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 The Artistry and Craft of the Bard (III)

Point of View—An Overview
Part Three—Third-Person Point of View

© 2002 by Lifetrekker
All rights reserved.

"Point of view may be the single most important choice
a writer makes.... Point of view offers the controlling framework
that shapes any fiction and determines its dimensions."
Alyce Miller, Author of Stopping for Green Lights (Obstfeld, 38)

In third-person point of view (POV), the pronouns used for the narrator are: she, he, it, they, them, her, him, its, etc. Third-person point of view may be either objective (a factual, eyewitness account), limited (confined to one character), or omniscient (all-knowing). Third person is the most used point of view, yet for the novice writer it can be one of the most difficult to master.


Using  third-person objective or dramatic, the story’s narrator plays the role of a reporter or camera, like a detached, fly-on-the-wall observer who is not a character in the story. The narrator reports what the character is doing without entering her head and can only tell the reader what she sees. She has no idea what the character is thinking, nor is she aware of any events or actions that occur outside the scene. Here is an example from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s "Young Goodman Brown." Everything we know comes from the narrator:

    Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset into the street at Salem village, put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife. And Faith, as the wife was aptly named, thrust her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons on her cap while she called to Goodman Brown.

    "Dearest heart," whispered she, softly and rather sadly, when her lips were close to his ears, "prithee put off your journey until sunrise and sleep in your own bed to-night [sic]. A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts that she’s afeard of herself sometimes. Pray tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all night in the year."

    "My love and my Faith," replied young Goodman Brown, "of all night in the year, this one night must I tarry away from thee. My journey, as thoust callest it, forth and back again, must needs be done `twixt now and sunrise. What, my sweet, pretty wife, dost thou doubt me already, and we but three months married?"

Why is this objective? This is objective for the following reasons:

  1. The narrator is an outside observer and only paints the scene;
  2. The reader only knows what each character thinks through the dialogue and the "showing" of action; and,
  3. The voice and editorial prerogative of the author are absent.

An excellent example of third-person objective, "Young Goodman Brown" is in the public domain and easy to find online through a search engine. Take a peek at it. Read it for fun, then go back and read it again for the structure of the objective point of view.

Other examples abound. Some have said that third-person objective is the most frequently used viewpoint in literature. Look back at the classes you have taken in literature or English. While much of modern narrative literature uses a broad spectrum of voice and point of view, the earliest stories and pre-novels—the Bible, the Qaran, Aesop’s Tales, almost every myth or bardic legend ever recorded, Boccacio’s Decameron, medieval epics like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Song of Roland—use this third-person objective point of the view.

In more modern fiction, which tends to use more limited and omniscient voices, the objective viewpoint is still prevalent. Shirley Jackson’s "The Lottery," John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and his short story, "The Chrysanthemums," Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Dashiell Hammett’s pot-boiler The Glass Key, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Clive Cussler’s Valhalla Rising are just a few.

Using third-person objective has a number of benefits: it is the least intrusive; it does not editorialize; it even may be the most reliable because, like the film of a camera, it does not lie. Characters may lie through action, deed, and dialogue; but the objective narrator may not. This narrator is only a spectator. Because the objective narrator knows only what he observes, he is ignorant of future events. This ignorance is useful to an author in building suspense and is frequently found in the horror/suspense genre of modern commercial fiction.

Third-person objective also has its limitations. This point of view relies heavily on action and dialogue: the reader learns what a character knows or feels only by means of what he or she does and says. Therefore, the narrative can become superficial and lack psychological depth. Examples of this flaw are easily seen. Compare some great stories that emphasize character and their thoughts and motivations with how those stories have translated to film. Often they fail. Not just because of Hollywood’s craving for the next big blockbuster and emphasis on action over character, but because the camera alone cannot capture intrinsic emotions. Films rely more on dialogue, setting, and the descriptive abilities of the camera. The same is true for the author who chooses to tell a story using the objective point of view.


Third-person limited point of view [also called third-person limited conscience, third-person central intelligence, third-person central consciousness, or select omniscient narrator (limited omniscient)] works from inside a single character. The reader sees what the character sees; feels what the character feels; hears, tastes, and smells what the character hears, tastes, and smells. The character acts as a filter to the events taking place in and around her environment. This character is often the focal point of the story and as such is called the focalizer.

