3rd Person Point of View in Two Varieties

The two varieties of 3rd person point of view I want to discuss here are the third person cinematic and character viewpoints.

Even if you end up writing a "standard" 3rd person point of view novel, understanding this material will be crucial to using the viewpoint well. So keep reading...

I have actually dealt with third person "cinematic" and "character" viewpoints already in this section, in the article explaining Third Person Narrative POV.

Here is a quick recap of what I said...

  • In a typical third person chapter, you begin with the narrator "setting the scene" using their neutral and non-opinionated voice.
  • Next, you home-in on the specific location where the action is about to take place, and in particular on the viewpoint character.
  • Finally, you slip into the viewpoint character's skin, showing the scene through their eyes and giving the reader access to their thoughts.

Another way of putting it is that you actually use 2 viewpoints in a typical 3rd person point of view scene...

  • First, you use the "cinematic" viewpoint.
  • Then, once you have slipped into the viewpoint character's skin, you use the "character" viewpoint.

So why have I mentioned them both here as "less common" viewpoint options? Simply because it is possible to tell an entire novel using just one of these options.

3rd Person "Cinematic" Mode

If you choose to write your novel using nothing but a third person "cinematic" point of view, you will never slip inside a character's skin at all.

Everything will be shown from the outside, in the narrator's neutral and non-opinionated voice.

The reader will never have access to a character's thoughts and feelings, except for those thoughts and feelings which reveal themselves through the character's dialogue or body language or actions.

Why would you want to use such a restrictive viewpoint for a whole novel?

Good question - and in all honesty, you probably wouldn't. After all, the great advantage that novels hold over movies is precisely this ability to show characters from the "inside."

But if you were writing a novel about, I don't know, a cold and unfeeling sociopath, the third person "cinematic" viewpoint could be an effective way of communicating this coldness.

Another possibility is to use the cinematic viewpoint not for an entire novel but for a portion of it.

Of course, you will use it to an extent even in a "standard" 3rd person novel, in those initial paragraphs of scene-setting.

But returning to our sociopath example...

You could use the "cinematic" viewpoint for the first half of the novel, say, but then switch to using "character" point of view as the sociopath begins to awaken to his long-buried feelings.

Or in a multiple viewpoint novel, you could use pure "cinematic" point of view whenever the sociopath is the viewpoint character, and a traditional third person viewpoint - that is, cinematic and character viewpoints - for chapters featuring other viewpoint characters.

All in all, though, a more likely option - if you are going to use just one of these viewpoints exclusively - is the third person "character" point of view...

"A beginning writer may feel that a first person point of view comes most naturally, but all things considered, a more workable choice might be a close third person with the viewpoint in the head and behind the eyes of the character. This technique has the close-camera advantage of first person, but the action is happening before the viewpoint character's, and the reader's, eyes, and so is not being narrated after the fact."
- Oakley Hall

3rd Person "Character" Mode

Here, you dispense with the neutral narrator entirely and tell the whole novel from inside the skin of the viewpoint character.

Or, to put it another way, you tell the entire story with the "camera" positioned behind the viewpoint character's eyes the whole time, from the first word to the last.

Doing that eliminates the need to make those transitions between the narrator's voice and the viewpoint character's voice, thus making the handling of viewpoint easy-peasy. The price you pay, of course, is that you lose the "cinematic sweep" that using a free-roaming neutral narrator will give you.

The overall effect of third person "character" point of view is something very close to a first person narrative...

  • You see everything through the viewpoint character's eyes and you hear all of their thoughts, just like in a first person novel.
  • And although the words aren't precisely theirs (they are still the narrator's), they are nevertheless a very close approximation of the words they would use in a first person novel.

You can't quite achieve the intimacy of a first person novel, but you almost can. And what you lose in intimacy you make up for in immediacy. (A first person narrator is telling their story after the events have finished, whereas a third person narrator feels like they are telling it in the here and now - even when they are using the past tense.)

I would always recommend that you use a "traditional" third person point of view if you possibly can - that is, one which uses both the "cinematic" and the "character" viewpoints. Why? Because using both gives you the best of both worlds...

  • You get the focused intimacy of looking through the viewpoint character's eyes and hearing their thoughts.
  • But you also get the freedom to move the "camera" around between scenes and show things you wouldn't be able to show through the viewpoint character's eyes.

But if you are unsure about all this "moving the camera around" business, using the third person "character" point of view is certainly one to consider. You can always move on to a slightly more complex viewpoint later, in your second novel, once your confidence as a storyteller has grown.