Last week, I discussed the pros and cons of first person point of view. Now, I’d like to take a look at the most commonly used POV: third person. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using it? How does it compare to first person? (If you’re not sure what third person is, refer to my POV basics post for a primer.)
- Broader scope
Writing in the third person makes it much easier to have multiple narrators and POVs. It is incredibly different to develop multiple POV characters in first person. While it’s still difficult in third, it’s generally preferable. Unlike first person, it’s also possible to have an omniscient narrator in third person. If you’re working with a large cast of characters or a particularly broad story, third person is probably the best option. (For tips on working with multiple POVs, see this post.)
- More options for narrative distance
Third person can be either limited or omniscient, meaning it can follow its narrator’s POV closely or it can narrate things the viewpoint character couldn’t possibly know. Omniscient POV isn’t necessary for most stories and is difficult to do well, but it is an option in the third person, which lends itself well to both close and distant narration. Some narrative distance could be used in first person, but it’s rare (and usually not advisable).
- More objective
Because first person is so limited to its viewpoint character’s thoughts, it can’t narrate anything objectively. Third person, on the other hand, has the ability to be more objective. With first person, you run the risk that the viewpoint character’s opinions might be incorrect or unreliable. A more distant third person narrative has more freedom to be objective, even when the viewpoint character isn’t.
- Less claustrophobic
First person is such a close, intimate look at a single character’s thoughts that it can feel confining. This is especially a problem if you have an unlikeable or frustrating POV character; readers may get tired of spending time in that character’s head. Third person, on the other hand, can allow for more distance.
Cons and Common Problems
- Inconsistent narrative distance
The number one biggest problem I see with third person? The fact that it allows for such variations in narrative distance means that writers often use it inconsistently. When reading unedited manuscripts, I often see a close perspective in one paragraph and a distant one in another. It is absolutely crucial to know which one you’re using and be consistent with it. Otherwise, it will be incredibly jarring for your readers.
- Lack of voice
Third person certainly doesn’t lack voice when it’s written well. But I often see writers struggling with voice more in the third person. Something about the intimacy of the first person can help writers access their character’s voice in a way that third doesn’t. I read a lot of manuscripts in third person where the voice is dull, bland, flat, inconsistent, or otherwise absent. But it certainly doesn’t have to be! If you’re writing in close third person and struggling with voice, imagine instead that you’re writing in first. What does this character’s voice sound like? What would this character choose to narrate?
- Loss of intimacy
As I mentioned above, there’s much more intimacy in first person than third. First person automatically feels closer and tighter than third because it’s directly from the character’s perspective. While you can still achieve a close POV in third, it’s difficult to give it the same sense of intimacy that comes naturally in first.
- Proper nouns and pronouns
While first person has its own issues with repetitive pronouns, third person is not immune to this problem. I often see writers using proper nouns (e.g. the character’s name) too often, or using a pronoun too often instead of the name. Also, the more characters you have a scene, the more confusing the pronouns are going to get. Sentences that work in first might not work in third. For example, “I spotted her across the room, and she approached me” makes sense in first, but in third? “She spotted her across the room, and she approached her” is confusing unless you clarify which character is which. This is another reason why having your work edited by a professional is crucial. It can be difficult for the author to see this kind of ambiguity, but an editor will be able to spot any repetitive or confusing pronouns and help correct these issues.
When used well, third person can be a great way give your story a broader or more objective narration. If you want to write a story with a large cast, wide scope, or a more distant or objective narrator, consider giving third person a try and see how it works for you.
What do you think? Do you ever write in third person? Are there any pros or cons I missed? Let me know in the comments!
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