    Example: The dining hall buzzed with conversation. Laura took her tray and made her way to an empty table midway between the back windows overlooking the dumpster and the doors leading back to the facilities main hallway, which led to the T.V. room, library, classrooms, and her cell. It wasn’t like there was much, if anything, to watch. She’d already read half a dozen books in the last three weeks, and who knew how long the juvenile judicial system, social workers, shrinks, and what all planned to keep her in her present version of home; but one thing was certain, she was ready to leave. Perhaps Vicksburg hadn’t been that bad. Perhaps she should have just stayed put, tried to fit in. An impossibility, that much she was certain of. But why come back here? Why when everything and everyone that she had known and loved was gone? She knew that answer, too. It was home, at least sort of.

This viewpoint abounds in thousands of stories and novels in modern literature. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel, Sarah Orne Jewett’s "A White Heron," Franz Kafka’s "The Metamorphosis," Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, Susan Glaspell’s "A Jury of Her Peers," William Faulkner’s "Barn Burning," and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

A number of advantages exist when using third-person limited point of view. It tends to be quite realistic, even when the subject matter or plot is not, such as in The Hobbit and other works found in the science fiction/fantasy genre. Easily, it is a key ingredient in unifying an entire story, or novel. However, this viewpoint also has some limitations: the reader only knows what the character knows, nothing more, and sometimes even less, depending on the reliability of the character as narrator.

Today, especially in larger works of fiction like the novel, the third-person point of view is often a limited shifting point of view or third-person successive or multiple point of view. Like the third-person limited, this point of view focuses on one character at a time. But the focus might be for a section, chapter, or even a single scene, rather than for the entire length of the novel. For instance in my Star Trek: The Next Generation uber novel, The Inspection, Chapter 1, is told from the point of view of Admiral Chinua Ngombo, and Chapters 2 and 3 are filtered through Dr. Beverley Crusher’s point of view. I used the same technique in writing Inspection’s prequel, The Ambassador.

The third-person limited shifting can be a powerful structural tool in bringing together a narrative, especially one that covers a large expanse of time or space. It is often used for multigenerational novels like Kim Stanley Robinson’s and Ben Bova’s Mars series, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, or James Michener’s Chesapeake, Centennial, Texas, and Alaska. It can anchor a novel involving numerous characters or plot lines, as in Fanny Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes or William Safire’s Lincoln. It allows the reader to explore the characters and multiple events more fully. Multiple characters present multiple perspectives and allow the reader to go where the main character cannot. As with the third-person limited, there is an omniscient quality here. Switching viewpoint can also heighten suspense and increase pace. However, writers, especially novices, must take care when using this point of view.

Generally, multiple viewpoints should not be mixed in the same scene. This is called head-hopping. While someone new to writing may not see why this would be a problem, this error actually reduces the cohesion of the story’s overall structure. This can cause confusion for the reader, such as: Who said that? Who believes that? Who did that? Where are we now? Readers don’t want to have to reread due to the author’s carelessness. Also, while it is fun to piece together bits of conversation, puzzling clues, pieces of action, or maybe even settings, it is not fun to spend needless energy wondering about plot flow, who is actually on stage, or which character is doing what. Sure, mystery makes reading fun, but total confusion due to poor craftsmanship is not acceptable.

That is why writing instructors are clear on this point:

From Daniel Steven, "Session 2: Character Development":

    POV RULE NO. 1: Never change either narrative voice or viewpoint character within a scene. All changes should be made when beginning a new scene or chapter.

     POV RULE NO. 2: Never break POV Rule No. 1.

    Very early in a story, the writer signals to the reader what the point of view will be. Once given, this signal constitutes a sort of contract between author and reader. Readers orient themselves using the point of view. They float along on a stream of verbal signals issuing from a single consciousness, a coherent persona. If the writer violates the contract, the reader wakes up. The spell is broken. The dream is over.

