The advantages of third person point of view I want to talk about here are…
- It Is More Objective than First Person
- It Is Less Claustrophobic
- It’s More Immediate
- It Gives the Writer More Freedom
The first two advantages are relatively minor ones. The last two are the biggies.
And remember: As I showed in the article looking at the advantages of first person point of view, what at first glance seems like a great reason for using a particular viewpoint is rarely so black-and-white on closer examination.
Third Person Point of View Is More Objective
The best way to explain this is to start by showing that first person point of view is subjective.
Which of us, when talking about ourselves and our adventures, gives a truly accurate account?
We exaggerate the facts, or twist them to cast ourselves in a better light. We leave out other facts altogether, ones which somehow spoil the story we are trying to tell. Sometimes we even invent some “facts.”
In short, we act as first person storytellers. We turn reality into fiction to both tell a more entertaining tale and to make ourselves the hero of the tale.
Of course, we do this very subtly, so that it hardly seems we’re deviating from the truth at all. But we do it all the same, whether we admit it (or are even aware of it) or not.
And a first person narrator does exactly the same thing, only not half so subtly. And it’s this that makes first person novels subjective.
Third person point of view, on the other hand, is objective.
Why? Because the narrator and the viewpoint character are two different people. In other words, the narrator can say things about the viewpoint character that the viewpoint character probably wouldn’t admit to themselves.
(For more on this difference between narrators and viewpoint characters, please see the article explaining Third Person Theory.)
Here is another way of putting it…
If I tell you all about myself in the 1st person, I’m unlikely to give you a warts-and-all picture. I’ll leave out the bad points and concentrate on the good points instead.
But if someone who knows me tells you all about me (i.e. using third person), the portrait they paint will be far more accurate. And probably far less flattering.
(Not that I have many bad points, you understand. Come to think of it, I’m a perfect human being with no faults at all. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?!)
To illustrate, a first person narrator might write a line like this…
Okay, so I was no Brad Pitt, but I’d never had a shortage of women to date.
A third person narrator, however, could be more honest…
Fred was the ugliest man in town, and by some margin. The only dates he could get were blind dates, and they rarely lasted the whole evening.
The question is, which is best: third person objectivity or first person subjectivity?
And the answer, as ever in novel writing, is that it depends on the story you want to tell and the effect you want to create.
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, we see everything through Huck’s first person, subjective eyes. It is charming and funny and works wonderfully well. But we take some of the things he tells us with a large pinch of salt.
So if Mark Twain had been going for a different kind of novel – a more serious character study, perhaps, or a less comic and more dramatic account of a boy’s raft trip with a runaway slave – he probably would have opted to write a third person narrative.
Now for the next advantage…
Third Person Is Less Claustrophobic
Being stuck in the same character’s skin from the first word to the last can make a novel feel claustrophobic. It’s like going to a party and being stuck with the same person all night.
Notice, though, that I said can make a novel claustrophobic…
Being stuck with the same person at a party is great if they happen to be charming, witty and have a whole bunch of fascinating tales to tell.
If they’re not quite so charming or witty, however, or their tales not quite so compelling, we will happily spend a little time with them… but not the whole evening.
And it is exactly the same thing with a novel.
I don’t want to give the impression here that all great fictional characters need to be so obviously engaging as a Huckleberry Finn.
Great characters can be shy, laconic, introspective, depressive, serious – you name it. So long as they are charismatic with it, you have the makings of a perfect central character. Just not necessarily a character who the readers will want to spend every moment with.
Now, in most third person novels, claustrophobia isn’t an issue…
You have the option of telling a third person point of view novel from several viewpoints (in the form of a Multiple Viewpoint Novel).
And even if you use only one viewpoint character, you can occasionally remove the camera from behind their eyes and view them from the outside, as it were.
The only time a third person narrative can be as claustrophobic is when you keep the “camera” behind the viewpoint character’s eyes throughout. (This is known as 3rd Person “Character” Point of View.)
If you do keep the camera behind the central character’s eyes throughout, and if your central character isn’t as obviously engaging as a Holden Caulfield or a Huckleberry Finn, you can consider “toning down” the character. You could give them a lighter side – a self-deprecating sense of humor, perhaps – thereby making them better company for the long journey ahead.
Third Person Point of View Is More Immediate
This next advantage is one of the biggies, so listen up good here. It’s important that you understand this stuff if you want to handle viewpoint like a pro.
Perhaps the best way to explain this “immediacy” is to start by looking at it from a first person perspective.
When we read a first person story, it feels like the character is sitting right there in the room with us, telling us their story first-hand.
Now, that is true – to an extent. But the question you need to ask yourself is this: Who, precisely, is sitting there in the room?
Is it the older and wiser narrator?
Or is it the younger version of themselves called the viewpoint character?
(No idea what I’m going on about? Please review the article on First Person Theory.)
The answer, of course, is that it’s the older narrator sitting there in the room with you, not the younger viewpoint character.
In 1st person novels like The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this difference isn’t so critical.
