How to Write in the Third Person Point of View
What Does Third Person Subjective Mean?
Most authors today write their novels in Third Person Subjective. What does that mean, exactly?
- First Person: When you write from this perspective, you pick a character and write the story as if you were that character ("I did this", "We did that").
- Third Person Subjective: When you write from this perspective, you take a step back and refer to your characters as "he" and "she". However, you still write the story as if you were one (or more) of the characters.
Think of it like this: When you use Third Person Subjective, you become an actor. Before you start each scene, you can choose who you're going to play in that scene. Picture the scene through that character's eyes. Really imagine yourself as that person. Now write the scene from their perspective, including their innermost thoughts and reactions. Describe what that person sees, smells, tastes as if you were experiencing it yourself.
That's Third Person Subjective. It's not the same as the old-style Third Person (called "The Omniscient Narrator") where the narrator wasn't any of the characters in the novel. Instead, the author was a God-like observer who saw everything but didn't get involved. The Omniscient Narrator is too impersonal for modern readers, who like to get immersed in the characters' lives.
The Limits of First Person
But wait a minute, you say—why bother with Third Person when First Person is so much easier to do?
Because there's one big snag to First Person. If you’re writing in First Person, you can’t describe events that happen when your character is not there. Instead, you have to invent other ways to relate those events, such as getting other characters to report on them, or have your hero/heroine read a letter or newspaper about them. That takes ingenuity and if not done well, it can get very clunky indeed!
Your First Person character can't see inside the heads of the other characters, either. That means you can’t report on other characters’ thoughts or motivations—all you can do is interpret them based on what your character sees (“I could tell by his eyes that he didn’t believe me” rather than “he thought I was lying”).
There is one way around this problem: you can use a style which clearly sets your character up as a narrator, constantly making asides to the reader—saying things like, “Unknown to me, while I was cheerfully planning my holiday, Sadie was planning to ruin it”. However, it's still limiting, because it isn't believable to recreate unseen scenes in vivid detail—and that can affect the overall color and excitement of your story.
Why Third Person Subjective Is Useful
With Third Person Subjective, you can still get inside the head of your main character, just like First Person, just as thoroughly as if you were writing “I”. But you have the great advantage that you can choose another one or two characters and write some scenes in their POV (point of view) instead. That allows you to cover events the main character doesn't witness.
Also, Third Person Subjective provides a choice of characters for your readers to identify with. Some readers may want to be the heroine, whereas others may identify better with the hero. By including scenes or chapters “inside” both heads, you appeal to both sets of readers instead of just one.
Third Person Subjective allows you to reveal secrets the main character doesn't know, but other characters do. This can be very useful to create suspense as the reader waits on tenterhooks for the hero to discover the truth!
Who's Telling the Story?
The crucial thing when using Third Person Subjective is that the reader must always know who's telling the story. That's easier if you keep the number of different POV's to a minimum. Your hero and heroine are obvious choices, plus you may want to include the villain, or another key character—but any more than three or four, and the reader's going to lose track of who's who! That's why, if you are going to use Third Person Subjective, you should never be tempted to slip back into Third Person Omniscient at any time—because it's adding another POV.
It's important to really get into the heads of your characters when writing in Third Party Subjective. Think of it like this: YOU are not writing your novel any more. Your characters are! Become an actor: before you start each scene, decide who you're going to "be" in that scene. Picture the scene through that character's eyes. Really imagine yourself as that person. Now write the scene from their perspective, including their innermost thoughts and reactions. Describe what he sees, smells, tastes.
"Rules" for Writing in Third Person Subjective
When you start out with Third Party Subjective, it's a good idea to set yourself a rule: Only change POV when you start a new scene. Again, the goal is to avoid confusing your reader. For instance, say you're writing a scene between two lovers. You're telling the story from the woman's POV and you suddenly feel you need to let the reader know what he is thinking—so you switch into his POV. Oh, but now you need to show her feelings—so you switch again, and so on. This is called head-hopping and to the reader, it's rather like watching a tennis match. It's hard to keep your eye on the ball!
By barring yourself from changing POV's mid-scene, you're going to force yourself to ask two things: "Did I choose the right person to tell this scene?" and "How can I convey the other person's reactions without switching?" By asking these questions, you'll learn how to choose the right POV more reliably, and you'll also discover ways to hint at a character's feelings by their movements or dialogue.
Once you've gained confidence this way, you can relax your guard and allow yourself to change POV once—but only once, please!—in each scene. Of course you'll find authors who break that rule and get away with it; however if you're tempted to switch more often, you need to be sure you've examined your reasons for doing so, and that it's definitely the best way (not just the laziest way) to achieve your goal.
The ability to switch POV can make you lazy: it's very easy to start hopping into different heads all over the place, to let the reader know something important. Don't!
Frequent POV switching is bad writing. You know your characters well, so you have no trouble working out whose head you're in: but your readers will get totally confused if you hop around too much. And if you take the time to look, you will often find a better way of conveying that information than introducing yet another POV.
More Point of View Tips
Each time you switch POV, make sure the reader knows by leaving an extra line space between your paragraphs, then using the new POV character's name in the first line. To make it more obvious, combine that with a thought which obviously belongs to that character. For instance:
"Paul picked up the vase. It looked like something from a junk shop—surely she didn't believe it was valuable?"
When you're thinking about yourself, do you ever think of yourself by name? No, and therefore neither should your characters. Using their name will spoil the reader's illusion that they're inside the character's head. So once you've established who's POV you're in, don't use his name while you're "in" that character's head (unless you absolutely have to, to avoid confusion about who's doing what in a scene). Your POV character is just "he" or "she" as much as possible. Don't be anxious about over-using "he" and "she"—it's perfectly fine to start sentences with them, provided you don't start every single sentence that way.
Used well, Third Person Subjective can really enrich your novel, imbuing it with all the thoughts and emotions of your characters and making them very real to your reader. It takes practice, but it is worth it!