Example of a shift in POV from Neil Caudle, "Point of View and Voice":

      Brenda crossed the stage and turned to face the audience. They were shadowy and silent, beyond the footlights. The microphone was too high. She tried to lower it, twisting the cold, metal bands of the gooseneck in her fingers, but her elbow jarred the stack of pages she'd laid on the podium. Her notes fluttered off like wild leaves on the stage. But nobody laughed. Most of the crowd felt embarrassment for her. Brenda didn't know what to do. Should she chase after the pages? Could she speak without notes?

    Where is the shift in point of view? The shift occurs with "most of the crowd felt embarrassment for her." And some of us may feel the shift as early as "nobody laughed." The shift causes such a disruption that the writer needs a clumsy, mechanical transition ("Brenda didn’t know what to do") to get us back to Brenda’s head. Readers may not consciously detect this kind of shift as they would, say, a misspelled word. But they will stub a toe on it, feel the spell break. The writer’s authority erodes.

And from Nan Jacobs, "Fiction Workshop #4 Point of View: Rules of Thumb":

    One POV per scene. Story tension is greater when the reader doesn't know the non-POV character's internal reaction to the events right away. Sometimes the at-stakes balance shifts in a scene, therefore a POV switch might enhance the scene. Some "POV purists" would rather see one POV per chapter.

However, rules can be broken. Nora Roberts and Judith McNaught, best-selling romance writers, head-hop all the time.

Rebecca Vinyard, "Point of View: Is Playing by the Rules for You?" has this to say:

    If you aren't a Nora Roberts or a Judith McNaught, this can make your readers dizzy and confused. Lord help you if your reader is a writer, because some I've known (okay, including me) will throw the book across the room if the POV changes five times in a single paragraph. It's frustrating...argh! Who's thinking what? This is why beginning authors are advised to stick with one POV per scene. Think of it as a consideration for your manuscript's safety.

    What do Nora and Judith know that we don't know? Transitions. These ladies are very, very, good at making smooth changes from one character's POV to the next.
    Brief example:

      Cece was sick of watching Brad comb his rich russet hair. Brad wished Cece would quit staring at him.

    As you can see, the first sentence is in Cece's tells us how she feels...sick of Brad! The second sentence, which should be a new paragraph actually, and we're in Brad's head now. The POV switch is clear, because I told you, ‘Brad wished.'

     It's as simple as that to change POV; you must make it clear which character is 'speaking.' I strongly recommend to limit your POV switches. Changing within the same sentence or paragraph is VERY confusing. By keeping POV switches from paragraph to paragraph, your transitions are helped along.

    From a personal standpoint, I try to stay in one POV per scene. Most of the time, but not always. To me, a love scene without both POVs packs less emotional punch. Or perhaps, I might need to shift the tension over to another character within a scene for plot purposes.

    If it is a love scene, I tend to shift back and forth between the characters, from paragraph to paragraph. Otherwise, if I make a shift within a scene, I try to only do it once. Remember, staying with one POV can increase tension and conflict because of the element of mystery. POV can be a writer's best friend that way...and in other ways too.

Writers can use a number of techniques to change point of view:

  • The easiest is to use chapter breaks.
  • Within a chapter: space breaks--with or without lines, a series of dashes or hyphens or pound symbols--will also work.
  • Change time or place, in effect creating a new scene. If this occurs during a chapter with multiple scenes, to prevent confusion with the readers, many writers, especially commercial writers, use space breaks.
  • Create a transition using the non-character narrator or a descriptive bridge. Here is one provided by Rachel Simon ("The Writer's Writing Guide: Point of View"):

        Leslie dragged her shopping cart across the vacant lot toward her apartment, head bent against the wind…Wind whipped broken glass into billowing pirouettes before her; a shard slashed her cheek…. "You need help?" she heard, and looked down. It was that kid, that Danny Dawkins who sits in the wheelchair outside the Shop and Bag and does yoyo tricks, then begs folks to toss coins into his knitted cap…. "No. Go away," Leslie said, wiping her cheek so he wouldn't see her bleed. Just then the wind got louder. Both of them looked up as a gust blasted across the lot like a train bearing down on them… the shopping cart seemed to get sucked right out of Leslie's hands and twirl itself into the fracas. "Hey!" Leslie called, and snatched forward. Danny grabbed for it too, but in so doing let go of his wheelchair handles, and then in the next gust his contraption, his very own set of customized circular legs, went ass over kettle, and he heard a clatter in his ears, felt a crunch of his shoulders, and then he was face down in the ice, inhaling yesterday's orange juice spill. "Help me," he muttered, needing her now, hoping to hell that she'd seen, that she could hear.

