Third-Person Confusion

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:

THIRD-PERSON MODES

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.

*  *  *

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.

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10 comments

  1. This is one of the best explanations I’ve heard of POV. I was confused about third person limited omniscient. Thanks for clearing up the confusion!

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  2. LeeAnn

    This is a very helpful explanation, but could be eminently more so if there were a couple of paragraphs from the same story shown in each type of POV, with the differences easy to see. Remember what they say, show don’t tell.
    I guess that even goes for defining POVs.
    Thank you

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  3. Free

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. The next time some fellow writer tells me there is no such thing as Third Person Omniscient, or that my WIP is “really” in badly done Third Person Multiple with headhopping, I will send them this link.

    Like

  4. Gary Wedlund

    Thanks for the good comments on the definitions. The thing for most writers to know is that some of these are quite useful, while others are mine fields, particularly for fiction writers. For example, many people take this definition of third person omniscience definition, and say, “Wow, that’s what I do. Now I can claim I am doing something legitimate.” Well, yeah, you are conforming (loosely) to the definition of a way to work, but in fact 99% of the time when writers are doing third person omniscience, they are really just headhopping and never getting close enough to anyone to actually write a story that matters. Just because one finds a definition of a way of working that seems to justify what they are doing, doesn’t mean what they are doing is the best choice.

    Ironically, those who understand what I just wrote the least, need to understand it the most. There are a number of excellent reasons why the vast majority of third person work is done either third person limited, or third person limited multiple. My strongest suggestion is that writers master third person limited before they even consider any other RADIAL form of third person writing.

    Let me add to these thoughts by suggesting omniscience theatrical is far more useful than the more commonly understood, pure omniscience. That way, when you do drop to character, you have some grounding and haven’t done the proverbial community visit. Headhopping is a very dangerous tool in the hands of just about everybody. It begs the question, is there value to any constraints at all, if one chooses to legitimize bad writing under the seeming license of a definition? What can be defined does not mean that which should be applied. The last technique I would sanction from literally any writer is pure omniscience. Those who disagree with me, may, but I doubt the work justifies the approach.

    One final thought. There is a technique known as passing the baton. This is a form of multiple limited, but handled in a way that allows the POV to be carefully and meaningfully moved from character to character, within sections or chapters. This is far more useful than pure omniscience because it implies care and one at a time POV handling.

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  5. schillingklaus

    Total omniscience ( I call it overt heterodiegetic extradiegetic narration with zero focalisation) is my one true way to go.

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  6. This is great information. I find that I merge a couple of third person styles and mine is Third Person Limited past tense multiple. It gives many a critic a headache if they don’t get where I’m coming from. (I find that most cridics advice stems from using first person. Le sigh.)

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  7. Pingback: Về các Ngôi kể chuyện – Vận Mệnh Sinh Đôi

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