The Advantages and Disadvantages of Third-Person Perspective
Third-person perspective is writing from the point-of-view of an outsider telling the story. This allows the writer to explore different characters and for multiple perspectives to be inferred, though does not have to mean that is the case.
Typically, third-person falls into two categories: third-person omniscient, where the narrator knows everything about the world and all characters; and third-person limited, where the narrator only knows details about key characters and learns as events unfold throughout the story. Both use variations on ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, and ‘they’ to include characters in the story, and, depending on the awareness and objectivity of the narrator, to impart opinion and decisions.
Third-person omniscient is writing from the viewpoint of a God-like figure who can see all and is aware of every character’s thoughts. The narrator may also know what is coming and have insight into the plot, though this is not always the case. The narrator is able to observe all.
What does she fear? Paul wondered.
The old woman studied Paul in one gestalten: face oval like Jessica’s, but strong bones…hair: the Duke’s black-black but with the browline of the maternal grandfather who cannot be named, and that thin, disdainful nose; shape of directly staring green eyes: like the old Duke, the paternal grandfather who is dead.
Now, there was a man who appreciated the power of bravura—even in death, the Reverend Mother thought.Frank Herbert, Dune
In the space of three paragraphs Herbert changes internal perspective by showing direct thoughts from Paul and then the Reverend Mother, with a transitionary paragraph between showing the Reverend Mother’s actions and indirect thoughts as she studies Paul’s face. For any other perspective, this would be impossible in multiple characters in this way, with the possible exception of a combined first and second-person point-of-view.
Third-person limited only offers insight into the thoughts of one character, instead of all. That means the narrator only knows what the protagonist knows, and so the reader also is limited in their understanding. On some occasions, writers may choose to include elements of first-person point-of-view by mentioning character thoughts and feelings without using ‘he thought’ or ‘she felt’ in the text. This allows for more intimacy and helps break down the distance between the narrator and the characters.
The vampire was watching him with his back to the window. The boy could make out nothing of his face now, and something about the still figure there distracted him. He started to say something again but he said nothing. And then he sighed with relief when the vampire moved towards the table and reached for the overhead cord.Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire
Interview with the Vampire only allows us into the thoughts of the boy interviewing Louis, the titular vampire. The main part of the story is Louis describing his life, but that is all expressed through dialogue in a first-person narration, and in that respect what Louis says can be questioned and dissected. The wraparound scenes where the boy is interviewing Louis share the boy’s reactions, starting with disbelief and then disgust, and ending with fascination and obsession. The reader experiences the vampire as the boy does.
Third-person narration can also show the limited perspective of multiple characters. In this case, information is still only discovered by the narrator as the character discovers it, but more than one character can make those discoveries.
He was tempted to fly or rent a car, but he was short of money and he liked buses better and he figured nothing much was going to happen on the weekend anyway.
What happened on the weekend was that Rosemary Barr called her firm’s investigator back. She figured Franklin would have a semiindependent point of view. She got him at home, ten o’clock in the morning on the Sunday.Lee Child, One Shot
In this example, Child switches from the perspective of protagonist Jack Reacher to supporting character Rosemary Barr. Both have internal thoughts revealed in the text, but notably both sets of thoughts are distinct in their representation and are written with slightly different styles, whilst also maintaining the consistency of the narrator’s voice.
The Advantages of Third-Person Perspective
Third-person point-of-view allows you to float between multiple characters; whether that is sticking to a single character per scene, as in limited third-person, or jumping from one to another at will. This offers a great level of depth and opportunity for extensive development.
By writing in third-person you can show both the characters’ thoughts along with what is actually happening, allowing the reader to clearly see the difference between opinion and fact, and thereby including the bigger picture within the story.
Your main character can still think, feel, and experience through their senses, but so can other characters, which can allow for a greater sense of a scene as you switch between viewpoints.
Third-person can prevent your story being limited by one character’s voice, and opens the possibility for more detailed explanations that their vocabulary would allow.
There is a greater potential for tension as there is no telling which characters will actually survive the story.
The Disadvantages of Third-Person Perspective
Third-person narration, by nature, has the characters at arm’s length. This means your reader is even further detached than you are as the writer, and this can prevent some readers building empathy with your characters.
The more characters you focus on, the more diluted the reader’s connection is with each. It is very difficult to ensure the reader will empathise with all your characters and the longer the gap between following each, the less the reader will be involved with them.
Multiple characters can also become confusing to follow as without creating a strong, unique voice for each, they can all begin to sound the same.
There is less possibility of an unreliable narrator with third-person, as it would not be the character that lies, but the storyteller. With third-person limited this can be worked around by giving the narrator a distinctive voice and style, however third-person omniscient must remain reliable due to the nature of the narration.
The Balance of Third-Person Perspective
To effectively tell a story using third-person point-of-view you must know all the characters you are going to focus on, and tell the tale well from each of their perspectives. Each character needs their own thinking style, but your narrator must also remain consistent in their own delivery. This allows for a strong sense of scale in the story, but also affords the writer the luxury of telling scenes from multiple perspectives and therefore offering differing accounts.
Stephen, an elbow rested on the jagged granite, leaned his palm against his brow and gazed at the fraying edge of his shiny black coat-sleeve. Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart. Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes. Across the threadbare cuffedge he saw the sea hailed as a great sweet mother by the wellfed voice beside him. The ring of bay and skyline held a dull green mass of liquid. A bowl of white china had stood beside her deathbed holding the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting.James Joyce, Ulysses
Joyce brings a sense of stream-of-consciousness to the third-person narration in this extract, shifting into Stephen’s thoughts. In doing so, the barrier between reader and character is broken, allowing us insight into Stephen’s mindset whilst also remaining clear who we are reading about. The narrative shifts to other characters consistently, and often dances between limited and omniscient, yet the focus is always directional, so we are aware of whom we are reading about.
Third-person perspective offers the opportunity to expand a story beyond a single character, or observe a character at close range without continually intruding in their thoughts. The balance of writing it well comes from establishing the rules of the narrator and then adhering to them whilst maintaining enough intimacy with the key character or characters to allow the reader to become invested in them. It is a highly favoured perspective by writers, and understandably so.