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Third Person Narrative Theory Made Easy

Writing a third person narrative is simple. The secret? Understand the difference between…

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

Now, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be tempted to skip the theory and move straight to the pros and cons of third person and first person point of view.

Slow down! Without getting to grips with the logic outlined below (and in the article on first person theory), it will be impossible to master point of view in your writing.

Let’s start with…

Why the Author Is Not the Narrator

The novel’s author is the person writing the words and whose name appears on the cover. Yup…

That’s you!

What about the novel’s narrator – who the heck are they? Well, in a third person narrative, you are also the narrator – or the person telling the story. (There’s nobody else doing all the hard work, is there?)

But here’s the thing…

There’s actually a critical difference between the author and the narrator. The difference is a subtle one, so stick with me here…

When someone reads a third person novel, they know perfectly well that the events never actually happened. They know that it’s a story made up in the author’s head and written in the author’s words.

At a deeper level, though, readers like to imagine that the events actually happened, that the characters really 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 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’s “just” a novel. That it’s all made up. That it didn’t really happen.
  • But while we’re reading, we pretend that these characters are as real as we are. That’s why reading fiction is so pleasurable, why as readers we get so emotionally involved.

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’re reading (or watching the movie) and imagine that we are witnessing real events happening to real people.

Back to this difference between authors and narrators in a third person narrative…

The author of a novel is a real-life person (you!) who has made up the events out of thin air and written all the words.

But in order to feel like what we’re 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 from above and describe the events to the readers.

Here’s the crucial point…

This godlike narrator, as unlikely as such a figure might be, witnesses something that actually happened, whereas authors merely write about events that they 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 is metafiction, in which the author “appears” in the novel in a deliberately unrealistic fashion.)

Having trouble with third person narration? Think of it like shooting a movie.

I appreciate that an invisible, godlike narrator is a strange concept. If you prefer, think of a third person narrator as a kind of movie camera, capturing each scene as it unfolds.

Either way, the important thing is the the narrator witnesses the events and tells the story… but is not a part of the story.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines a narrator…

A narrator is a personal character or a non-personal voice that the creator (author) of the story develops to deliver information to the audience.

What does that mean?

  • A “personal character” is the narrator of a first person novel – someone who not only tells the story but is a character in the story. (More on first person narrators here.)
  • A “non-personal voice” is a third person narrator – someone who tells the story but is not a character in the story.

Yes, we all know that it’s actually the author who writes the words. But to feel more emotionally involved in the story, readers forget about the author and imagine that the narrator witnessed real events as they happened.

Why is it important to understand this difference between an author and narrator in a third person narrative?

Because it will affect the way you write your novel…

  • When you sit down to write a chapter in a third person narrative, don’t think of it as you writing the words, or you making up the events in your head.
  • Instead, slip into the skin of this godlike narrator (or position yourself behind the movie camera if you prefer).
  • Then, as you write the story, simply tell the readers everything that you see and hear in such a way that the readers feel like they are right there with you.

Bottom line on authors and narrators?

Both you and your readers know that you, the author, exist and that you made the whole story up in your head. Heck, if you make it big they might even show up at a book signing to shake your hand!

But while they’re reading your story, 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.

The Narrator’s Role in a Third Person Narrative

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.

The narrator’s job, therefore, is to be a neutral intermediary – someone who witnesses the events and describes them to the readers in words, but doesn’t attempt to let their personality shine through.

In particular, the readers aren’t interested in hearing the narrator’s thoughts or comments on the events. They just want enough 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’s 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.

Generally, though, the narrator of a third person narrative keeps out of the way. Any opinions or thoughts or feelings that are expressed in the text only happen when you’re writing from inside the skin of one of the characters.

I’ll explain what I mean by that as we look at the next, and most important, person on the list…

The Viewpoint Character

If all a third person narrator did was describe the events from on high, in a neutral voice, the story itself would be pretty dull – like one of those dusty old history books.

