Writing in the Third Person

The key to writing in the third person like a professional is to have a complete understanding of the logic behind 3rd person viewpoint - and you can get that by reading the previous article on Third Person Narrative Theory.

Already read it? Then I'll be honest: some people have difficulty imagining the narrator of a third person novel as an invisible, godlike witness to the events of the novel.

They understand what I'm talking about - kind of - but they still can't quite manage to get their heads around the concept.

And so what I advise them to do, if they really can't understand the logic behind writing in the third person, is to try to imagine the narrator more as a camera shooting a movie.

Now, this third person narrator is no ordinary camera...

Ordinary cameras record visual information only, but this one can also record sounds, smells, tastes and textures. Oh, and it can hear thoughts and feel feelings, too, or at least the thoughts and feelings of the viewpoint character.

And you know how I said that 3rd person narrators must always keep their words neutral and non-opinionated when they are setting the scene? Well, cameras (being machines) have no personality, and so it is impossible for them to inject attitude or commentary into the prose; they merely record whatever is in front of them - which is perfect for writing third person prose.

Whether you think of the narrator of a third person novel as a godlike being or a magic camera, or perhaps something else entirely, it really doesn't matter. Whatever works for you is what is best.

But sticking with the camera analogy: the key to mastering writing in the third person point of view is to learn how to control the camera.

How do you do that? It's actually very simple, so long as you understand the logic.

Writing In the Third Person - Worked Example

Begin by reading this example, then afterwards I'll run through it step by step in detail.

The rain started at five o'clock that afternoon. It was little more than a drizzle at first, but the sky soon darkened to the same gray as the wet slate roof tops and the only people left out were a few brave shoppers and the paperboy delivering the evening news. Lights had now come on in most of the houses along Harbour Street, but not at number ten. The paperboy didn't even notice Mary standing at the rain-streaked kitchen window, her nose pressed to the glass while her husband shouted at her from the table.
   "How can you be so thoughtless?" he asked for the second time.
   But Mary had no answer. She concentrated on the water drops running down the glass and, beyond those, the paperboy's ribs showing through his drenched tee-shirt. Didn't he own a coat? she thought.
   "I'm talking to you, Mary!"
   She turned to face him, not quite meeting his eye, and wrapped her arms around her chest. It was the same thing every time the gas bill arrived: Frank sitting at the head of the table like a father holding a bad school report; Mary facing questions she had no answers to.
   "Tell me you didn't put the heating on during the day again."
   "Only when it was cold."
   "Cold!" said Frank. He'd stopped huffing and puffing now but his face was still red. "It's not even winter yet!"
   "I'm thin-skinned, Frank. I feel it more than you."
   "So put on a jumper," he said.
   Mary nodded and turned back to the window, watched the paperboy disappear into Fore Street. She'd put on two jumpers last week and her wooly hat, but it was no use explaining that to Frank when he was cranky like this. It was no use explaining anything to Frank, not anymore.

(I make no claims for it to be great literature, but it is fine for the purposes of talking about writing in the third person.)

At the start of the scene, the camera is looking down on the setting from on high, describing the rain and the roof tops and the people below.

It is useful to think of a scene in your novel like a scene in a movie.

Movie scenes often begin with an establishing shot, one which shows the viewer the bigger picture, as it were, before homing-in on the specific location where the action is about to take place.

The specific location in the extract above is 10 Harbour Street, and the viewpoint character is Mary.

We first see her staring out of her window at the rain and the paperboy cycling by. We are still seeing her from the "outside" here - not just outside her body, but outside her house.

And notice that the language is still neutral. Yes, it is descriptive, but the narrator isn't making any comments or offering any attitudes or opinions.

For example, you cannot have the narrator write something like this...

"The pesky rain started at five o'clock that afternoon, right when everybody was trying to head on home - and if that isn't just typical, I don't know what is!"

It wouldn't have been okay because it is the narrator's attitudes and opinions we are hearing (the viewpoint character hasn't been introduced yet). And us readers just aren't interested in what the narrator thinks about anything.

Why? Because they are not a character in the novel - we simply want them to tell the story straight and keep out of the way as much as they can.

It's the Viewpoint Character Who Really Counts

So far, the third person narrator has given us the establishing shot and homed-in on Mary, the viewpoint character, standing at her window.

They have set the scene, in other words.

But that is all.

The scene kicks in for real with the first line of dialogue from Mary's husband...

"How can you be so thoughtless?" he asked for the second time.

And it is in the next paragraph that the narrator slips into Mary's skin...

But Mary had no answer. She concentrated on the water drops running down the glass and, beyond those, the paperboy's ribs showing through his drenched tee-shirt. Didn't he own a coat? she thought.

We are now seeing the scene through her eyes and hearing her thoughts, and that is the way it will stay until the scene has finished.

(The example scene isn't very long - in fact, you can hardly call it a scene at all - but it is long enough to illustrate everything I need to say.)

Before moving on, here is a summary of how you move from using the narrator's voice to the viewpoint character's voice...

