In contrast to the writing in first person, the third person narrator is one of the most commonly used narrative modes. Here the narrator describes what is happening to the characters in the story. The characters are referred by their names or as “he” or “she” or even “they.”
Third Person Narration: Truths
- The third person narrator is normally not a character in the story.
- The third person narrator provides an-outside-looking-in view of the story.
- Depending on the type of third person narrator (See table below), the narrator can narrate anything that happens to any or all of the characters. Most of the time there is no restriction on what the narrator knows and that includes occurrences that will take place in the future.
Third person narrators are used widely and across all story forms. Biographies have to employ the third person narrator.
Some Famous 3rd Person Accounts
- The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
- The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
- Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
- When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro
- A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
- Swami and Friends by R.K. Narayan
Advantages of Using Third Person Point of View
As a writer you have complete flexibility to get into the minds of your characters. You can show thought and intentions and motivations of the entire cast of characters.
John Gardner author of the acclaimed book of writing craft The Art of Fiction advocates the use of 3rd person narrators, especially the omniscient narrator. He writes, “In the authorial omniscient, the writer speaks as, in effect, God. He sees into all his characters’ hearts and minds, presents all positions with justice and detachment, and occasionally dips into the third person subjective to give the reader an immediate sense of why the character feels as he does, but reserves to himself the right to judge.”
2. Larger the Story… When you need different characters to convey the story
When you have a rather large story cooking in your head which requires multiple voices for you to do justice to, it is advantageous to use the 3rd person point of view. Else you could end up restricting its natural flow constantly having to battle questions about how a first person voice is privy to key dramatic events happening to other characters. For instance you can switch to the antagonist, and show the reader what he is doing to create obstacles for the protagonist, and this is something the protagonist doesn’t know but you, the reader, knows.
3. Objectivity (See Box Below)
A third person narrator can say things as they are without bias and without getting emotional. This works wonders in action scenes. Imagine you have to write about a car blowing up. A third person narrator can describe the scene right down to the decibel level of the explosion but if you are writing in first person you have to tackle the issue of the character’s horror or panic for having been witness to such a scene. This might hamper the action scene.
Disadvantages/ Challenges of Using the Third Person Point of View
1. It needs meticulous planning else it can go horribly wrong:
Remember you are dealing with a lot of characters. You have to plan their entry and exit and what is going on in each scene, especially what they are thinking and why they are there. Unlike first person accounts where you get to switch back to the “I” character here you have so much choice as to which character’s trajectory you are going to use to convey the story that there is bound to be some confusion, especially for first-time writers.
2. Planning the Unknown
Plotting has a lot to do with time of revelation of suspense. It becomes difficult and cumbersome when all character motivations are available for the reader to see. First time writers especially have a tendency to write everything about all characters and then realize that there is no mystery left; readers will know why each character did something. This leads to the common “sagging middle syndrome.” Plotting is harder here when there are so many characters to deal with.
Examples of Third Person Narrative
|Narrator’s Degree of Objectivity|
(How much the narrator knows that is undistorted by emotion)
Penetrates the character’s minds and convey and relays thoughts and emotions as well as describes events. Usually the third person subjective narrator is privy to only one character’s emotions.
Example: She walked down a lonely road. There was not a soul in sight. The shops were closed for the day and the streetlights were not working. “God,” she thought, “Please let me make it home safely.” She was terrified. She thought about what she read in the papers about this street and how it was notorious being thronged by armed men after dark.
Remains oblivious to feelings and describes only events that take place
Example: She walked down a lonely road. There was not a soul in sight. The shops were closed for the day and the streetlights were not working. That this street was notorious for being a target for thievery was common knowledge.
|Narrator’s Degree of Omniscience|
(How much the narrator can “see” when it comes to all the characters and key dramatic events in question)
|Third-Person Omniscient Narrators: |
Has complete knowledge about all characters, events, characters’ feelings, thoughts and can penetrate the internal worlds of all the characters.
This form allows complete subjectivity.
Anand wasn’t sure what Bharat and Karthik thought of him. Bharat was indifferent about Anand while Karthik thought Anand was a joke. Poor Anand.
(If you see the narrator knows what is going on the heads of all the three characters).
|Third-Person Limited Narrator |
Privy to only one focal character’s life and includes thoughts.
Anand wasn’t sure what Bharat and Karthik thought of him. He was terrified of their wrath.
(Here it is strictly Anand’s point-of-view)
Note: Degrees of Omniscience and Objectivity are decisions the writer has to make and it can be a combination of both. For instance, 3rd person omniscient narrators can be either subjective (knowing character’s feelings etc) or objective (restricting their narration to dialogue and action)
Either in this post or in our earlier post on first person narrators, if you noticed, we did not recommend which narrator you need to use. That’s because it is a choice you have to make as the author.
I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Salman Rushdie’s memoir about his fatwa years titled Joseph Anton is written in third person; he is narrating his story referring to himself as “he” rather than “I.” I found this particularly fascinating so yes, there really are no rules!
Are there any more advantages or disadvantages? Do let us know as a comment!
1 thought on “Writing in third person: Examples & tips”
Caution: No such thing as “third person”; the correct term is “omniscient.”
No such thing as “third person subjective”; the omniscient narrator is always objective or else the story should have been in First-Person.
Bad example: “She walked down a lonely road. There was not a soul in sight. The shops were closed for the day and the streetlights were not working. “God,” she thought, “Please let me make it home safely.” She was terrified. She thought about what she read in the papers about this street and how it was notorious being thronged by armed men after dark.”
Should be something like “She walked down a lonely road (Principle: show, don’t tell. See next sentence which renders rather than reports). There was (This reports with empty words; “there” is not a part of speech and “was” is a verb of being, not of action, which fiction is.) Not a soul in sight. The shops were closed for the day, and the streetlights were not working (Better: “streetlights as dark as her fear”). “God,” she thought, “Please let me make it home safely” (unnecessary to put in quotes: better if we’re tight in her mind).” She was terrified. (Render, don’t report.) Put it in an action, maybe something like “a coldness descended on her skin and chilled her bones”). She thought about what she had read in the (Be specific) Messenger this street thronged by armed men after dark.
The “better” example is crap. It reports. Get in her mind as tight as possible.
Total misunderstanding: “This form [omniscience] allows complete subjectivity.” God is not subjective, as we understand Him; he is all-knowing.
Total misunderstanding and a contradiction in terms: “Third-Person Limited Narrator.” The narrator, being God-like, simply knows that the story can be told by getting into only one mind, the mind that is central to the story; called “Central Intelligence Omniscient Narrator.”
Partial misunderstanding: “I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Salman Rushdie’s memoir about his fatwa years titled Joseph Anton is written in third person [read, omniscience]; he is narrating his story referring to himself as ‘he’ rather than ‘I.’ I found this particularly fascinating so yes, there really are no rules!” Rushdie understands First-Person Narrators are by nature unreliable; thus, his memoir strives to be objective and not call into question what the narrator tells us. The great Sigrid Undset, among other memoirists/autobiographers, wrote using an omniscient narrator.
As for advantage, the Central Intelligence Narrator can do everything the First-Person can–and more.