To bring the story to life, the narrator (being godlike) has the power to slip into the skin of one of the characters at any given moment, seeing the action unfold through their eyes and hearing their thoughts.

Whichever character the narrator focuses on is the viewpoint character.

You can write a third person novel from the viewpoint of just one of the characters. Or you can write a multiple viewpoint novel, in which different chapters of the novel are seen through the eyes of different viewpoint characters.

So in a boy-meets-girl novel, for example, you could…

  1. Tell the whole story from either the boy’s or the girl’s point of view (single viewpoint).
  2. Give them alternate chapters in which to be the viewpoint character (multiple viewpoint).

Don’t worry about multiple viewpoint novels right now. Just understand that a third person narrator can slip into the skin of one character, two characters… or the entire cast if they want. But they can only slip into one character’s skin at a time.

Now, we never get to hear the viewpoint character’s voice directly in a third person narrative. (That only happens in a first person story.)

Every word that the reader reads (except for the dialogue), comes straight from the narrator (and ultimately, of course, straight from the author).

But here’s the thing…

When the narrator slips into the skin of a viewpoint character – seeing the events through their eyes and hearing their thoughts – the words will approximate the viewpoint character’s natural speaking voice (in terms of word choice, pet phrases, rhythm of speech, underlying attitudes and opinions, and so on).

That’s important. So let’s look at it in more depth…

How to Bring a Third Person Narrative to Life

A typical scene in a third person narrative will look something like this…

  • The narrator “sets 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’ll still be seeing this character from the “outside” at this point, 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. The language now begins to be colored by the viewpoint character’s own voice (the one they’d use to tell a first person story).

Here’s how it works if you prefer the “movie camera” analogy…

  • At the start of the scene, the camera is positioned some distance away from where the action is about to take place. In filmmaking, this is called the establishing shot.
  • Next, you cut to a much closer view of the scene as it’s about to unfold – one which includes the viewpoint character in the frame. We’re still seeing the character from the outside at this point.
  • Finally (and this is where the movie analogy breaks down), the camera enters the viewpoint character’s head and their eyes become the lens. More than that, the camera not only sees what the viewpoint character sees; it smells what they smell, tastes what they taste and hears their thoughts.

And here’s an example of that might look in practice. Each paragraph below illustrates each of the three points above…

The storm started at midnight. It was gentle at first – light rain, a light wind, lightning flashing way out on the horizon – but by two o’clock the wind had become a gale and the rain was hitting the cottage windows like hailstones.

It was a lawn chair clattering into the barbecue that eventually woke Nick. He opened his eyes, propped himself up on his elbows as the whole room lit up as bright as day, then fell back into darkness just as suddenly.

God, he hated thunderstorms. As a boy, they’d scared the hell out of him. Now all he could think about as the thunder boomed again was all the clearing up he’d have to do in the morning.

The bulk of any scene will always be seen through the viewpoint character’s eyes (because that’s the most engaging way to tell a story).

So the establishing shot, and the closer shot that sees the viewpoint character from the outside, will only account for the first two or three paragraphs of a scene – maybe just the first two or three sentences.

Here’s another way of looking at it…

You actually use two viewpoints in a typical third person scene…

  • Cinematic viewpoint. When the narrator is setting the scene, before he’s slipped into the viewpoint character’s skin.
  • Character viewpoint. Once the narrator has slipped into the viewpoint character’s skin.

Typically, you’ll use both viewpoints in a third person narrative: “cinematic” at the start of scenes and “character” viewpoint for the rest.

But you can, if you wish, tell an entire story using just one of these options. Let’s take a quick look at each possibility in turn…

1. Third Person “Cinematic” Viewpoint

Write your novel using nothing but a third person “cinematic” point of view and you’ll never slip inside a viewpoint character’s skin. 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 actions or dialogue or body language.

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

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 a cold and unfeeling sociopath, say, the “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. You could use it for the first half of the novel, say, then gradually switch to using the more engaging “character” viewpoint as the sociopath begins to awaken to his long-buried feelings.

