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Posted on Jul 19, 2021

Third Person Point of View: The Most Popular Narrative Style

Anyone who reads fiction will undoubtedly be familiar with third person point of view — the narrative style in which all characters are referred to as he, she, or they, rather than any character using “I” or “we” in the narration. To give a quick example, third person reads like this: 

She sat in the café waiting for her food to arrive. “What is taking so long?” she thought.

As an author, you can zero in on individual characters using third person limited, or zoom out and tell the story in third person omniscient, like an all-knowing god. Your POV choice will depend on what kind of story you want to tell, as you’ll discover in the next two posts in this series!

Here, however, we’ll simply cover everything you need to know about third person and how to write it — with a slight emphasis on the limited style that’s more “in vogue” nowadays.


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What are the advantages of third person?

Third person is a classic narrative style, dating back to the likes of Homer. But besides having a long and impressive history, the third person point of view offers plenty of benefits for modern storytelling! Reasons to write in third person include…

✅ Instant familiarity. Starting a story in third person helps readers settle in right away, rather than asking them to adjust to the particular voice of a first-person narrator or the unusual directness of second person.

✅ Not giving too much away (for limited). When writing in first person, it can be tough to toe the line between how much your narrator knows and how much they should reveal. Third person adds a little more distance, making it easier to flesh out the main character(s) without divulging too much information to the reader.

✅ Smoother perspective shifting (for limited). If you want to follow multiple people but don’t want them all narrating in first person (which can be confusing), you can have alternating third-person chapters. Leigh Bardugo does this marvelously in Six of Crows, smoothly shifting among the characters’ POVs based on what’s happening in the story.

✅ Potential for dramatic irony (for omniscient). For certain types of stories, you might want an all-knowing third-person narrator to reveal details that the characters don’t know themselves. This creates dramatic irony, which is excellent for fostering tension (and occasionally comedy — hello, Shakespeare!).

Tips for writing in third person

Third person POV | How to write in third person

Even if you’ve written in third person before, there are a few things to know about writing it well. On that note, here’s how to write in third person for narration that flows smoothly and engages readers! Again, we’ll focus on the limited perspective, as it’s more commonly used these days. 

1. Choose your POV character(s) wisely

Though you won’t be narrating as your chosen character(s), their perspective and experience should still strongly influence your narration — so before you even begin writing in third person, be sure to choose your POV characters carefully.

For third person, this will almost always be the main character or characters. In first person, you can sometimes get away with a secondary character recounting the main character’s exploits — think of Nick in The Great Gatsby, or Watson in Sherlock Holmes — but because third person automatically introduces distance, you don’t want to add even more by making your “focus” character anyone other than the protagonist (unless your story really demands it).

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But say you have multiple protagonists, or some important deuteragonists. Should you narrow your third person POV to a single focus, or move among multiple characters? Here are some questions to help you out:

  • Does this journey truly only belong to one character, or are other characters equal participants?
  • Will there be important scenes for which the protagonist is absent? If so, is it a purposeful technique (e.g. a friend’s betrayal is eventually revealed as a plot twist), or does it throw the story off balance?
  • Do you want the reader to know the characters’ thoughts on each other? (This is crucial when writing romance — authors often shift between two perspectives to show how the characters fall for each other.)
  • Finally, what do you want to do? Whichever option you’re naturally leaning toward — focusing on one character, two characters, or several — will likely end up being the right choice for your book. If not, you can always revise!

Example: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Third person POV | Third person example - I Am LegendI Am Legend tells the tale of Robert Neville, a man desperate to survive in the wake of a vampiric pandemic. As a result, Neville is really the only choice for a focus character — destroying the vampires is his mission alone, and the whole story must be relayed through his experience, both in a practical sense and as a means of investing the reader in his fate.

2. Dive deep into their headspace

Speaking of which, when writing in third person, it’s important to get to know your main characters well. You don’t have to be as intimately acquainted as if you were writing in first person, but it’s still a good idea to fill out character profiles for all your major characters.

Then, if you only have one POV character, go ahead and immerse yourself fully in their mindset, beliefs, worries, and quirks. It may take some imagination, but you’ll soon be an expert in the things they would observe and contemplate in everyday life — which is the level of familiarity you’ll need to write an absorbing third person perspective.

