What Is Third Person Writing? A Beginner’s Guide

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Julia McCoy

Creator and Co-founder

what is third person writing

You’ve heard of first person and second person, but what is third person writing?

Third-person writing is when the narrator is not a character in the story, but an outside observer looking in. It’s like being a fly on the wall, watching the story unfold without being directly involved.

There are three common ways to write in the third person:

  1. Third person limited
  2. Third person omniscient
  3. Third person objective

Let’s break down each perspective to help you decide how best to tell your story.

Table Of Contents:

What Is Third Person Writing?

If you’ve ever read a novel or short story, chances are you’ve encountered third-person writing. But what exactly is this perspective and how does it differ from first-person point of view and second-person point of view?

Third-person writing is a form of narration where the narrator is not a character in the story, but rather an outside observer.

This narrator uses third-person pronouns like “he,” “she,” “they,” or “it” to refer to the characters, creating a sense of distance between the reader and the story’s events.

Types of Third-Person Point of View

When writing in the third person, you generally have three main points of view to choose from.

  1. Third-Person Limited: The narrator focuses on a single character’s perspective, revealing only their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
  2. Third-Person Omniscient: An all-knowing narrator who can dive into the minds of multiple characters, providing a broad view of the story.
  3. Third-Person Objective: An unbiased narrator who simply describes observable actions and dialogue, without revealing characters’ inner thoughts or motivations.

Infographic from Thesaurus.com

Third-Person Limited Point of View

A lot of authors love using a third-person limited perspective. It gives an in-depth look at one character’s journey but keeps the narrator slightly detached.

Focusing on a Single Character’s Perspective

The third-person limited perspective focuses on just one character. By seeing everything through this person’s eyes, readers can really understand their emotions and experiences closely, making it easier for them to connect with the story.

The Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling often show events through Harry’s eyes, allowing readers to connect with him on a deeper level as he tackles various magical challenges.

Revealing Character’s Thoughts and Feelings

The power of third-person limited lies in its ability to share a character’s internal dialogue. This perspective allows writers to develop complex protagonists who resonate emotionally with the audience.

Consider this example from George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones:

“Bran thought about it. ‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’ his father told him.”

Here, we see Bran questioning something important and his father’s reply offers insight into what he’s thinking. This moment also touches on the main themes of the story.

Limitations of Third-Person Limited

Using third-person limited narrative allows a closer look at one character’s thoughts and feelings. However, because we’re confined to just their knowledge, it adds mystery but might also leave some gaps for the reader.

Additionally, if the protagonist is an unreliable narrator, readers may be misled or left to question the truth of the story’s events.

Third-Person Omniscient Point of View

While third-person limited zeroes in on a single character, third-person omniscient broadens the view to include everything happening around all characters.

All-Knowing Narrator

A third-person omniscient narrator has an all-knowing grasp on every part of the story — events, characters, you name it. They can move through different times and places effortlessly to give readers a complete picture.

A classic example of third-person omniscient narration can be found in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Right from the start, this sentence shows off the omniscient narrator’s ability to make big claims about families. It sets a strong foundation for diving into topics like love, social norms, and our shared humanity.

Revealing Multiple Characters’ Thoughts

A key benefit of using a third-person omniscient perspective is that it lets authors peek into various characters’ minds. This approach helps build a complex narrative by revealing motivations, secrets, and inner struggles of each character involved in the story.

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind uses an omniscient narrator who jumps into different perspectives like those of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler.

By doing so, it gives readers a full view of important themes and tensions in their lives.

Limitations of Third-Person Omniscient

While third-person omniscient offers a broad, all-encompassing view of the story, it can also create distance between the reader and the characters. With so many perspectives to juggle, readers may find it harder to form deep emotional connections with individual characters.

But when done right, third-person omniscient can create a deep and engaging story that looks at the different sides of a character.

Third-Person Objective Point of View

Third-person objective pushes writers to master balancing pure description with no internal thoughts or feelings inc.

Unbiased Narrator

In the third-person objective, the narrator acts as an impartial, unbiased observer of the story’s events. This narrator does not have access to the characters’ thoughts, feelings, or motivations and must rely solely on observable actions and dialogue to convey the narrative.

You can find this perspective in Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Hills Like White Elephants.”

