A Point of View: Writing Third-Person

A series looking at how to write within the different perspectives. This essay deals with third-person point of view.

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© 2016 Epytome / Used With Permission

Follows: Writing Second-Person

Point of view is one of the most important aspects of your story. There are three different types of point of view: first, second and third-person. This essay will cover third-person.

I have bounced around perspective in my years of writing. I started writing in first, then shifted to third. I like what third-person allows you, as the writer, to do with a story.

Third-person point of view allows you to go bigger with the story you’re writing. If you want to write a story about Jim in the middle of an apocalypse, then first-person is probably the one you’d want to go with. But if you wanted to write a story about an apocalypse, even if you’re still following Jim, third-person allows that freedom to delve into the bigger plot. There are issues with this, though. You need to make sure that you haven’t gone so big that you’re forgetting the characters. The readers attach themselves to the characters, not the world you’ve built. So, you need to make sure that your characters are there and aren’t just plot devices you use to move your world along.

You can put in a nice amount of dramatic irony into your third-person story too. Let the reader know more than the characters do. It can be a great tool for engaging your reader in the story. They know that a certain path is going to lead to some negative outcome. They know that the main character is trusting someone who is actively plotting their downfall. You lose the element of surprise when the big reveal happens but you gain having the reader attached to your story to see if the characters find out what they know.

If you do have multiple main characters, or your narrator is following multiple stories, you need to make sure that you don’t lose the story in the process. The more arcs you try and put into your story, the more each of them will get diluted. If we’re writing our Jim apocalypse story, we’re following Jim, we might be following the people who orchestrated the apocalypse, there could be a rival group of survivors that have a story, there could be a resistance group that are trying to overthrow the orchestrators to restore order. All of these things may be happening in your story. The problem with writing them all in is that the reader won’t care. There’s too much going on. You also run the risk of the reader getting confused as to what’s actually going on in one particular section with so much jumping around. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to one arc in third-person, if that’s what you want to do. But if you want to include more then try and limit yourself to a couple. Jim’s story and the orchestrators’ story. The rest of it is still happening and can impact the story you’re telling; the reader just doesn’t know everything about those storylines.

An extremely important part of writing in the third-person point of view is that you need to make sure that you get into your characters’ heads. The trap that many, including myself, fall into is you tell a story and nothing more.

Jim watched as his wife was devoured by the robot zombies. He was unable to move from his hiding spot, the dozen zom-bots atop the hill would stop him if he tried to help her. He cried.

I don’t know how Jim is feeling, and that’s something that I want to know.

Jim’s heart was beating faster than it could bare. His vision blurred as tears developed in the corner of his eyes. He wiped them away as they dropped. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from her. His hands shook. He held onto the handle of his knife, gripping it so tightly that his palm was starting to bleed.

I’m more in Jim’s head. This version isn’t perfect, in reality you could probably get away with making that one section last a good page or so. But it demonstrates my point. Don’t tell a story, show us a story.

All in all, I’m a fan of third-person point of view. I have written a lot in third and I will probably continue to do so. It has its issues but I quite like using dramatic irony and focusing a bit more on multiple stories than I could do in one of the other point of views. I’m also quite a fan of using multiple point of views in one story. Generally, it’s quite a bad thing to do but I like it and it can work. But that’s for another topic.

No matter what point of view you pick, just make sure that your writing is good enough to overcome any of the downsides the perspective has. And make sure that the story your telling should be told in that point of view. Sometimes one perspective is a better choice for your story, but you won’t know until you try. So give them a go and have fun with it. Just don’t write a story about zom-bots, they’re mine.

David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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