The Many Modes of Third-Person Point of View

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Perspective as a Fiction Storytelling Tool

by Marie Valentine, editor

It sometimes seems like there are as many angles to tell a story as there are possibilities in choosing a genre. Let’s narrow it down and explore a classic fiction perspective, third-person point of view (POV).

Third-Per1474212663-800pxson Omniscient
Omniscient point of view is told from an all-knowing, all-seeing viewpoint. Authors use he/she/they pronouns in the writing, but can flip between characters and reveal things going on in their minds. Each character voice must be unique and easily distinguished so the reader is never confused about who he is listening to at the moment. This used to be common, especially in epic novels, such as War and Peace, which explores a theme with several tangled subplots. Notably, viewpoint can change within the same scene.

As an editor and reader of many raw manuscripts, I attest that omniscient is hard to do well. You need to have finely wrought, distinguishable character voices. Too many head-hops are a crime against the reader if the changes in perspective cannot be easily followed.

Third-Person Limited

This point of view shows situations limited to the perspective of one main character. This is the most common viewpoint in fiction. It’s versatile. The other characters are only revealed in the external ways the primary character perceives and interacts with them. Third-person-limited POV provides an unknown element into other character’s viewpoints and motives, so this works well in suspense, crime, and mystery genres.

tikigiki-people-silhouette-001-300pxMultiple Third-Person Limited

Alternating characters can enliven a story. It works well for genres of romance, horror, mysteries, and science fiction, as well as literary fiction. This POV allows you to reveal and conceal key plot points. A detraction of this form is that a story might lose a confused reader. You lose depth or intimacy of understanding who may feel spread thin if there are many characters who are not distinguishable. It’s less personal toward one character so maybe your main perspective is unclear.

A great way to use this multiple third-person storytelling tool is by switching viewpoints in alternating chapters. Or, you can start out with two (or more) viewpoints with seemingly unrelated storylines and eventually have them intertwine.

However you go about it, third person is a popular choice of POV for fiction, and your editor can help make sure you get it right.

Read more in this POV series here:

Choosing Your Book’s Point of View

Whose Head Am I In? Point of View in Writing


marie-valentineMarie has many years of editorial experience in developing fiction point of view. She is now scheduling manuscript reviews for 2017. Request her services through this form.

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