Understanding Third Person Narrative Theory

The aim of this article is to explain the logic of a third person narrative novel.

If you're anything like me, you will be tempted to skip it - and the next one on first person theory - and move straight to the material looking at the pros and cons of third person and first person point of view.

Don't do this! Without getting to grips with the fundamentals outlined here, it will be impossible to master point of view in your writing.

What I want to talk about here is the roles played by four different people in the writing of a third person narrative...

  1. The Author
  2. The Narrator
  3. The Viewpoint Character
  4. The Protagonist

Understand the sometimes subtle, but always crucial, differences between these people and you will be well on your way to handling viewpoint like a pro.

The Author and the Narrator

The first person we need to consider is the novel's author - the one writing the words and whose name appears on the book's front cover. And that person is obviously you!

What about the novel's narrator - who the heck are they?

Well, in a 3rd person novel, you are also the narrator - or the person telling the story. (There's nobody else doing all the hard work, is there?)

But here is the thing...

There is actually a critical difference between author and narrator. The difference is also subtle, so stick with me on this one because it isn't totally straightforward to explain...

When a reader reads a novel written in the third person point of view, they know perfectly well that the events never actually happened, that it is a story made up in the author's head and written in the author's words.

Us readers, though, like to imagine that the events did actually happen and that the characters really do exist. That's why we cry at the sad parts and find our pulses quickening when the novel's hero is in danger.

This appearance of reality, of course, is purely an illusion, or a trick of the mind. It even has a technical name: the willing suspension of disbelief.

  • Yes, on one level we know that it is a novel, that it is made up, that it didn't really happen.
  • But while we are reading, we are happy to pretend that these people are as real as we are. That's why reading fiction is so pleasurable.

If we read Gone With the Wind, for example, we know perfectly well that Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler are characters created by Margaret Mitchell, and that the events never actually occurred.

Nevertheless, we choose to "suspend our disbelief" while we are reading and imagine that we are witnessing real events happening to real people.

"Learning about point of view by reading a book can seem like learning to play a card game by reading the rules in 'Hoyle'. Relax. As you use different viewpoints in the fiction you write and notice how point of view works in the fiction you read, it will become as natural to you as poker to a professional gambler."
- Jesse Lee Kercheval

Back to this difference between authors and narrators in a 3rd person tale...

The author of a novel is a real-life person who has made up the events and written the words.

But in order to feel like what we are reading actually happened, us readers need to forget about the author and imagine instead that the words have been written by a kind of invisible witness to the events - a person with godlike powers, perhaps, who can look down upon reality from above and describe it to the readers.

The crucial point here is that this godlike narrator, as unlikely as such a figure might be, witnesses something that actually happened - whereas authors merely write about events they have made up.

And so readers will ignore the author's name on the novel's cover (*) and imagine instead that they are being told about the events by someone who actually witnessed them at first hand.

(* A rare exception to that rule is metafiction, in which the author "appears" in the novel in a deliberately unrealistic fashion.)

I appreciate that this isn't a simple concept to understand, but there is nothing complicated about it once you do manage to get your head around it.

If you are struggling to grasp what I am going on about, read the above few paragraphs again, then again if necessary.

Like I said, to master writing a third person narrative, you need to be 100% clear about the logic behind it.

Why is it important to understand this difference between a 3rd person author and narrator?

Simply because it will affect the way that you write the novel...

  • When you sit down to write a chapter in a third person story, don't think of it as yourself writing the words, or yourself making up the events in your head.
  • Instead, slip into the skin of this godlike narrator - the person who can look down on the events from above as they unfold.
  • And then, as you write the story, simply tell the readers everything that you see and hear and taste (and so on) in such a way that the readers feel like they are right there with you.

You might believe that the difference is so slight that it is hardly worth bothering with, but it is precisely these subtleties which make the difference between mastering first and third person point of view - and not.

The Narrator's Role in a Third Person Narrative

And so that is the author dealt with, and there is no need to mention him or her again.

Both you and your readers know that you, the author, exist and that you made the whole story up in your head.

If you make it big, they might even queue up for your signature!

But while they are reading the story you have written, they will suspend their disbelief and pretend that the story is real. And to do that they need to imagine that the story is actually being told not by yourself but by the narrator, who actually witnessed the novel's events.

And you need to imagine the same thing when you write the story.

Now for the bad news...

  • Not only does the reader conveniently pretend that the author doesn't exist when they read the story.
  • They don't much care about the narrator of a third person novel, either.

A third person narrator isn't a character in the novel. And it is only the characters, and what happens to them, that concern the reader.

