The measure of a great artist is not how well they’ve mastered their craft, but how well they use the tools at their disposal. Not everyone can be a Mozart, Shakespeare, or Michelangelo, but with enough passion and originality, great art is possible.
Still, every craft has a set of skills which must be understood. For writers, Point of View (POV) is a major component of the skill set and probably the hardest to comprehend. As is often the case when trying to understand man-made systems, the problem is largely one of terminology.
Third-Person POV causes the most confusion, not just because it has the most subcategories, but because those subcategories go by many different names. Depending on who you speak with, or which website you read, you’ll find a great mixing and matching of terms, many of which contradict each other in their definitions.
The web, in particular, abounds with misinformation. Wikipedia, writers’ forums, blogs, and even the websites of a few academic institutions contain erroneous and ambiguous explanations. Moreover, when speaking and writing, people fail to use complete terms and will simply refer to a text as being written in Third-Person Limited (without clarifying the specific mode). Likewise, they will speak of an Omniscient narrator, without stating the kind of omniscience.
Why the fuss? Because unless you can organize the terms properly in your head, you won’t be able to recognize and imitate them in your own writing. Terminology is of vast importance. Our thoughts are words. If we can’t organize words, we can’t organize thoughts.
Below is a list of terms and definitions compiled after comparing the texts of almost a dozen authoritative (i.e. published) writing manuals:
1. Third-Person Limited (a.k.a. Close Third Person) – The story is presented from the perspective of a single character for the entire length of the narrative. Readers view the world through this one character’s eyes, hear his thoughts, and understand his emotions. The view of the world within the story is presented from the character’s perspective and is often described in terms he would use. (See: Timbuktu, Paul Auster. POV character, in this case, is a dog.)
The technique of switching from one limited pov-character to another (alternating by scene or chapter) is known variously as: Third-Person Limited with a Shifting POV-Character, Third-Person Multiple, or Third-Person Episodic. (See: The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle. or Beloved by Toni Morrison)
2. Third-Person Omniscient – We have access to the thoughts and feelings of every character at all times. Although omniscience is an ‘all-knowing’ form of writing, you have to reveal what is known in a tactful way, without blatantly jumping heads. Head-hopping is used, to be sure, but it’s distracting and frowned upon in contemporary literature. Omniscience, really, is just one point of view – the author’s. The author may dip into the heads of many characters, but only if there’s a good reason and a rational transition. Randomly entering the heads of different characters and describing their inner-worlds feels like Third-Person Limited used erratically. (See: Perfume by Patrick Süskind.)
The author can also reveal story details that characters are unaware of (e.g. “Little did he know, he would never walk again.”), but this style is currently out of favor. Some refer to this as Universal Omniscience or Total Omniscience.
3. Third-Person Limited Omniscient (a.k.a. Third-Person Limited Flexible) – A hybrid of 1 and 2. The author gives readers access to the mind of just one character but also provides information to which the pov-character is not privy. In other words, we view the world through the main characters eyes and through the narrator’s (or author’s) eyes. Usually, authors do not present information about scenes in which the pov-character is not present, but exceptions abound.
4. Third-Person Objective (a.k.a. Third-Person Dramatic, Third-Person Cinematic or Third-Person Theatrical) – We have no access to any of the characters’ thoughts or feelings. The author simply describes what they say and do without revealing their inner worlds. Why use it?: faster pacing, less sentimentality and hand-wringing, greater austerity, and it lets readers make up their own minds about characters without a narrator’s opinion or bias. It’s also the most lifelike POV since, just as in real life, we can never know other people’s true thoughts or motivations. (See: No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy or The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett)
Focusing most of the attention on just one character is sometimes called Third-Person Limited Objective.
5. Third-Person Subjective – Many people will tell you this is just another term (or a more accurate term) for Third-Person Limited. Others disagree. In Third-Person Subjective, some say, the narrator’s personal perspective and agenda is made clear and his feelings about characters and situations play a role in the storytelling. Consequently, information provided may not be entirely accurate and characters may be misrepresented. This differs drastically from simple Third-Person Limited where we view the world entirely from the protagonist’s perspective. Thinking of Third-Person Subjective as different from Third-Person Limited seems to make the most sense, but you’re unlikely to find any consensus on this issue.
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It may be easiest to simply think about Third-Person POV in terms of distance. How close the narrator is to the heart and mind of the protagonist/s usually defines each of the above modes.
And, of course, rules are made to be broken (except by novices). Established authors use the above techniques in all kinds of unorthodox ways, sometimes even modulating the distance between narrator and protagonist throughout their narrative…very carefully…and very skillfully.