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If you have multiple POV characters, it’s important to think about what distinguishes your characters from one another. How do their priorities and thought processes differ, and how will this affect the narration? What will one character pay attention to that another might not, and which events should be narrated with them present for maximum effect?

Of course, you can only spend so much time thinking about a character’s perspective. Writing about it — especially if you’re going the multiple-POV route — is often the best way to figure out what’s important to each character, and how that will manifest when they’re the focus.

Example: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Third person POV | Third person example - Ender's GameIn this early passage of Ender’s Game, Ender is preoccupied with his brother Peter, who terrorizes him. This sets the stage for Ender’s hypervigilant (some might say paranoid) mindset throughout the book — indeed, what begins as a defense mechanism in childhood becomes a key factor in his success at Battle School.

3. Show, don’t tell what they experience

As you write about what’s happening to your POV character, make sure that you stick to the rule of “show, don’t tell” when describing the details of their experience. Basically you want to captivate readers with colorful descriptions, rather than just summarizing the events of a scene.

To spell out the difference: “David and Goliath fought, and David won” = telling. A vivid fight scene describing how David’s heart hammered as he approached the battlefield, his slick palms making it difficult to aim the slingshot, a scream tearing loose in his throat as Goliath charged, and his feather-light feeling of triumph at the giant’s defeat — that’s showing.

One more thing: try not to use too much “filtering” language when describing a character’s experience. For example, you might be tempted to write something like this:

Glancing out the window, Maria noticed that the sun was going down. She saw streaks of pink and orange in the sky, and she thought of how it looked like her mother’s weaving.

But when we’re already attuned to a specific character, there’s no need for language like “she noticed”, “she saw”, and “she thought” — it puts up a barrier between reader and character. A slight revision breaks down that barrier and makes the scene feel more immediate:

Maria glanced out the window. The sun was going down, pink and orange streaking the sky like bright yarn in her mother’s loom.

Example: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Third person POV | Third person example - The Vanishing HalfThis passage employs a number of “showing” devices — strong verbs, sensory descriptions (“the sky hung heavy and hot”, “water splattering against their ankles”), and specific details to illustrate the scene (the girls duck under “eaves” rather than just roofs, and the word “shrieked” conjures a very particular sound). The result practically drops the reader in the midst of a summer rainstorm, flattened against a city building next to the twins.

4. Avoid head-hopping

We already talked about how it’s absolutely fine — dynamic and interesting, even! — to have multiple third-person perspectives in a story. What you don’t want is to switch from one character to another so abruptly that readers get whiplash.

The writerly term for this is “head-hopping”. To demonstrate, head-hopping looks like this:

Jamie frowned at the letter. He was being sued for libel over something he hadn’t even written? He couldn’t understand it.

William watched from across the room, forcing a neutral expression, even as panic coursed through him. Did Jamie know his account had been hacked? That William was the one behind it?

Jamie felt utterly baffled as he finished the summons. He racked his brain, but could not remember a single thing he’d posted that could justify this lawsuit.

In the first part, we’re hearing Jamie’s thoughts on the matter. But then we switch to William and what he’s thinking and feeling… only to quickly careen back to Jamie. Disorienting, yes? This is why you should keep your third person narration to a single focus character at a time, with clear breaks between characters — typically a chapter, or a scene at the very least.

That doesn’t mean you can’t indicate what other characters are experiencing while inside one character’s head, only that you still have to base it on what that character observes. For example, here’s how you might rewrite the scene above from Jamie’s POV alone:

Jamie frowned at the letter. He was being sued for libel over something he hadn’t even written? He couldn’t understand it.

As he skimmed through the summons, he felt William’s eyes on him from across the room. Was it Jamie’s imagination, or had his friend gone stiff? But when he looked up, William appeared just as baffled as Jamie himself felt.

This version achieves a similar effect, making William seem suspicious, without hopping directly into his head. Perhaps in the next chapter, you’d have William agonizing over what he’s done to Jamie and planning his next moves, but don’t interrupt Jamie’s scene to include this.

And with that, we've concluded our post on third person point of view and how to write it! For more in-depth guidance on the two different styles of third person, limited and omniscient, be sure to check out the next couple of posts in this series.

In those posts, you’ll learn even more about which type of third person would best suit your own project, plus bonus tips on how to write in third person — to help you create a story that will be enjoyed by many more than three people, as it were.