If we write our story using first or second person point of view (POV), we know what POV we’ve written. First person uses I/we pronouns in the narrative as the character shares their story, and second person uses you pronouns in the narrative.
But if we write in third person—using he/she/they pronouns in the narrative—the POV situation gets a ton trickier. Third-person POV ranges over a spectrum from the most distant and objective to the deepest and most subjective perspectives, and the lines between those definitions are often gray and wavy.
So if we write in 3rd person, how can we tell where our story falls on the POV spectrum…and avoid problems? Is our writing really as deep or as wide as we want for readers?
The Trouble with Third-Person POV
If we write in 1st or 2nd person POV, the emotions, thoughts, and perceptions center on the character telling the story. Readers don’t learn anything beyond that character’s experience.
How well do we really know our story's POV? Third-person POV is more complex than we think Click To TweetIn contrast, with 3rd-person POV, the emotions, thoughts, and perceptions shared with the reader depend on the type of 3rd-person POV used. And as all these types use the same pronouns, it can be hard to tell which style applies to our writing—or which style applies to an example held up to “prove” that something is or isn’t “allowed.”
Yet it’s important to understand these differences as much as possible because techniques that are acceptable in styles at one end of the range are less acceptable at the other end of the range. If we don’t know the different styles, we can confuse readers or cause “speed bumps” in their reading by jumping around the spectrum willy-nilly.
The Spectrum of Third-Person POV
Think of a range along a line, and what changes from one end of the line to the other is how close—and how limited—the reader’s “camera” into the story is to the main character. Within a story or scene, it’s possible to shift the writing along this line in certain ways, but it’s important to not confuse the reader, as that will take them out of the story.
What are the different styles of third-person point of view? And how can knowing help our writing? Click To TweetAt one end, we’re meant to feel very near to the characters—experiencing their story from the inside, as if we are them. At the other end, we’re meant to feel removed enough to see a bigger picture, like an audience member watching a story play out on the stage of the story’s pages.
Objectively speaking, one style is not “better” than another because they all have their pros and cons. They’re all flexible and limited in various ways. The “best” POV depends on the needs of our story and our writing style.
Going from near to far, we can define the main points on the spectrum line:
Deep 3rd Person:
Deep 3rd-person POV stories are written at the same depth as well-done 1st person POV, just with different pronouns. Readers experience the story as the POV character.
Because the “camera” is deep inside the character’s head, hearing their thoughts and feeling their emotions, the writing cannot share perceptions that the POV character isn’t aware of. It is 100% subjective, focused from the inside of the POV character.
Recent trends have led many readers and writers to judge storytelling quality by a reader’s emotional connection to the story and characters. As a result, this deep POV style has become the new default for many genres because its depth provides a shortcut to a sense of immediacy between readers and the story’s emotions and reactions.
However, for as “trendy” as this style is, it’s not appropriate for every genre or story. (So don’t let feedback tell you that your 3rd-person POV is “wrong” for including, say, filtering words if you don’t want to write in this style.)
In this style, we…:
- Avoid all filtering words (saw, heard, thought, knew, wondered, etc.).
- Use showing most of the time to let the reader experience the story along with the POV character.
- Include the POV character’s visceral reactions to make the reader feel as though they’re sharing the character’s body.
- Use the character’s voice for all sentences, and share only their perceptions. (Would the POV character notice the chair’s fabric or know the name of that flower? Would they think about xyz at this point in time? If not, don’t include it.)
- Italicize the character’s internal thoughts only when changing to I/me and present tense:
I hate this. She kicked the rock across the driveway. If only Roger hadn’t been such an idiot.
That last sentence could be her direct thoughts but wouldn’t need to be italicized because the tense and POV don’t change. In deep POV, most sentences would be near-direct thoughts (using their voice), so italics aren’t appropriate unless needed.
- Thought tags such as “he thought” or “she wondered” should not be used for internal thoughts. They add distance, which undermines the goal of this style.
Limited 3rd Person:
Sometimes called “close,” “subjective,” or even just “normal” 3rd person, this style is still deep enough that the writing can’t share perceptions the POV character isn’t aware of. “Limited” means that the writing is limited to this one POV character’s experience for this scene.
However, how close—and even how subjective—the writing is can vary, depending on the writing style and the needs of the scene. This style covers the gamut of the middle of the spectrum, so the “rules” about what writers can get away with are less strict, as the category applies to everything that’s not at either end of the range.