      The transition occurs at the point where the wind gusts and pulls the shopping basket from Leslie’s hands. This is the non-character narrator. After this, the point of view switches to Danny. This subtleness doesn’t jolt the reader.

      The non-character narrator oversees all this, taking us in and out of Leslie's head, then merely observing during the transition, and then taking us into Danny's head. If we wanted, we could even have had the non-character narrator comment on the action during the transition, give us some quick exposition, or provide some objective perspective on the whole scene. Either way, it can oversee all the points of view, and be our passport from one to another.

  • Physical action can also complete a transition. Here Simon displays how the sensation of touch can cause the transition.

      Mary is wailing so loud outside, Billy can't concentrate on his guitar solo, even though he’s in the basement. Damnit, why did Mom have to leave that brat with him? He slams out of the house, almost tripping over Mary's stupid Raggedy Ann on his way to her crumpled tricycle and howling mass of tears. When he reaches her at the end of the drive, he grabs her hurt arm. "What happened?" he demands, running his fingers along the nub of Mary's elbow. "I thought you were going to be quiet for me." He glowers at her and she lowers her eyes, turning her face away. His fingers feel smooth as they rub her boo-boo, so smooth they must be shiny, like raindrops. They feel good, like she's got her arm in a sprinkler and he's cleaning away all the hurt.


      All writers play god or goddess in creating the worlds, characters, and events that shape their stories. However, in allowing the reader to revel within the inner souls of characters, their loves, thoughts, demons, dreams, and memories, no bard is as powerful as the one who uses the omniscient viewpoint. Here the narrator knows every thought and dream filling the minds of the characters, everything that has happened in the past, is happening now, and will happen.

      Rikki Ducornet uses the omniscient viewpoint magnificently in her novel, The Stain. Writers like Raymond Obstfeld in Masked Dog and The Remington Factor, and Stephen King in The Stand and Firestarter, use the technique as a way to build suspense. The omniscient view can create comic distance as in James Thurber’s "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; or it can help cover spans in time, space, or many characters without writing thousands of pages to do it as in E.L. Doctrow’s Ragtime. (Card, 160)

      Here is an example from Anne Siddon’s novel, Heartbreak Hotel. As you read, take note of the narrator’s knowledge of the town. You will see that she knows things the characters would not.

        There had never been another birth announcement after Maggie's to come from the tall old house with the stone gateposts on Coleman Street. It was as though Maggie was stamped Sufficient at her birth, and any other child would have been extraneous, an afterthought.... In the cities of the South-- in Atlanta and Birmingham and Charlotte and Mobile and Charleston-- there were perhaps a hundred Maggies flowering in any given year, girls planted, tended, and grown like prize roses, to be cut and massed and shown at debutante balls and cotillions in their eighteenth.

      While the omniscient is the most flexible of all the viewpoints, it is also the one that can most easily destroy the illusion of reality. "No one can go from one place to another, [or] read people's minds whenever the story demands it." (The Narrator, "The Omniscient Narrator Features"). This is also the most obtrusive and the least suspenseful of all the viewpoints. If not handled well or improperly crafted, it can be jerky. It can dilute tension, confuse the reader as to who is thinking and doing what, and it can interfere with the emotional commitment of the narrator and the reader.

      Therefore, as with the multiple third-person point of view, writers using the omniscient point of view must use care. The concerns, rules, and techniques for handling multiple perspectives are also true when working with the omniscient.

      Novelist Radclyffe’s opening paragraphs in Innocent Hearts is a wonderful handling. Notice how she uses transitions to maintain the flow and to avoid jarring or confusing the reader.

        Martin Beecher halted the wagon on a knoll overlooking a sprawling town that lay nestled in a valley hewn from the eastern reaches of the Rockies. He sat forward eagerly, anxious for his first glimpse of their new home.