Your job as a narrator, therefore, is that of an intermediary - someone who witnesses the events and then describes the events to the readers.

In particular, the readers aren't interested in hearing the narrator's thoughts or comments on the events, merely with being presented with sufficient information to be able to picture the events for themselves.

You must keep out of the way, in other words.

And to do that you need to adopt a neutral and non-opinionated voice to tell the story.

(Actually, there is one exception to that. If you choose to use the omniscient point of view, you can make yourself, as the novel's narrator, as visible and as opinionated and as "in your face" as you like. But more on omniscient narrators, and on the more customary 3rd person "invisible" narrators, later in this section.)

Now for the next, and most important, person on the list...

The Viewpoint Character

As we have seen, the third person narrator is a godlike being who looks down upon reality from above.

Being godlike, narrators also have the power to home-in on a scene and slip into the skin, as it were, of one of the characters in the scene - seeing the action unfold through their eyes and hearing their thoughts.

Whichever character they home-in on is the viewpoint character.

  • If you choose to write a single viewpoint novel, you will use just one viewpoint character all the way through.
  • If you write a multiple viewpoint novel, different chapters will feature different viewpoint characters.

So in a boy-meets-girl novel, for example, you could tell the whole story from the boy's point of view (single viewpoint), or you could give them alternate chapters in which to be the viewpoint character (multiple viewpoint).

Now, we never get to hear the viewpoint character's voice directly in a third person narrative (except in dialogue, of course).

Every word that the reader reads, except for the dialogue, is the narrator speaking (and ultimately, of course, the author speaking - though the reader chooses to ignore that fact).

But when the narrator is standing in the shoes of the viewpoint character - seeing through their eyes and hearing their thoughts - the words will nevertheless begin to approximate the viewpoint character's voice, in terms of...

  • Word choice
  • Grammar
  • Pet phrases
  • Underlying attitudes and opinions
  • Rhythms of speech
  • And so on

A typical third person scene will look something like this...

  • It begins with the narrator "setting the scene" using their neutral and non-opinionated voice - describing the weather, perhaps, or the house in which the action is about to take place.
  • Next, the narrator homes-in on the viewpoint character. We will still be seeing this character from the outside, as it were, and the language will remain neutral.
  • Finally, the narrator slips into the viewpoint character's skin, seeing the scene through their eyes and reporting their thoughts. It is at this point that the prose will begin to be colored by the viewpoint character's own speaking voice.

Hopefully, things are starting to get a little clearer. Don't worry if they're not, because I will be running through a detailed worked example of third person writing in just a moment.

Now, before talking about the last of the four people we need to consider in a third person narrative (the protagonist) here is a quick summary of everything I've said so far...

  • The author of a novel is you. But in order to achieve this "willing suspension of disbelief," the reader of the novel will forget about the name on the cover.
  • They will imagine, instead, that the story is being told by an actual witness to the real events - this is the novel's narrator.
  • In order for you, the author, to tell the story more effectively, you should imagine yourself slipping into the narrator's skin when you write - in other words, you should imagine yourself seeing the sights and smelling the smells and hearing the sounds as they happen.
  • Not only do you need to slip into the skin of the narrator - as the narrator, you then need to slip into the skin of the viewpoint character. You will begin a scene by describing it from on high using your neutral and non-opinionated narrator's voice, but soon you will enter the body and mind of the viewpoint character and adopt the essence of that character's own way of speaking as you look through their eyes and hear their thoughts.

Like I said, I'll be linking to a worked example of how to write in the 3rd person pov in just a moment. First, though, we have one more person to consider...

The Protagonist

Don't worry, this is an easy one to end on.

Knowing who the protagonist is doesn't actually have much to do with the theory of third person narrative pov, but I have mentioned it here for the sake of complete understanding.

The protagonist of a novel, as I'm sure you know, is the leading or central character - or the person whose story lies at the novel's heart.

In a nutshell, the protagonist is the character the novel is "about".

In most cases, the viewpoint character and the protagonist will be one and the same...

  • So if you write a third person crime novel told solely from the detective's point of view, for example, the detective will be both the viewpoint character (the one whose eyes we view the events through) and the protagonist (the one the novel is about).
  • But in a multiple viewpoint novel, some of the chapters will be seen through the eyes of characters who are not the protagonist - so in our example, the detective's sidekick could be the viewpoint character in some of the chapters, though the detective remains the novel's protagonist.
  • It is even possible to tell an entire novel from a lesser character's viewpoint (the sidekick again), although this is much more common in a first person narrative.

And that, as they say, is that.

Still confused? Then this worked example of writing in the third person will hopefully un-confuse you...