Essentially, as long as the story is told through one character’s perspective at a time (like within a scene)—yet doesn’t meet the strict rules of deep 3rd-person POV—it falls into this category. While omniscient 3rd-person POV is a wide-angle view of the story, limited 3rd-person POV is a narrower view, focused on a single character at a time (generally only changing perspective at a scene or chapter break).
At the same time, while a deep 3rd-person POV must stay in the character’s head all the time (the same way a 1st-person POV must), a limited 3rd-person POV can pull back as much or as little as desired. Some stories (or readers or authors) might feel claustrophobic or uncomfortable in deep POV for every paragraph of every scene, or some character’s voices or experiences might not lend themselves to a deep POV telling of their story.
For a few examples of the variations possible:
- A character’s internal thoughts might be italicized even when still in 3rd person and past tense, or they might be tagged with “he thought,” similar to dialogue.
- Some sentences (such as for action or descriptive narrative) might not be strictly in the character’s voice.
- While uncommon, the voice of the story could even be objective and without bias, even though limited to one character’s perspective.
- More telling might be thrown in to provide context to the reader’s understanding.
- Some filtering words might add distance, etc.
Omniscient 3rd Person:
As implied by the name, in omniscient 3rd-person POV, the story is shared with readers by an “all-knowing” voice. Except within certain genres, this POV is less popular than it was during the time of the “classics,” but it can still be the right choice for some stories or writing styles.
For example, omniscient can work well for sagas or large epic stories, where the overall story isn’t defined by any one character’s experience. Omniscient is also appropriate with stories that need to share information about multiple characters that no one character knows about the others.
Omniscient 3rd-person POV includes many variations as well.
- Narrative Voice:
Some omniscient stories are told by a non-character narrator (such as Lemmony Snicket from A Series of Unfortunate Events) who give their perspective on events. Others use no narrator persona and just offer a glass window into everyone’s lives.
- Character Focus:
Some omniscient stories follow wherever the overarching story leads, no matter what characters are involved. Others follow a few select characters. And still others follow one main character most of the time. However, all can share perceptions, perspectives, and opinions beyond a single character’s knowledge.
Some omniscient stories show clear bias towards the main character, ensuring readers stay on their side. Others are more objective and share character insights without preference.
- Emotional Insights:
Some omniscient stories share emotions and thoughts of characters, adding to readers’ emotional experience throughout the story. Others stay distant to the characters, just reporting from the outside.
- Break the Fourth Wall:
Some omniscient stories include information from elsewhere in the story timeline or address the reader with “Dear Reader” or “You might be wondering why…” style of lines. Others avoid calling attention to the nature of the story itself.
Given that list of variations, the benefits of omniscient POV are many. Our narrator could have a strong, engaging or compelling voice that helps tie a wide-ranging story together or adds humorous asides to break up dense information. Or to increase reader dread or amusement, we could use dramatic irony and make readers aware of information the main characters don’t know.
That said, typically, omniscient stories don’t get close enough to show deep emotions, thoughts, or visceral reaction of any character. If subjective thoughts, emotions, or visceral reactions are included, the sentence would use filter words, thought tags, or add distance in some way. That distance helps readers know whether the thoughts or whatever are coming directly from the character or if the insights are just the narrator’s opinion of what the character is experiencing.
In other words, even though readers can learn of insights of characters’ internal lives, the reader’s “camera” is usually outside of any character. Emotions and the like are more told to readers rather than having them experience the character’s perspective from the inside.
What POV Is Our Story?
In addition to all those markers and differences listed above, there are a couple of additional ways to identify what POV our story is currently. Once we know that, we can work toward making our story’s POV the best it can be, potentially changing the aspects forcing it into a different POV than what we want for it.
Other aspects to analyze to determine our story’s POV:
- Does the story include character thoughts? If so, are they tagged with “he/she thought”? If they’re not tagged, the story is more likely to be deep (but could be limited). What voice are the character’s non-quoted thoughts in? If non-quoted thoughts are not in the character’s voice, the story is more likely to be omniscient (but could be limited).
- What perspective are settings and descriptions filtered through? If the setting is described fairly objectively, the story is more likely to be omniscient. Otherwise, they should be filtered through the POV character’s perspective.