        "There it is, Martha. Come look, Kate. We've finally arrived!" he exclaimed, reaching for his wife's hand. She sat beside him on the rough wagon bench, stiff from the lingering chill of the late spring nights, bundled to the nose in a heavy blanket.

        Martha Beecher surveyed the scene before her and tried to quell the quick surge of dread. There were perhaps a dozen buildings in all on either side of a rutted dirt road that was clearly 'Main Street.' She shielded her eyes, squinting in the early morning sun to make out other houses scattered along the outskirts of the town and further into the foothills wherever homesteaders had settled.

        A young woman pushed between them from the rear of the covered wagon, one gloved hand on each of their shoulders. Despite the chill she was bareheaded and her glossy hair shone darkly in the bright sunlight. "Is that it?" she asked, her voice alight with an echo of her father's enthusiasm. "Are we here?"

        "At last, darling Kate," Martin answered cheerfully. "New Hope, Montana."

        "I am so glad! I can't wait to meet the Schroeders! Do you know which is their house?"

        …Kate did not see the stark simplicity of the town and the wild countryside as something to fear, as her mother did. Like her father, she saw a chance that her life might be more than she had been raised to believe it would be.

        …She gripped her father's shoulder harder, asking, "And the newspaper office, where you'll be working? That's here, too?"

        "One of the very first in the territory," Martin pronounced proudly, throwing his arms around his wife. "Just think of it!"

        His excitement was so boundless, and so simple, that Martha's heart lifted at the sight of his pleasure. She returned his hug and said softly with more conviction than she felt, "It will be wonderful, darling. I'm sure of it."

      This works well because of the way it flows. It allows us, the reader, the chance to glimpse into the minds and emotions, hopes and fears, of the Beecher family as they look down at the town that will become their home. Beautifully crafted and beautifully done.

      So what is the difference between the shifting third-person limited and third-person omniscient? According to Valerie Miner in "Casting Shadows, Hearing Voices: The Basics of Point of View":

        [In the third-person limited point of view] …less (knowledge on the part of the fallible narrator) can lead to more (reader empathy with the struggling point-of-view character)....The omniscient speaker often knows more (about tomorrow, for instance, or about the motives of minor characters) than can be expressed in the third-person limited point of view. The omniscient point of view can distance the readers from the protagonist and may even establish a sense that the narrator and the reader are in league together—beyond the ken of the main character." (Checkoway, 102)

      Viewpoint is the structural heart of fiction. It is the lens through which the reader views the plot and relates to the character. Not all viewpoints are suited to every story. Viewpoints must be chosen wisely and with care. Next month I hope to look at how writers can decide which viewpoint is best for a given story.

      Until then may the Muses be with you!


      Card, Orson Scott. The Elements of Fiction Writing Series: Characters & Viewpoint: How to Invent, Construct, and Animate Vivid, Credible Characters and Choose the Best Eyes Through Which to View the Events of Your Short Story or Novel. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1988. Pages 126-174.
      Checkoway, Julie, ed. Creating Fiction: Instructions and Insights from the Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1999. Pages 95-124.
      Davis, J. Madison. Novelist’s Essential Guide to Creating Plot. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2000. Pages 61-77.
      Ducornet, Rikki. The Stain. Normal, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 1984.
      Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft. Portland, Oregon: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998.
      McMahan, Elizabeth and et. al, eds. "Writing about Point of View." Literature and the Writing Process, Fifth Edition. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1996), 94-106.
      Novakovitch, Josip. Fiction Writer’s Workshop. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1995. Pages 99-126.
      -----. Writing Fiction: Step By Step. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1998. Pages 72-91.
      Obstfeld, Raymond. Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2000. Pages 38-50.
      Szeman, Sherri. "Who’s Afraid of Point of View." The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, edited by Meg Leder, Jack Heffron, and et. al. (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2002.
      Wood, Monica. The Elements of Fiction Writing Series: Description: How to Engage Readers and Keep Stories Moving by Creating Vivid, Believable Depictions of People, Places, Events and Actions. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1995. Pages 84-118.

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