In third-person viewpoint, the narrator refers to all characters with third-person pronouns like 'he', 'she', or 'they,' and never first- or second-person pronouns. In other words, the narrator is not a character in a story and is a separate entity.
When writing a novel, you will have to choose which narrative viewpoint will work best for you and your book. In this article, you'll learn about third-person narrative viewpoint. You'll discover the best variety of third-person viewpoint and when to apply it to your writing.
What is Narrative Viewpoint?
To fully understand third-person narrative viewpoint, we must first look at narrative viewpoint in general.
In fact, we must take one step further back and consider narration as a whole.
Wikipedia describes narration as 'the use of a written or spoken commentary to convey a story to an audience'. [source]
In other words, it is the way a story is told to the reader.
Narration is split into three elements:
1. Narrative point of view: the grammatical person used by the narrator to refer to the character being narrated.
2. Narrative tense: the consistent use of the grammatical tense of either past or present.
3. Narrative techniques: methods of conveying the story.
Of these three elements, it is narrative point of view that interests us.
The person who tells a story is known as the narrator; this might be a character in the story, but it might also be a separate 'voice' independent of the other characters.
The narrative viewpoint is determined by 'who' tells the story and 'how the story is told'.
What is Third Person Viewpoint?
In third-person viewpoint, the narrator refers to all characters with third-person pronouns like 'he', 'she', or 'they,' and never first- or second-person pronouns.
In other words, the narrator is not a character in a story and is a separate entity.
Third-person viewpoint is, by far, the most common method of storytelling and has been the viewpoint of choice for some of the best-known stories in the English language. Here's the opening from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice a novel famously written from a third-person viewpoint.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
"My dear Mr. Bennet," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?"
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
"But it is," returned she; "for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it."
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
"Do you not want to know who has taken it?" cried his wife impatiently.
"You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it."
This was invitation enough.
One clear distinction of the third-person viewpoint is that the narrator is someone separate from the novel's characters. In fact, the narrator is almost always unidentified. This leads to a third-person narrator often being called an 'anonymous narrator'.
This is very different from a first-person narrator, where the narrator is both identified and a character within the novel.
Different Types of Third Person Viewpoint?
When learning about third-person viewpoints, the most confusing element for new writers is the distinction between the different types of third-person viewpoints. All third-person viewpoint is written using a detached and anonymous narrator, but the information the narrator possesses about the characters differs significantly between different types of viewpoint.
All third-person viewpoints sit somewhere on an axis between subjective/objective and omniscient/limited.
We look at these in more detail below, but it is essential to understand that all third-person viewpoints will be between subjective and objective and omniscient and limited. In most cases, a viewpoint tends to be either subjective OR objective and omniscient OR limited. This is not always the case. Some narrative stances can move along these axes as the story progresses, but this is uncommon.
Subjective and Objective Narrative Viewpoints
Third-person subjective narration involves a narrator with access to one or more characters' personal feelings and thoughts. In other words, the narrator understands the thoughts and feelings of, at least, one character.
This is a common type of storytelling. The narrator focuses typically on one character (though not always), who is the main character.
A great example of Third-person subjective narration is Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy's parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.
Third-person objective narration sees the narrator not describing the feelings or thoughts of any characters but, rather, just the exact facts of the story.
The narrator tends to be very 'de-humanized' and detached from the story. This approach is often called "fly-on-the-wall" or "camera lens", since the narrator will describe events and actions but provide no explanation or character thoughts.
This type of viewpoint was popular in the 19th-century with large, sweeping narratives. It is also occasionally called 'over the shoulder' narration. It sees the focus with one character and the narrator describing only the events perceived and information known by this character.
This approach is very similar to first-person, but uses third-person pronouns ('he', 'she', or 'they,'). It is also the more narrow and claustrophobic of the third-person viewpoints.
Perhaps the most famous example is Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway.
The hills across the valley of the Ebro' were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.
"What should we drink?" the girl asked. She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.
"It's pretty hot," the man said.
Omniscient and Limited Narrative Viewpoints
Third-person omniscient narration is an approach that sees the narrator knowing everything that is happening within the story's world, including what each of the characters is thinking and feeling.
This viewpoint stance is very common and is used by some of the most famous writers, including Charles Dickens. It is the approach that works best when looking to produce complicated plots with deep, complex characters. One major drawback is that it is impossible to create an unreliable narrator since the reader has access to events, thoughts, and feelings throughout the world.
Below is the opening to Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Third-person limited narration sees the narrator conveying the knowledge and subjective experience of just one character. In other words, the narrator is focussed on a single character and only knows this character.
This is a very common narrative approach and is, perhaps, the most common storytelling format for popular novels in the Twentieth Century. One of the most successful uses of First-person limited narration is J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.
The example below is taken from Jack London's To Build a Fire.
"Day had dawned cold and gray when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail. He climbed the high earth-bank where a little-traveled trail led east through the pine for- est. It was a high bank, and he paused to breathe at the top. He excused the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o'clock in the morning. There was no sun or promise of sun, although there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day. However, there seemed to be an indescribable darkness over the face of things. That was because the sun was absent from the sky. This fact did not worry the man. He was not alarmed by the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun."
The majority of mainstream novels published are written in third-person. The chances are that if you have never considered viewpoint when writing your novel, then you are writing in third-person.
The biggest choice faced by many writers will be what type of third-person viewpoint to adopt. Here, the most common choice is third-person limited, with a focus on a single character.
Perhaps the most important factor in deciding which narrative viewpoint to adopt is the type of story you are trying to tell. Stories with wide, overarching, and epic storylines tend to suit third-person omniscient. However, closer, more personal stories may well be better suited to third-person limited.
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