- Does our story include visceral reactions of the scene’s main character? If so, the story is more likely to be limited or deep.
- What voice or perspective is used for straight narrative or action sentences? If from the POV character, the story is more likely to be deep rather than limited.
- How much of our story is told rather than shown? Long passages of telling are more likely to be omniscient.
- Does our story include emotion words, such as labeling the emotions of the characters rather than just showing their emotions? If yes, the story is more likely to be limited or omniscient.
- Does our story share the character’s motivation for their actions? If not or if not phrased as how the character would think about it, the story is more likely to be omniscient.
Note that all of these markers are labeled as “more likely” rather than “are definitely.” That’s because while we might simply be writing our chosen POV incorrectly, the spectrum isn’t neatly divided into separate POV choices. Rather, they tend to smear together with unclear lines between them. *smile*
The Spectrum Is (Somewhat) Flexible
As mentioned above, the boundaries between the different 3rd-person POV styles are somewhat permeable:
- Some stories might open with a paragraph or two of omniscient to set the scene and then get closer to a single character in a limited (or potentially even deep) 3rd-person POV for the rest of the scene, similar to the cinematic style of movies.
- Similarly, some stories pull back from a deeper or closer POV to change POV characters, such as ending a scene with a shallower or omniscient paragraph or sentence to set up the switch.
- Some might go from a subjective limited POV to add in an objective sentence to increase reader tension: If he only realized what was to happen next, he might have made a different choice.
When a story makes a slide from deep to shallower (or vice versa) in a way that improves the reader’s experience, there’s nothing wrong with this technique. However, too many of these shifts in depth—especially from deeper to shallower—are the result of authors who don’t know how to share information any other way, or they simply don’t think about what would be best for the reader.
How to Avoid Problems with Our Story’s POV
There are a few things we can do to prevent problems with the POV spectrum:
Begin As We Mean to Go On:
We should signal to readers what our story’s POV is within the first few paragraphs or the opening page:
- If our story is going to be omniscient with a narrator, our narrative voice should start out strong.
- If we’re going to use deep 3rd-person POV, we should establish our character’s perspective and voice right away.
- If we’re going to use the cinematic technique of zooming closer after an overview, we shouldn’t wait too long before closing in.
- Etc., etc.
Last month, we discussed the difference between literary past tense and normal past tense. In normal past tense, the story’s events have already happened so an omniscient or objective sentence, such as the “If he only realized…” example above, can hint at future events.
How can we avoid problems with third-person point of view? Click To TweetHowever, as I mentioned in the comments of that post (here and here), readers will be jarred if insights like that aren’t included early on to let readers know that the story’s future is fixed. Literary past tense is the default assumption of readers, so failing to establish the use of normal past tense right away can cause problems.
The same caution applies with POV. If many pages or scenes or chapters make readers think our story is one POV and we suddenly change to another, readers will feel a “speed bump” and potentially be thrown out of the story.
For example, if our story uses more than one POV, we should reveal that as soon as possible, such as our prologue or first scene being in one POV and the next scene being in another POV. Showing the variations within the first few scenes is preferred, and the scene/chapter break allows for that POV change.
Signal POV Flexibility
Not surprisingly, every guideline comes with exceptions. But we can still signal those exceptions.
For example, in Stone-Cold Heart, I broke the “begin as you mean to go on” guideline, as one POV change didn’t occur until 2/3rds of the way through the story. My editors and I debated how best to handle the change (or whether it was even needed). In the end, I signaled the change with a dateline at the top of the chapter (the rest of the chapters didn’t have one) to let readers know that this was different.
Similarly, for whatever flexibility we want to take advantage of along the POV spectrum, we just want to make sure our use is clear to readers, especially if it’s a stretch for our chosen POV. Unexpected changes can already be jarring, and we don’t want to add confusion to the problem.
Avoid the Cons of Other POVs
Each option for 3rd-person POV has pros and cons. There’s no point in shifting along the spectrum if we just get stuck with the cons and problems of the other POV. If we’re going to take advantage of the flexibility of the POV spectrum, we want to improve our story for readers.
For example, if our story is in limited or deep POV, we need to be careful of sharing information from other characters unless we’ve signaled a POV change. Just throwing in insights from other characters without a POV change is headhopping (and lazy writing).