In The Catcher in the Rye, the narrator and the viewpoint character are virtually the same age – both about 17. (We discover at the end that Holden Caulfield is narrating the novel a short time after the events are over.) Yes, he has been changed by the story’s events – meaning there is something of a difference between Holden the narrator and Holden the viewpoint character. But age-wise, there’s little difference between them.
- Exactly the same thing goes for Huckleberry Finn. The narrator and the viewpoint character are both young teenage boys.
But imagine if these novels were narrated not a short time after the events, but several decades later. Instead of teenage boys sitting there in the room with us, telling us their tales, we would have old men called Holden Caulfield and Huckleberry Finn.
Yes, we’d still hear the intimacy of their “old narrator” voices. But their “young viewpoint character” voices would be clouded by time – and it is their younger voices that we really want to hear.
In short, the greater the distance in time between a first person narrator telling a story and the events of the story themselves, the less immediacy the novel has.
(In a third person novel, you don’t get this distance, but I’ll be coming onto that shortly.)
Now, this distance in time in a first person novel isn’t a huge problem, just one to be aware of. And it is possible to overcome it by…
Writing in the present tense (where the narrator “speaks to us” directly from the here and now).
Writing the story in the form of diary entries (which will be written in the past tense, but the distance in time between the events and writing about the events will be very short, probably just a few hours).
Bear in mind, though, that sometimes a lack of immediacy can be a positive thing.
In a novel about a child, for example, it can be grating to read several hundred pages written in a childlike voice. Having the child’s adult-self do the narrating, many years after the events are over, allows us to hear the story from a mature grown-up, not an immature kid.
What About Immediacy In a Third Person Novel?
Like I said, there isn’t a problem here.
The narrator of a third person novel is not an older version of the viewpoint character (like they are in 1st person fiction). They’re somebody else entirely – a godlike witness to the events or, if you prefer, a kind of movie camera, recording events as they happen. (Even though, confusingly, third person novels are mostly written in the past tense.)
In other words, third person narratives feel more immediate, more rooted in the here and now, than the first person ever can.
If we hear an adult tell us about their childhood adventures, the events themselves finished years or decades ago. It is difficult to experience the story like it’s happening right here and right now.
But if the same child’s adventures are told as a third person story, it feels as though they are happening as the story is being told.
Even in a 3rd person historical novel, the story still feels rooted in the present. It’s almost like the reader has been sent back into the past in a time machine and can witness the events at first hand as they occur.
With third person prose, you will always sacrifice a little of the intimacy that first person novels excel at.
With first person prose, you lose a little immediacy – more so the greater the distance between the events actually happening and the telling of the events.
Now, neither of these things are necessarily deal-breakers when it comes to deciding which point of view to use. But they are certainly factors to take into consideration.
Now for the final, and perhaps most important, advantage…
Third Person Point of View Gives the Writer More Freedom
If third person point of view gives the novel writer more freedom, then the opposite must be true: first person point of view must be more restrictive. But how? In several ways…
For starters, if you use the first person to write your novel, you will need to find ways to have your viewpoint character be present in every major scene. And that isn’t always easy or even desirable.
But in a third person novel, you always have the option of presenting scenes from the viewpoints of other characters.
Second, you lose the freedom to withhold information in a 1st person novel. If a first person detective works out who the murderer is, for example, they have to tell the reader about it there and then. (It is simply a convention of first person prose that the reader will feel cheated if the narrator is less than honest with them.)
But in a third person novel, you could show the scene in which the detective makes his breakthrough from another character’s point of view.
And in a first person novel, there is always one piece of information that is impossible to withhold from the readers: the fact that the main character has survived to tell the tale.
The mere fact that they are telling the story means that we, the readers, know from the start that they don’t die. (For that reason, a third person account of a climber’s ascent of Everest would have so much more tension than a first person account.)
But here’s the biggest loss of freedom in a first person point of view novel…
In first person novels, the narrator and the viewpoint character are essentially one and the same. But because they are separate in a third person novel, you can achieve so much more as a writer. For example…
The third person, godlike narrator can begin by describing the landscape from on high or from afar, much in the way that a movie director “sets the scene” with an establishing shot. (And narrators aren’t restricted to describing the landscape. They can tell the reader about the town’s history, say, or a character’s past. They can talk about the storm clouds gathering far out to sea, then the rain falling on the mountains, then the flood reaching the village in the valley some hours later.)
However the neutral narrator of a third person novel sets the scene, they will next home-in on the action that is about to take place, and in particular on the viewpoint character. Now, we will see what the character sees and we will hear their thoughts, and the language will lose its neutral tone and begin to approximate the character’s own speaking voice, thus giving it almost the intimacy of first person prose.
And when the action is over, the narrator can pull back the camera, showing the people and the places from afar once again. Or perhaps zooming over the landscape or fast-forwarding through time to show a different scene through a different pair of eyes on a different day.
And if that isn’t the ultimate in storytelling freedom, I don’t know what is.