You may have heard someone talking about third person POV in an English class or on a writers’ panel. What does it mean? POV stands for point of view, and any piece of prose writing has one. The point of view helps anchor the reader, and it makes the text easier to understand. Even in a story that doesn’t appear to come from a particular character’s voice, we can still assign the narration a point of view. When the point of view isn’t yours (second person) or mine (first person), then we call it third person narration. In this article, we’ll give you some tips to help you learn to write this way.
Avoid First Person
First person emphasizes the subjective point of view, and you can easily identify this writing style through the use of the pronouns “I” and “me”. Imagine an autobiography. The narrator explains his or her life by using phrases like this one: “I was born in a small town.” In a biography, written by another person, the text might read: “She was born in a small town.” That’s the difference between first person and third person. In first person, the narrator is the main character or, if not the main character, a character in the action. On the other hand, when a book is written in the third person, the story does not come from the point of view of a character. Instead, the writing describes things that happen to other people, characters besides the writer or the reader.
First person writing can be identified by the use of the following pronouns:
Avoid Second Person
Second person narration comes from the point of view of the reader. A second person point of view can often be found in the self-help or how-to genres, as well as in choice-based adventure books. “Choose Your Own Adventure® gamebooks began life in 1979 as the first publishing effort of a new division at Bantam Books focused on younger readers,” according to Chooseco LLC. Today, 265 million books have been published in this style. Let’s look at the summary of one of these books for a memorable example of second person narration:
“You are a mountain climber, headed to the Himalayas to find proof that the mysterious yeti really exists. When your best friend Carlos goes missing from base camp, the fate of the expedition is in your hands.” — The Abominable Snowman
We added the bold font above to draw attention to some important pronouns. It’s easy to identify second person narration because it features second person pronouns:
What Is Third Person?
When a piece of writing does not assume the perspective of either the reader or the writer, it’s written in the third person point of view. Third person narratives have three distinct styles, known as third person objective, third person omniscient, and third person limited omniscient. You can recognize all three of these points of view through the use of third person pronouns, which include:
Third Person Objective
Imagine a history essay or a science article, written by a distant and neutral third party. The writer does not attempt to explain the perspective of any character; instead, he or she reports on the events with dispassion. If any opinions made their way into the text, they are properly attributed to the source.
Congressman Smith said, “X, Y, Z.” His constituent disagreed, arguing A.
The author of a third person objective article would never presume to speak for another person’s inner thoughts. Instead, the writer aims to present the facts and events in an orderly way, attributing the actions and dialogue to the proper characters.
This writing style is frequently used in academic writing and professional writing, but it can be used by fiction writers as well. As long as the author does not place thoughts inside the heads of characters, third person objective can work for any style of prose writing. If a writer wanted the reader to understand a character’s emotional state, he or she would have to make reference to body language, facial expression, and dialogue; otherwise, the character’s thoughts would remain opaque. The internal monologue of any character remains off limits from the objective point of view.
Third Person Omniscient
The third person omniscient point of view frequently appears in fiction writing. With this style, an all-knowing narrator has the ability to get inside any character’s head. That’s why an omniscient point of view can be thought of as “head-hopping.” The narrator has knowledge of everything. The characters have nowhere to hide—even their most intimate thoughts may be plumbed. Personal opinions and internal dialogue are all fair game, for any of the characters. In this style of writing, you can expect to see different points of view. As a reader, you can expect to know more about the different characters than the characters know about each other.
Third Person Limited Omniscient
Sometimes a writer engages a third person perspective, but they elevate one character above the rest. The writer may expound on that character’s thoughts, inner dialogue, and perspective. The focal character for the third person limited point of view is often called the viewpoint character. Typically, the viewpoint character is a main character in the story. The writer provides the reader with comprehensive access to this character’s thoughts, but all the other characters must be understood through actions, gestures, and dialogue. The reader must get by with limited information, since they rely on what the viewpoint character knows.
Still, the reader does not go “inside the head” of the viewpoint character completely. Rather than writing from the main character’s perspective in the first person point of view, the writer maintains a third person writing style. Without using first person pronouns, the author explores the thoughts of a single character. The narrator describes she and her, not I and me.
She worried that she would be late, but didn’t bother to tell her sister.
In the example above, the reader understands what the viewpoint character is thinking. On the other hand, the sister cannot read the viewpoint character’s thoughts. Likewise, the reader is not privy to the sister’s thoughts.
The omniscient limited and omniscient POV appear most commonly in creative writing. In general terms, third person objective or first person would be a more common choice for essays, articles, and nonfiction books.
Now that you know the conventions for writing in first person, second person, third person objective, third person limited, and third person limited omniscient, you may want to revisit some of your favorite works of literature. Try to figure out their points of view, and think about why the author picked that perspective.
In your research, you may come across some books that defy categorization. Moby Dick by Herman Melville and Ulysses by James Joyce come to mind. Both books shift between third person and first person narration. Many fiction writers, especially modernist writers, flout convention by using a number of different narrative styles within the same work.
In creative writing, you should feel free to break the rules. Just be sure to understand the rules as you break them!