All in all, though, a more likely option (if you’re going to use just one of these viewpoints) is…

2. Third Person “Character” Viewpoint

Here, you dispense with the neutral narrator entirely and tell the whole story from inside the skin of the viewpoint character. The “camera” is positioned behind the viewpoint character’s eyes the whole time, from the first word of the novel to the last.

Doing that eliminates the need to make those transitions between the narrator’s voice and the viewpoint character’s voice, which is obviously simpler. The price you pay, of course, is that you lose the “cinematic feel” that using a neutral narrator to set the scenes 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.
  • Although the words aren’t precisely theirs (they are still the narrator’s), they are nevertheless a close approximation of the words they would use in a first person narrative.

I’d recommend that you write a “traditional” third person narrative if you possibly can – that is, one which uses both the “cinematic” and the “character” viewpoints. Why? Because it gives you the best of both worlds…

  • You get the focused intimacy of looking through the viewpoint character’s eyes and hearing their thoughts for the bulk of the story.
  • 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 alone.

That said, if you’re unsure about all this “slipping into the skin” or “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.

Here’s a useful exercise…

Grab a selection of third person novels off your shelves. Read the opening chapters of each one.

Some will start using the “cinematic” viewpoint. Others will begin with the camera already in position behind the viewpoint character’s eyes. Once you’ve found one good example of each technique, read both novels in full and think about which one you prefer – and which would be best for your novel.

Still not sure of the difference between the two? Here’s a good rule of thumb…

  • In “character” viewpoint, it’s simple to translate the prose directly into first person. Indeed, some teachers call this viewpoint “3rd-1st” point of view.
  • In “cinematic” viewpoint, you can’t translate it into first person. Why? Because the narrator is showing things that the character couldn’t see or couldn’t know or wouldn’t say.

Now for the final person we need to consider. Don’t worry, this is an easy one to end on…

The Protagonist

We’ve already talked about identifying your novel’s protagonist in the section on creating characters.

The protagonist of a novel is the leading or central character. And in most cases, the viewpoint character and the protagonist will be one and the same.

For example, if you write a third person crime novel told solely from the detective’s point of view, the detective will be both the viewpoint character (the one whose eyes we view the events through) and the protagonist (the character whose goal lies at the heart of the plot – in this case, to solve the murder).

In a third person multiple viewpoint novel, some of the chapters will be seen through the eyes of characters who are not the protagonist. So the detective’s sidekick could be the viewpoint character in some of the chapters, though the detective remains the novel’s protagonist.

It’s even possible to tell an entire novel from a lesser character’s viewpoint (the sidekick again, for example).

What does knowing who the protagonist is have to do with viewpoint? Not a lot! But for the sake of full understanding, I just wanted to mention that the viewpoint character doesn’t have to be the novel’s protagonist.

Wrapping Up

And that, as they say, is that – everything you need to know about writing a third person narrative like a pro!

Here’s a quick recap of everything I’ve said…

The author of a novel is you. But to achieve this “willing suspension of disbelief,” the reader of the novel will forget about your name on the cover. Instead, they’ll imagine that the story is being told by a witness to real events.

This witness 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 (or positioning yourself behind the camera) and seeing the sights, 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’ll begin a scene by describing it from on high using your neutral and non-opinionated narrator’s voice. Once the scene is set, you’ll enter the body and mind of the viewpoint character and adopt the essence of that character’s voice as you look through their eyes and hear their thoughts.

If that sounds too complicated or too fussy, you can narrate the entire novel, from the first word to the list, through the eyes of one or more viewpoint characters.

Finally, the character you’ve chosen as your protagonist will probably be the viewpoint character… but not necessarily. You can have other characters become the “eyes” for some or all of the scenes.

Still confused? Read this article again (like I said, it’s critically important). Then, when you’re ready, check out this worked example of writing in the third person.

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