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Monday, August 31, 2015

Pros and Cons and Types of Third Person

Hey guys, I'm back to talking about point of view, which was requested by an anonymous follower. Again, there are people who have talked about this better than I can cover in a blog post. The two books I like are Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress and Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.

Like I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, there are three points of view:

First-person: I thought I was going crazy.
Second-person: You thought you were going crazy.
Third-person: She thought she was going crazy.

But I forgot to mention (and another follower brought to my attention) that there are plural versions too.

First-person plural: We thought we were going crazy.
Third-person plural: They thought they were going crazy.

The plural versions are used even less than second-person, but, they have been done. I know there are some science fiction stories that are written like this because the story is about a hive mind. What about plural second-person? I guess that could be done too.

I did a post outlining the common pros and cons of writing a story in first-person that you can read here. In it, I gave some suggestions on how to get around the cons, and then deflated some of the others. But today's post is all about writing in third-person!


She thought she was going crazy.

In third-person, the narrator is someone watching and experiencing the story, but not participating in it. It's like the narrator is looking over the character's shoulder.


  • Switch between multiple viewpoints easily, which lets you develop more characters from the inside.
  • It's also easier to describe viewpoint characters from the outside.
  • You can bring the prose deep into your viewpoint character's thought process or pull it far away.
  • Since the character isn't telling the story in his own words, the narrator can describe the world in words and ways the character wouldn't. The style can be more beautiful than the character's vernacular.
  • Can cover scenes that the protagonist isn't present for. You're not limited to your protagonists' worldviews.
  • The narrator can tell the reader things the character doesn't know.


  • Third-person feels more distant. It's not as personal. Readers don't get to put on the character's body and mind (they can get close, but not quite), so they won't get as personal with the character.
  • Tends to have a less distinctive language patterns.
  • It can be harder to switch between memory, flashbacks, and opinions, and the switches are more likely to feel choppy.
(Some of these taken points are from Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint.) 


  • Since the writer isn't technically bound by the character's view, she might think she can zoom in and zoom out of a character's thoughts, delve this info out and hold this info back, write this description this way and another description that way whenever and however she wants. In a way, that's true--but only for the writers who know what they are doing and are doing it with a purpose. Like all writing, third-person takes control. You don't just write it one way because that's how it came out. That's sloppy. You should have a reason for zooming into your character's thoughts and a reason for distancing yourself from them. You should have a reason for writing one description with a sarcastic tone and another description with a depressed one.

If you read my first-person post, you might be looking at the pros and cons of both points of view and be thinking that obviously third-person is the best choice. Third-person is definitely the most flexible, but the truth is, it's not the best choice for every story. Some stories are best told right from the character, in his voice, in first-person. People love the closeness. If your story is meant to be very personal and emotionally powerful, first-person is a great way to go. If your character's view on life is particularly intriguing, entertaining, or insightful, first-person might be the way to go.

But, like I said, third-person is very flexible, and you can often get nearly the same effect as first-person. Just like I talked about how you can get around first-person cons, you can get around these third-person cons by simply getting deeper into your viewpoint character.

Third-person is so flexible, that you really need to break it down further. 

First though, I should warn you that some of the terms are a bit ambiguous. I've heard "omniscient" used a couple of different ways. I've heard "limited" used a couple of different ways, so just be aware of that, but I've decided how I'm going to use them for my post. The ideas are right, even if you've heard the terms used differently. For example, in Nancy Kress's book, she categorizes omniscient as its own viewpoint while Orson Scott Card include is under third-person, which is what I'm going to do.

Omniscient vs Limited


In third-person omniscient, you can jump around into all the character's heads and tell the reader their memories and wants. You can fly over landscapes when you want. You can guide the reader so that they know exactly what is going on in the story. It's like the narrator is a god. You aren't restricted to a specific viewpoint character, so you can see into the mind of anyone or everyone in the scene, and then mention things that no one in the scene knows or notices.

Back in the day it was common for stories to be written in third-person omniscient, but today hardly anyone uses it and you'd likely find it difficult to get an omniscient novel published, unless you're someone like J. K. Rowling, who's so famous now that anything she writes will get published. Some other books are able to get away with them because the narrator has such a unique and entertaining voice.


