This post helps less experienced authors and editors understand how a third-person narrative viewpoint works in fiction, and the differences between objective and limited.
What is narrative point of view?
Point of view (POV) describes whose head we’re in when we read a book ... from whose perspective we discover what’s going on – and the smells, sounds, sights and emotions involved.
Third-person limited POV
Along with third-person objective, this viewpoint is the one that most writers find easiest to master at the beginning of their journey. Furthermore, readers are used to encountering it in contemporary fiction. The pronouns of choice are ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘it’ and ‘they’.
Third-person limited is so called because it’s a deeper viewpoint that limits readers to a single character’s experience – what they see, hear, feel and think. Readers get to sit in their skin and that provides an immersive experience. It’s as if we’re them.
Example: Intimacy and getting under the character’s skin
Here are some examples from Mick Herron, Harry Brett and Louise Penny that demonstrate an intimate third-person limited narrative:
The voices are distinctive. It’s not just dialogue that conveys how the viewpoint characters speak and think; it’s the narrative too.
However, it’s called third-person limited for a reason. Strictly speaking, what that character can’t see or know shouldn’t be reported. In the above examples, we’re left with questions – of destination in the first, of the origin of a smell in the second, and of the nature of the journey – because we don’t know any more than the viewpoint characters.
Third-person limited is effective because an author doesn’t want to give everything away at once. The limitations over what can be known, and therefore divulged, allow the writer to control the unveiling of information via the viewpoint character.
I recommend you stick to a single character’s POV per chapter or section to avoid confusion or interruption. Mittelmark and Newman (p. 159) offer this wisdom:
Sometimes an author slips into a different point of view for the space of a single paragraph, or even a sentence. This is especially jarring when the remaining novel is given from the point of view of a single character, whom we have come to regard as our second self. It gives the feeling of a fleeting and unexplained moment of telepathy, an uncomfortable intrusion of somebody else’s thoughts. When the protagonist’s point of view resumes, we move forward into the narrative warily, ready at any moment for a fresh assault on our minds.
That’s worth heeding. It means the reader’s trust has been lost, that they’ve been pulled out of the story rather than drawn further into it.
Trickier still is narrative ping pong, where within one section we bounce back and forth between the POVs of Character X and Character Y.
Here’s a made-up example that demonstrates how things can go wrong.
Jan ran down the road, her lungs screaming for air. She snatched a glance over her shoulder, hoping to Christ Melody was behind.
‘You okay, Jan?’ said Melody. She’d barely got the words out – her throat was on fire. All she wanted to do was stop, breathe, devour that bottle of water in her backpack bouncing hard against her spine.
‘We’re here,’ Jan said. Thank God. Tears of relief stung her eyes. She’d been worried Mel wouldn’t keep up. Guilt niggled. Would she have gone back for her? She wasn’t sure.
The problem with this kind of setup is that it ‘alienates the reader from both perspectives. She is unable to identify with either because there’s no telling when it will be yanked away’ (Mittelmark and Newman, p. 161).
In other words, the reader has been prevented from immersing themselves in the character’s version of the story. When you stay in the head of one character per chapter or section, you make your writing life and your reader’s journey easier.
Third-person objective POV
If third-person limited provides intimacy – allowing us to explore a character’s emotions and hear their voice – third-person objective offers a more neutral flexibility when we need some distance to look around and beyond objectively.
Like its limited sister, writers find this easiest to master and readers are used to encountering it. The pronouns too are ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘it’ and ‘they’.
It’s a useful viewpoint for the author who wants to convey descriptive information – height, weight, facial expression, environment. If you’re using this POV, practice your observation skills so that you understand how people move from place to place, what they wear, where they live, how they gesture, so that you can show what might be going on in their heads through what can be observed.
The same can be said of the objects in your novel. How does light play on water or a brick building at various times of the day? What sounds might be audible in your environment? How do the seasons affect the flora and fauna?
Third-person objective viewpoints are powerful because they force a writer to show rather than tell what’s being seen. That’s because we don’t have access to the internal thoughts of a character.
Example: A more distant and descriptive narrative
Here’s an example from David Baldacci’s The Fix (p. 3) that demonstrates third-person narration as observable description.
Example: Shown-not-told in action
Here are some excerpts from Stephen King’s The Stand that demonstrate a close attention to the way things and people behave when observed.
Objectivity allows the writer to explore in detail what would be unnatural for a character to report directly. Remember, we’re not accessing thoughts, opinions and emotions with an objective POV, just the stuff that any onlooker could see, hear or smell.
Objective is the key word here. Third-person objective viewpoints should focus on what could be known by a narrator witnessing that scene. When information is reported that moves beyond a floating camera that’s tracking the immediate environs and into a space where the narrator knows more than could possibly be witnessed by the character or the onlooker, omniscience is in play (more on that below).
In some genres – crime fiction for example – this can be useful because the reader will be forced to reach their own conclusions as to the reasons for, or motivations behind, a particular event or behaviour. In other words, it’s mysterious.
However, it can be distancing if overused and as a result contemporary commercial fiction writers rarely write entire novels from an objective POV because it’s reportage and we can’t get into the characters’ heads. It’s harder to understand what motivates them unless they express it through dialogue. A blend of limited and objective is a more likely choice.
Use third-person objective POV to create suspense, to make your reader wonder, and ask their own questions, and to provide scene-setting information, but blend with a limited viewpoint for deeper emotional engagement.
In the first paragraph of the example below, Baldacci (The Fix, p. 3) uses third-person objective to give us background facts. In the second, he switches to limited to explain the character’s feelings. It’s a lovely fusion:
Cited sources and related reading
Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with crime, mystery, suspense and thriller writers.
She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), a member of ACES, a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and co-hosts The Editing Podcast.
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