If most of our story is in deep 3rd-person POV, we have the pros of strong emotional connections with readers. If we decide to add an objective or omniscient sentence—say, to include context our POV character doesn’t know—we’d better be extra sure that the benefit of that information for readers (such as with stronger dread) outweighs the loss of the deep reader connection to the character due to the increased distance.
In many cases, the limitations of each option are also connected to its strengths, especially if we know how to take advantage:
- Deep 3rd person POV doesn’t allow for any out-of-POV insights, but the unknown can increase reader curiosity or suspense, and the immersive character insights lead to strong emotional connections for readers.
- Limited 3rd person is often the easiest POV to accidentally headhop with, but it’s also less restrictive than deep POV and more emotional than omniscient.
- Omniscient doesn’t give readers an inside “you are there” perspective, but it gives them a broader view of complex stories, as there’s no limit on what readers can be told, from backstory or historical context to social philosophy or worldbuilding.
As with all aspects of writing, we should make our choices deliberately. In other words, if we’re suddenly adding distance between the reader and the story or characters, we should have a good reason.
Different POVs Equals Different Issues
Some of the reason for the debate over how bad it is to break certain writing “rules” is because there’s so much variation in 3rd-person POV. A rule-breaking that’s a big deal at one end of the spectrum might be non-existent at the other end, so we need to know how the rules apply to our POV choice.
For example, headhopping isn’t much of an issue in omniscient POV because the narrative can freely share information from different characters. The main thing omniscient authors need to watch out for is going too deep and using character’s voices—without tags—to share information with readers.
In a limited POV, headhopping is a bigger risk, as the POV is limited to one perspective. Some readers might not notice insights from other characters, however.
In deep 3rd-person POV, headhopping is a major no-no. Deep 3rd-person POV is all from inside a character’s head, so switching to inside another character’s head would be jarring.
Headhopping in deep 3rd-person POV is just as disorienting as headhopping in 1st-person POV:
I slammed my locker and glared at girl who’d knocked into my backpack. Next time, I’d elbow her back.
I hadn’t meant to run into the girl’s backpack, but the jocks had taken up the whole hallway. With a shrug, I walked away.
We never (or rarely) see mistakes like this in 1st-person POV because authors understand just how bad it would be. The same level of awkwardness applies to deep 3rd person POV.
Examples of Other Limitations to Understand
Here are a few other examples of issues to watch for:
- To include an unreliable narrator, our story’s POV needs to be biased and subjective. Deep and limited 3rd-person POVs can use unreliable narrators, but it would be difficult to make one work in omniscient—when the storyteller is “all-knowing”—unless the narrator is a clear non-character voice telling the tale, complete with all their opinions and perspectives.
- The choice to use omniscient doesn’t mean that we should share every thought and feeling from every character in every scene. That would result in a confusing and ridiculously slow-paced story. Instead, omniscient should delve into just a few characters (1-3) per scene and share only what adds to the reader’s understanding and experience of the story.
- Consider how an information dump is to be avoided in limited or deep 3rd-person POV, but how omniscient stories often go off on tangents about characters’ history, a philosophical aspect of the story world’s society, etc. In many of those cases, the omniscient narrator’s voice is able to make the information compelling to readers. But in limited and especially in deep 3rd-person POVs, the info dump feels like authorial intrusion, as the character wouldn’t necessarily be thinking of those details.
No POV is necessarily “easier” for new writers than others, as each choice has limitations and issues to watch out for and each one is harder than we think to do well. So we shouldn’t pick a POV based on what we think will take the least knowledge or be the best match for how new to writing we are.
Instead, to make our choice, it would be better to think about the style of our story (is it a big complex family saga? or is it a character-focused emotional journey like a romance?). We might think about which options fit better with our voice. Or we might think about what benefits we want to take advantage of that will only work with certain POV choices.
Whatever choice we make, we should learn everything we can about that specific POV. Tips for limited 3rd-person won’t necessarily help us with deep 3rd-person POV or vice versa. We should understand the pros and cons, benefits and limitations, of our chosen option so we can make our story the best it can possibly be. *smile*
How much did you know about the differences between the various 3rd-person POV options? Does this help explain the differences (and pros and cons)? Can you think of other pros and cons or benefits and issues? Had you thought about how broad the spectrum of 3rd-person POV is and why it might be good to understand the range of choices? Do you have any other POV insights to share?Pin It