On Writing

Paws and Prose: The Third Person Narrative

Third Person Pronouns shape a person

Third Person is a great writing tool, but did you know that it is split into sub-narrations? This post discusses these narrations and how to use them.

I consider myself more of a screenwriter than a prose writer, but I do write prose. One of the hardest decisions I think a writer has to make is the type of narrative they write in. A story in first person will display certain characters and events differently to the same story in third person, but even in third person, there are different ways to work with the narrative. There are three main types of third person narrative:

  • limited
  • objective
  • omniscient

Limited Narrative

Limited first person narrative follows one character, the protagonist, and sees the world from his eyes. It may even suggest his feelings at some point. This is seen in Harry Potter anytime Harry is shown to have some thought or feeling, or when he tries to deduce other character’s feelings

Harry scrambled to his feet, so happy he felt as though a large balloon was swelling inside him.

J.K Rowling’s The Philosopher’s Stone; Page 66

Although, the first chapter of this series does start off as objective, perhaps because the protagonist is only a baby.

Third Person Limited offers a less biased view of characters in comparison to first person but is still close enough to one character to let the readers know what that character is feeling.

This is adjustable. In slow scenes where there is not much threat, the character’s thoughts and feelings will probably be illustrated on a regular basis. Faster, action-packed scenes will see the character’s thoughts and feelings cut to match the action.

It also gets rid of the repeated ‘I’ and ‘we’ in first person narratives. These are replaced by names, he or she, they or them. However, this can also confuse things in grouped characters. When there is more than one he or she, make sure to make clear which person the sentence refers to.

  • “The mother hit her daughter because she was drunk.”
  • “The daughter was drunk, so the mother hit her.”
  • The mother, who was drunk, hit her daughter”

Writing using Third Person Limited

To write good Third Person Limited, think of it as first person but with a bit more scoop in terms of observing. In third person limited, you can describe the room and even the character in a way you cannot in first person.

No one says: “my sapphire blue eyes shone as I thought about today’s school trip” when describing themselves, but a writer can say: “her eyes shone like sapphires in the light, excited about today’s school trip.”

Alright, that may be a bit cliché, but it gets the point across.

While this narrative gives you more range in terms of discriptions, some things stay the same. For example, your character’s knowledge would be limited in the same way it would be in first person. The reader’s would know something only when the character knew it.

In the bag, in the vault was a red stone that Harry later finds out is the philosopher stone, an elixir of life, previously owned by the philosopher, Nicolas Flamel.

It doesn’t have the same ring to it, especially as a lot of the plot is surrounding this stone, as well as Harry’s challenges in his new wizarding school.

So limited point of view works well if the writer needs the character to discover knowledge. It works to show emotions in a similar way to first person, but can also be distant enough to show events in an unbiased way.

Objective Narrative

This one is almost in between limited and omniscient. An objective third person follows the main character or characters, but it does not give insight into thoughts or feelings in the same way limited or omniscient can.

I tend not to use this one often, but the benefits of it would be vivid imagery as the author would have to insure the characters act each emotion or imply thoughts in a clever way.

He picked up two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train.

Earnest Hemmingway’s Hills like White Elephants

However, because of it’s observant tendency, the readers are distanced from the characters, and the writing can sometimes, but certainly not always, feel dry.

Many authors have made fantastic use of this narrative, including Raymond Carver.

To do well in this narrative, the author needs to produces as much as show don’t tell as possible. Exposition can only come through dialogue due to the very nature of the narrative.

Omniscient Narrative

This is my favourite third person narrative. It’s seen in the Game of Thrones series. The readers are not tied to one character, but rather multiple. Each characters’ thoughts and feelings are noted. There is not always a clear protagonist and reader’s knowledge may extend the characters.

Robb thought he was a wildling, his sword sworn to Manace Ryder, the King Beyond the wall. It made Bran’s skin prickle to think about it.

George R. R. Martin A Song of Fire and Ice

Game of Thrones is a classic example of this. Readers will know that one character did something that another character does not know about. The drama and engagement for the reader then is to see how this pans out.

This narrative works best with complex stories where multiple points of view would be useful. It could also be used to show what two or more protagonists think about the world and situations they find themselves in.

I personally feel it adds depth to a story as each character is drawn out and developed.

There is very little or no limit to the author’s language or voice. Because the author is not tied to a character, the author can also add information that is not the point of view of any of the characters. Additionally, the author can develop on the scenes or actions in a way that a limited point of view could not offer, making the imagery vivid.

This narrative is challenging as you need to make each character’s perspective unique to their voice. It’s no good all the characters sounding the same, because they won’t be the same. Additionally, the story needs to be engaging through conflict as quiet often the suspense of not knowing is short-lived through omniscient narration.

Did you like this post?

If you like posts on Writing, do check out my posts on Character Building. What topics would you like me to cover in the future? Let me know in the comments


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