  • Very flexible: lets readers know anything the narrator needs them to, when the narrator needs them to.
  • Go into multiple minds of characters all within sentences of each other.
  • Can tell the reader things that none of the characters knows.
  • Can cover a lot of info in a short space.


  • A lot of the story will be "telling" not "showing."
  • It usually keeps the reader from feeling deeply personal with any of the characters.
  • Omniscient is quite unpopular in today's world and very hard to pull off.


Third-person limited follows one viewpoint character at a time. The narrator doesn't jump from head to head to head in a matter of sentences. Harry Potter is a good example of third-person limited. The narrator is following Harry around.

Pros and Cons:

Rather than go through and list all the pros and cons, all you really need to know is that third-person limited is basically middle ground. It's between first-person and third-person omniscient. For example:
  • Gets readers to feel close to the characters, like first-person, but still have a lot of flexibility (though not as much as omniscient)
  • Lets readers feel close the characters while also allowing the author to switch through multiple viewpoints easily.
You get the idea. Third-person limited is in the middle. But it can also be broken down further.

Singular Viewpoint

Third-person limited may follow one character around for the whole story, making it similar to first-person. We only experience what that character experiences. I've seen this called "limited" too, but that would be confusing, so for this post, I'm calling it "singular." Harry Potter is nearly third-person limited, singular, except that in a lot of the books, there are one or two chapters that are told in a different character's view, usually at the starting. Frankly, in my opinion, these are really more like prologues that got called "chapter one."

Multiple Viewpoints

In limited third-person with multiple viewpoints, you have two or more characters the narrator follows, but only sees through one viewpoint at a time. For the most part, you can't hop from Jessica's view, to Todd's view, to Henry's view, to Jessica's view again all in a matter of a few sentences. Usually, you follow one viewpoint character per scene or chapter. You can follow the same viewpoint character for multiple scenes, but most writers won't switch viewpoints during a scene. You can, but it's just uncommon. It's almost a law that you have a chapter break or at least a break in the text whenever you switch viewpoint characters. Personally, I don't believe that this technically needs to be done, but most people in today's writing world, and frankly, most of your readers will expect there to be a break. So people might get confused when reading your story if there isn't one. It's recommended, but not the only possibility. Again, that's just my opinion.

Right now a lot of people feel like you should only switch viewpoint characters between chapters. And others believe you should alternate chapters or cycle through viewpoints like this:

Chapter 1 (Jessica's Viewpoint)
Chapter 2 (Todd's Viewpoint)
Chapter 3 (Henry's Viewpoint)
Chapter 4 (Jessica's Viewpoint)
Chapter 5 (Todd's Viewpoint)
Chapter 6 (Henry's Viewpoint)


Chapter 1 (Jessica's Viewpoint)
Chapter 2 (Jessica's Viewpoint)
Chapter 3 (Todd's Viewpoint)
Chapter 4 (Todd's Viewpoint)
Chapter 5 (Henry's Viewpoint)
Chapter 6 (Henry's Viewpoint)
Chapter 7 (Jessica's Viewpoint)
Chapter 8 (Jessica's Viewpoint)

In writing books, I've read that if you don't cycle through your viewpoint characters like this, people will think it's a mistake or that you've simply messed up.

In my personal opinion, that's dumb.

Not the technique of cycling through, but that outlook on it. Next week, I'll go more into this and talk about some good ways to help you pick which viewpoint character to use (and I'll update this post with the link). I originally had this all in one post, but realized it kind of turned into its own topic. So watch for a follow-up to all this. In another post I'll talk about how you can downplay pretty much all the third-person cons by getting deep into your character's viewpoint.

Also, I got my second writing tip up on Youtube and Soundcloud. Subscribe or follow if you can. Thanks.


  1. Great post!

    I like writing in third person limited-singular view-point. ;) 95% of my novels are written from one character's view point, with a chapter or two (usually near the end) in another characters POV.

    1. Thank you and thanks for reading. Sounds like you found what works for you ^_^

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Great post on the different points of view. I got an education on the pros and cons of each... so much to consider when you are a writer....thankfully I am not in that realm and a mere non professional reviewer!

    1. Yes, so many choices to make O_o but it's fun, too. Thanks for commenting Dinh ^_^


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