“The girl looked at the bead curtain. ‘They’ve painted something on it,’ she said. ‘What does it say?’‘Anis del Toro. It’s a drink.’”

Here, the narrator simply reports the characters’ actions and dialogue, leaving readers to infer their thoughts and feelings based on these external cues.

Describing Only Observable Actions

The third-person objective perspective limits the narrator to only describe visible and audible events. To convey characters’ inner worlds, one must rely on how they act, look, or speak.

For example, instead of writing, “She felt a wave of sadness wash over her,” a third-person objective narrator might say, “Her shoulders slumped, and she turned away, blinking back tears.”

Limitations of Third-Person Objective

Writing in third-person objective can be challenging as it requires authors to convey complex emotions and relationships without the benefit of internal monologue or narratorial insight. This point of view can also create a sense of distance between the reader and the characters, as we are not privy to their inner worlds.

However, when used effectively, third-person objective can create a sense of realism and immediacy, drawing readers into the story’s events as if they were unfolding in real time.

Examples of Third-Person Writing in Literature

Many great pieces of literature use third-person writing effectively, from old-time favorites to today’s popular short tales.

Famous Novels Written in the Third Person

Third-person narration is a staple in many beloved classic novels. Think about works such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee or J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic saga, “The Lord of the Rings.”

Here are some more examples:

  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (third-person limited)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (third-person limited)
  • 1984 by George Orwell (third-person limited)
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (third-person omniscient)
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (third-person omniscient)

From Jane Austen’s detailed look into her characters’ lives to the grand family sagas crafted by Dostoevsky and García Márquez, these books demonstrate how effective third-person storytelling can be in different contexts.

Short Stories Showcasing Third-Person Narration

You’ll frequently find third-person narration in short stories, creating powerful narratives packed with diverse themes and experiences. Some well-known examples illustrate this perfectly.

  • “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (third-person objective)
  • “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver (third-person limited)
  • “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin (third-person omniscient)
  • “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway (third-person objective)

These stories highlight how third-person narration can shift from the eerie distance in Jackson’s “The Lottery” to the close-up examination of characters in Carver’s “Cathedral.”

Tips for Writing in the Third Person

Now that we’ve covered the different types of third-person writing and how to use them, let’s get into some practical tips for creating engaging stories from this point of view.

Develop Strong Character Arcs

When writing in either third-person limited or omniscient perspectives, building compelling character arcs keeps readers hooked. You’ll need to reveal what drives your characters, the obstacles they face, and how they change over time.

To bring your characters to life, try these helpful tips:

  • Give your characters clear goals and obstacles to overcome
  • Reveal their backstories and inner worlds through action, dialogue, and internal monologue (if using third-person limited or omniscient)
  • Show how their experiences and relationships shape their development over time

Creating characters with rich backstories and growth throughout your story will keep readers hooked from start to finish.

Maintain a Consistent Point of View

Consistency is key when employing third-person narration. Avoid unintentionally slipping into first or second-person perspective as this can jar readers out of the story.

If you’re writing in third-person limited, be sure to stay within your focal character’s perspective throughout the scene or chapter.

If you’re using third-person omniscient, establish clear boundaries for when and how you’ll shift between characters’ viewpoints.

Balance Narration and Dialogue

In third-person writing, it’s important to strike a good balance between narration and dialogue. Overloading the story with too much background can slow things down and bore readers.

On the flip side, not enough detail might leave characters feeling one-dimensional.

Mixing narration with characters’ thoughts, actions, and surroundings can really bring your story to life. Use meaningful dialogue that moves the plot forward. Try using action beats or internal monologues instead of constant dialogue tags to break up long conversations.

By honing these skills and balancing them just right in your narrative, you can craft an engaging read that grabs attention and holds it all the way through.

Conclusion

So, what is third person writing? It’s a powerful tool in your writing arsenal, one that can help you create a more engaging and immersive story. By understanding the different types of third-person point of view and when to use them, you can craft a narrative that pulls readers in and keeps them hooked until the very last page.

Remember, whether you choose third person limited, omniscient, or objective, the key is to be consistent and use it to your advantage. Third person writing can give you the flexibility to explore multiple characters’ perspectives, create a sense of objectivity, or focus on one character’s inner world.

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