Image: Matthew Loffhagen
The third person perspective, abandoning ‘I’ in favor of ‘him, her, it and them’, is the natural writing style for telling stories about other people.
It’s no surprise then that the vast majority of stories are told in the third person. In this article, I’ll be exploring the advantages third person narration offers authors, as well as some drawbacks and how they can be overcome.
I. The Advantages
Received wisdom states that writing in the first person is the best way to establish a deep and intimate understanding of a single character, whereas the third person offers the author more freedom to tell a story.
While this is only partly true, the freedom to roam is certainly an advantage of the third person point of view.
George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is written from the third person point of view, and takes advantage of the freedom it offers to centre different chapters on different characters. In the third person this is easily done, you simply tell the reader they are now observing someone else, but in the first person it’s far more difficult.
Each character used to tell a first person story to a reader requires their realistic internal voice. The maximum number of voices a reader can comfortably accommodate in this manner is usually around three, with some variation depending on author skill.
Beyond that it gets confusing. Not because of the information the reader is being asked to keep separate, but because the different voices telling the story become either too eclectic to be immersive or too similar to be believable.
The third person point of view can go anywhere at any time or, crucially, stick with a single character just as the story would in first person. The choice isn’t as simple as saying ‘I want to focus on one character, so I should write in the first person’, because the third person may still be the best point of view for that story.
One big consideration is how much you want the reader’s understanding constrained by the character’s personality.
B. The reliable narrator
The unreliable narrator is a famous literary tool most commonly linked with first person narration. In Wuthering Heights the reader experiences events from the point of view of various characters, their obvious biases and limited information shaping how the story is understood.
Books such as Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi have used the unreliable narrator to great effect, and if you’re looking to trick your reader one of the surest ways to do it is only allow them to experience the world through the eyes of an unreliable character.
When used correctly a limiting narrator can enhance the reading experience, but it’s also possible to write yourself into a corner. This is most commonly seen in stories set in alternate worlds, where the first person narrator is forced to provide the reader with exposition that no authentic citizen of such a world would ever consider.
In contrast the third person offers a reliable narrator who can address the reader as a reader without harming their suspension of disbelief. Information can still be withheld, the story is free to twist as much as it wants, but the author will never be hamstrung while trying to impart information a first person narrator wouldn’t know or can’t believably communicate.
C. Show, don’t tell
First person narration is often seen as the only way to get inside a character’s head, but that simply isn’t true.
When approaching a character’s thoughts and feelings, third person is just as able to both show and tell the reader how a character is feeling.
It may seem undeniable that the first person offers a more direct route to emotional expression but often the reverse is true. Consider how the following first and third person pieces of narration give the exact same information:
‘Just an hour ago I felt great.’
‘Just an hour ago Eddie had felt great.’
Then consider how best to continue:
‘Just an hour ago I felt great, now I want nothing more than the half bottle of whisky I keep in my desk drawer.’
‘Just an hour ago Eddie had felt great, but now he was pawing through his desk drawer in search of his secret bottle of whisky.’
The superiority of the third person passage comes down to that holy writer’s motto ‘show, don’t tell’. Demonstrating a fact to your reader rather than simply stating it outright is almost always the more evocative and involving path, and is much easier to do in the third person.
The verb ‘paw’ shows the reader a lot, but it’s not something Eddie himself could say believably.
II. The Disadvantages
The fact is that the third person can do nearly everything that first person narration manages and then a whole lot more. Despite these advantages, however, it’s not the perfect point of view and comes with a lot of unique problems.
A. Unwelcome personality
Third person narration has a heightened risk of making the reader aware of your presence. Add too much personality to an omniscient third person narration and you threaten suspension of disbelief. Forcing the reader to constantly acknowledge the writer’s existence also forces them to continuously think of the story as a fictional work rather than being sucked in.
The solution in many cases is to allow a character to narrate. There’s no reason third person narration needs to come from a nameless, omniscient voice. In The Princess BrideWilliam Goldman uses the framing device of a father editing an old story for his son. The father’s voice frequently cuts into the story, most notably when he hijacks the ending:
They were, admittedly, startled, but there was no reason for worry: they were on the fastest horses in the kingdom, and the lead was already theirs.
… Well, I’m an abridger, so I’m entitled to a few ideas of my own. Did they make it? Was the pirate ship there? You can answer it for yourself, but, for me, I say yes it was. And yes, they got away. And got their strength back and had lots of adventures and more than their share of laughs. But that doesn’t mean I think they had a happy ending either. Because, in my opinion anyway, they squabbled a lot, and Buttercup lost her looks eventually, and one day Fezzik lost a fight…
One area in which the first person narrative shines is in the ability to make events feel immediate. First person narrators can be shocked, surprised or caught off guard but this is harder in the third person.
When writing in the third person, especially in moments with a sense of urgency, it’s important to keep the reader aware of the characters’ experiences and emotions. While emotional experience is more apparent in first person, third person writers must pay it special attention so that when the character feels shocked the reader experiences the same emotion.
Of course, first person’s immediacy advantage often hinges on its free use of the present tense, a tool which is less compatible with the third person.
It’s a sad fact that present tense just doesn’t work well with third person. Narrative distance mixed with a constant immediacy, even for the most mundane task, can be confusing and tiring to read.
Stewart Lee’s The Perfect Fool attempts to tell a third person story in the present tense and the result is an almost unbearable read:
To her right, hints of the solid buttes and roaring pinnacles of Monument Valley peek over the horizon, and roadside Navajo trading posts flash blue jade jewelry from under flapping awnings… If she let herself, she’d weep for ever. Instead, she must plan a new identity, a new life, and find a hiding place for a year or so.
Objective description grinds against a tonally personal experience until the reader asks ‘if these things are happening as we speak then why do I need you to tell me about them?’
Sadly there’s no solution to this conflict. Present tense can be adopted in third person narration, but only really works for brief periods of intense action.
So is the third person for you?
Third person is the most versatile writing style and any claims that it can’t measure up to first person narration in the intimacy stakes are unfounded. First person narration may create intimacy more easily, but for a skilled writer the third person can be just as effective.
What third person can’t do is allow the reader to experience action and urgency as well as first person writing. There are tricks to getting around these limitations but the third person style is, at its most basic level, a form of recounting. Attempting to write as if things are happening ‘now’ will inevitably clash with that style.
For action-heavy stories first person may be preferably but for most other styles and genres, including character-centric stories, third person is the most versatile form of narrative writing available.
For the opposite side of the argument check out our article Does the first person point of view make people care? Or for advice on making action work in a third person story try Here’s how to write a damn good fight scene.
Do you think that third person narration and the present tense can co-exist? Do you think first person gets to the heart of a character quicker? Whether you agree or disagree I’d love to hear from you in the comments.Is The Third Person Point Of View Too Impersonal?Click To Tweet