#114: Exploring Third-Person Point of View

Dear Story Nurse,

I need some help loosening my grip on tight third person point of view. I write mostly fanfic, and tight third works well for shorter works, but I find that it breaks down in longer works. Most of the time, I work around it by occasionally changing POV at scene transitions or chapter breaks.

This leads to confusion for some readers because tight third, at least the way I use it, almost axiomatically creates narrators as unreliable (just in different ways) as first person POV does. First person is culturally coded as unreliable, so readers tend to question what the narrator is omitting or being misleading about. Third person, on the other hand, carries the implication that there isn’t a person withholding information or not understanding what they’re experiencing/observing.

When I write tight third, different POV characters have very different ideas about what the things they see and do mean and make assumptions about what other people think, feel, and intend. Any particular character’s section may contain major conflicts with other characters’ sections.

I like writing this way and enjoy reading things written this way, but the comments I’ve gotten have made me think about the fact that I can write tight third and first but not omniscient third or even a more distant third. I would like to figure out how to approach those.

Thanks!

—Anne (she/her)

Dear Anne,

Learning new writing skills is usually valuable (unless you’re doing it to procrastinate), but I want to caution you against thinking that you have to change the way you write because it doesn’t work for a few readers. If you’re happy writing tight third and you’re reaching at least some readers who seem to really get what you’re doing with it, it may make more sense to work on setting reader expectations around reliability of narrators in that context. For example, you can switch POV more frequently so that the differences between two people’s experiences of a situation show up earlier and establish that this is a thing that can and will happen in your stories, or have side characters argue with your POV characters about how they’re interpreting events, so as to remind readers that the POV character is not infallible. And remember that nothing you write will reach or please every single person who reads it, so you’re best off continuing to write what makes you happy.

But that’s not what you asked! So for general tips on writing looser third-person fiction, read on.

One of the keys to making any narration style work is a firm sense of who’s telling the story. There doesn’t have to be a literal narrator for this to be true; as long as you, the author, understand the parameters of the narration and consistently stick to them, your readers will follow along.

We say “third-person POV” so often that we forget the phrase refers to an actual person, the narrator. (The first person is the central character and the second is the reader.) It can help to have a conceptualization of the narrator as an actual person or entity who’s telling the story to the reader. This concept doesn’t need to make sense to anyone but you, and doesn’t need to appear in the story at all. It’s just to keep you clear on what you can and can’t show.

  • Focused third person: Perhaps the story is being told by the main character’s pet robot, who follows them at a distance and records everything they say and do. All you can include are the facts of events that happen when the character, and therefore the robot, is in the room. This is the most minimalist third-person style and often feels quite journalistic.
  • Broad third person: This story is being told by a flying drone that darts from person to person and place to place, letting you include events that happen even when your main character isn’t around. It’s still journalistic, but with a bigger scope that can help give a sense of different perspectives on what takes place.
  • Tight third person: You could say the story is being told by the main character’s conscience, or a ghost sharing space with their body, or a psychic. You can now share the character’s thoughts and feelings exactly as they occur (or as the character is aware of them) in addition to showing the events recorded by the pet robot. This style is more intimate and encourages the reader to see through the protagonist’s eyes, with all the advantages and limitations that implies.
  • Omniscient narrator: Perhaps this narrator is a godlike figure that sees all and knows all, or perhaps they’re a long-form journalist relating an exceedingly well-sourced story based on numerous interviews with people who were there, or perhaps the flying drone can read minds. Every aspect of the story is available to be conveyed if you choose, including the thoughts and feelings of all the characters. This style gives you the option of head-hopping (sharing the inner experiences of multiple characters in one scene), which gives the reader plenty of information but can slow the narration and be distracting if overdone.
  • Storyteller: This style sometimes overlaps with first person and second person if the narrator speaks directly to the reader (“There are other stories even stranger than the one I am telling you now”) but is still primarily a third-person style that follows a character or group of characters through a set of events. Not only do you get to choose which actions, dialogue, thoughts, and feelings to include, you also get to put in your own opinions of the characters and their behavior. Even seemingly dispassionate omniscient narrators have agendas; moving into the storyteller space makes that explicit.

The lines between these styles can blur, of course, but this gives you at least a sense of the general categories.

When choosing a narrative style, genre and literary trends will affect how it’s received. For example, telling an epic fantasy story in head-hopping omniscient third will immediately give it a 1980s feel. Telling a contemporary story in tight third, switching between two POVs, will feel very familiar to readers of contemporary romance and women’s fiction and may lead them to expect those two POV characters to develop a romantic relationship. Choosing a style may be as simple as reading other works in your genre, examining how they handle narration, and following their lead.

Another thing that influences the choice of narrative style is your sense of how you want the reader to feel as they read. Tight third and omniscient stories can be very emotionally evocative; storyteller stories have a little ironic distance; and focused and broad third generally keep the reader thinking more about what happened than how the participants felt about it. A grand-scale space battle will feel one way with broad third-person narration relating the positions and actions of the various ships, and a different way with a tight focus on the way one ship’s guiding artificial intelligence experiences being shot at. Those are both valid ways to tell the story, depending on what effect you want to have.

Some suggestions for ways to play around with the different styles:

  • Focused third: Make the journalism literal and write a news story about what happened to your characters.
  • Broad third: Show how three different people reacted to an event they all experienced, such as neighbors responding to a house on their block catching fire. See what you can convey about the neighborhood from multiple perspectives that one perspective alone couldn’t show.
  • Tight third: Share someone’s experience of doing an emotionally complicated or challenging thing such as attending a high school reunion or going to an ex’s wedding.
  • Omniscient: Now include the perspectives of other people at that reunion or wedding, again expanding what the reader knows beyond what the character knows.
  • Storyteller: You’re gossiping with a friend about your characters and the things they’ve gotten up to recently. Dish on a particularly juicy story that had you laughing or gasping or disapproving.

I hope something in there gives you the entry point you’re looking for. Keep playing around and see what happens.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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