthur, third party omniscient may still be used in some literary forms, but virtually all "popular fiction" writers write in third party subjective these days. As I say in my opening paragraph, third party omniscient is too dispassionate to appeal to today's readers so it's gone out of vogue.


Arthur Gulumian profile image

Arthur Gulumian 7 years ago from Pasadena, CA

Well if you were referring to writing from a subjective third person perspective, then I suppose you could explore the emotions of one or many of the characters. Usually third person is written in omniscient form; telling a story from a distant narrator. I also don't undervalue the importance of third person writing; I do often enjoy reading them more than first on a few occasions. However, I do believe the intended goal of a writer can be achieved through both means. The approach only differs as it should; which gives a variety in the books we love =]. I would have to say first person is a more effective way in entirely focusing on the protagonist's viewpoints; as we know, some books require the full integrity and attention of the protagonist only in order to better understand the story. Interesting argument you made =].


Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright 7 years ago from Sydney Author

Arthur, I can't agree with you. If you are writing in third person Omniscient, then I agree you get less of the character's emotions. But if you're writing in third person Subjective, you explore and convey your main character's emotions EXACTLY as you do in first person - but the bonus is, you can do the same for two or three other characters instead of being limited to just your main protagonist.

That's not to say that 1st person is a bad choice, it depends on what you're writing and how many viewpoints you need for a particular story.


Arthur Gulumian profile image

Arthur Gulumian 7 years ago from Pasadena, CA

Interesting article, but I can't agree that 1st person is limiting at all. Third person tells an overall story, but it is limited to portraying the character's emotions entirely. First person, however, can still give the same story as well as provide a first hand experience with what the narrator is going through. The purpose of first person narration is different from the third — they both share an equal goal (telling a story), but one tells a story in it's entire format, and the other is intended to make you see through the eyes of the author. Nothing in writing is limiting. Pleasure reading you.


Suki C profile image

Suki C 7 years ago from Andalucia, Spain

This is excellent advice - I have just come across it and am book marking it to read it in more depth later

Thank you


Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright 7 years ago from Sydney Author

Thanks Darkside! I once read a novel in second person and it was the most annoying things I've ever read (or rather, tried to read - I didn't make it all the way through!).

I'm sometimes guilty of jumping from first-person to second-person when writing "how to" articles - I have to remind myself to go back and proofread.


darkside profile image

darkside 7 years ago from Australia

Fantastic piece of writing! A must-read for all fiction writers.

My second ever submitted short story to a magazine was rejected (my first ever was accepted, so I felt invincible) and it had been written in the first person. Which was very limiting. I let on a little too much of what was happening outside of what the character knew. When I got it back I rewrote it in the third person, sent it back in, and it was accepted.

A writer need to make sure that they're consistent all the way through, and not break any of the rules you've suggested. And also consider the impact and feel of a story if it were changed. Would it be of benefit to the readers experience to be told from a certain point of view.

There is also second-person point of view. But from memory I've only ever seen it used to any kind of effect in the pre-teen choose your own adventure style books. Though I guess DIY articles might use it a lot. So one should be aware of not continually jumping back and forth from first-person to second-person POV when writing such articles.


Katelyn Weel profile image

Katelyn Weel 7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

Very good advice...I'm working on my NanoWrimo novel now (well, procrastinating here) and it really is a big puzzle, trying to figure out who sees what and how to tell the reader. Thanks for the tips!


Duchess OBlunt 7 years ago

Great Hub Marisa. Thanks for writing it.....taking the time to bookmark it as I'm sure I will need to remind myself when editing.


C.V.Rajan profile image

C.V.Rajan 7 years ago from Kerala, India

Very neat presentation, useful for a budding author.


Gendarme profile image

Gendarme 7 years ago from Jamaica

Great literary depth reminiscent of the good old-fashioned way of writing. Wish those days would rebound!


James Agbogun profile image

James Agbogun 7 years ago

Useful Info.


Sue Adams profile image

Sue Adams 7 years ago from Andalusia

Good tips Marisa. I had a lot of autobiographical material which I translated into the 3rd person to make it into a novel. The third person subjective puts the characters on a more even level. Novel writing is really challenging. It's like a huge puzzle where you spend more time working out the logistics (making sure it all makes sense within the whole structure) than actually telling the story.

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