  • Begin with an establishing shot showing the big picture. The narrator's language can be descriptive, even poetic, but otherwise neutral and non-opinionated.
  • Next, home-in on the viewpoint character, but only show them from the outside at first.
  • Finally, slip into the viewpoint character's skin by moving the camera behind their eyes. Because it is a magic camera, we can also hear their thoughts, and the words will begin to approximate the viewpoint character's own speaking voice (that is, the voice they would use if this were a first person point of view novel).
  • Keep the camera right where it is until the scene is over.

Something you should be clear about is that you don't have to begin every single scene in a novel in this way. Sometimes, for example, you will want to start a scene with the narrator already inside the viewpoint character's skin, at the point where the action begins.

It is all a question of variety and pace...

  • With some scenes you can take your time building them up (or "setting the scene").
  • With others you can choose not to hang around and cut straight to the action.

In the example above, I have taken just one paragraph to set the scene, but you could take two or three paragraphs, or even two or three pages for a major scene in a novel.

Variety is the key.

If every scene in your novel has one paragraph of "scene setting," the pattern will quickly become monotonous. So sometimes take one paragraph, sometimes a page or more, and sometimes don't do any scene setting at all.

Staying Inside the Viewpoint Character's Skin

Next, I want to talk in a little more detail about the whole business of being inside the viewpoint character's skin.

At the start of the extract, we see Mary standing at the window with her husband behind her at the table. Here, we are still looking through the narrator's eyes (or the camera's lens).

But when we see the water drops running down the glass and the paperboy's wet tee-shirt, we are looking through Mary's eyes.

For the sake of consistency and not confusing the reader, it is important that the camera should remain here for the rest of the scene.

  • So if we are to see the husband, Mary needs to turn around and look at him (right now, she's still staring out the window with her back to him).
  • And if we are to look out of the window again, Mary will have to turn her back on her husband again.

Why is it important that the camera should remain behind the viewpoint character's eyes until the scene has finished?

First, like I said, it will confuse the reader if you don't. They might not consciously be aware of all this "camera shifting" going on, but they will still sense something is wrong if you start describing something that the viewpoint character can't see.

Second, you want to keep the camera where it is for the sake of heightened drama. Any scene in a novel, if it is to be effective, should build in intensity, or "rise in temperature" - and the best way to achieve that intensity (or that heat) is to show the readers what the viewpoint character is thinking and feeling all the way through.

If you suddenly return to the neutral narrator, all the heat will suddenly be lost because the reader no longer has access to the viewpoint character's thoughts, feelings and emotions.

The only time it is okay to remove the camera from behind the viewpoint character's eyes is in a multiple viewpoint novel when you switch viewpoint characters during the scene (but more on that in the article on multiple viewpoint theory).

Generally speaking, though, don't return to the narrator's neutral voice until the scene is over. When it is, you could zoom-out again, showing Mary staring out the window from the outside and then moving the camera higher to show the wet roof tops.

(This would act as a kind of bookend to the initial paragraph of scene setting, or a way of framing the scene.)

But how often you choose to do something like that in your novel, if indeed you choose to do it at all, is entirely down to your own judgement. More likely, you will simply end the scene by ending the chapter.

The Viewpoint Character's Voice

So far in this worked example of writing in the third person, we've dealt with...

  • How to place the camera behind the viewpoint character's eyes, after the neutral and non-opinionated narrator has set the scene.
  • The importance of keeping the camera there until the end of the scene (unless you are writing a multiple viewpoint novel and you switch viewpoints).

The final thing I want to talk about is how the viewpoint character's own speaking voice should "color" the prose in the heat of a scene.

In the example, the first indication that we are hearing what Mary thinks happens here...

Didn't he own a coat? she thought.

We continue to hear what is going on inside her head right up to the final line...

It was no use explaining anything to Frank, not anymore.

Note with this final line (unlike the first one I quoted), I didn't use a "she thought" tag (known as an interior monologue tag).

Just as a scene should "warm up" as the action intensifies, so the penetration of the viewpoint character's consciousness should rise in temperature...

  • Using a "she thought" tag somehow makes the thought itself less intense, and therefore cooler.
  • Omitting monologue tags indicates that the words we are now hearing are coming straight from the character's mouth - or as close as this is possible when writing in the third person. And doing that is so much more intense.

(Don't worry if that isn't altogether clear. I deal with the technicalities of using "tags" in the monologue section. The important point for now is that using a "she thought" tag makes the thought itself less intense, and the trend when writing a third person scene should be to move from a lack of intensity to intensity - or, if you prefer, from coolness to warmth or distance to closeness.)

As well as hearing Mary's direct thoughts, another way in which the prose approximates her own speaking voice is through phrases like these...

"He'd stopped huffing and puffing now."

"It was no use explaining that to Frank when he was cranky like this."

A neutral narrator would never say "huffing and puffing" and "cranky". Instead, they'd say "shouting" and "angry" - something neutral like that.

Just a few colorful words and phrases like these scattered throughout the scene (words and phrases which the characters would use themselves if they were speaking in their first person voice), are all you need to add some real intimacy when writing in the third person.

And it will be your mastery of third person point of view which allows you to do it with skill.