Most fiction is written in the third person, which means the narrator tells the story from a perspective that’s outside of the events described.
This isn’t the case with first-person narrators. In this case, a character tells the story from their viewpoint and uses the pronoun “I,” while a second-person narrator speaks directly to the reader and uses the pronoun “you.”
Why is Third-Person Narration So Popular?
Open any novel and you’ll probably notice that it uses a third-person narrator. Authors often prefer this form of writing because it’s flexible. Usually, a third-person narrator is a voice that doesn’t belong to anyone, rather than a character in the story. This lets the author show as much of the characters’ actions and thoughts to the reader as they want.
Omniscient and Limited Third-Person Narratives
There are two types of third-person narrators: omniscient and limited. Omniscient narrators know everything about every character in the story. In this example from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, the omniscient narrator tells the reader what Lucy and Edmund are thinking and feeling:
. . . he was so odd-looking that Lucy . . . was a little afraid of him, and Edmund . . . wanted to laugh . . .
The omniscient narrative style conveys an objective viewpoint. The reader can trust that the information presented is true because the narrator is “all knowing.”
When authors use a limited point of view, they only show what one or more particular characters know. In The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example, the author uses a third-person narrator but only tells stories from the point of view of the main character, Laura.
A limited point of view is more subjective because the character that the narrator focuses on doesn’t know what the other characters are thinking and doesn’t always see what they’re doing. Therefore, the narrator can only offer their interpretation of what they see and hear.
Common Mistakes in a Third-Person Narrative
When writing in the third person, you should avoid these pitfalls:
● A boring narrative voice: When you write as an omniscient narrator, you must make an extra effort to ensure that readers identify with your characters and are drawn into the story. Since the narrator isn’t directly involved with the characters and the action of the story, the reader may feel detached unless the voice telling the story is distinctive and interesting.
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● Head hopping: A limited narrative style doesn’t have to be limited to a single character’s perspective. But if you jump back and forth between the thoughts of different characters too frequently, it can be confusing for readers. One approach is to introduce a new perspective with each chapter, as Jodi Piccoult does in her novel House Rules. If your narrator is omniscient, you can reveal each of your characters’ inner thoughts. However, when you describe a character’s feelings, be careful not to slip into their voice (rather than the narrator’s).
● Revealing too much information: An omniscient narrator knows everything, but that doesn’t mean they should tell the reader everything. One element of good storytelling is to reveal enough to keep the reader engaged, but not so much that they have no questions left.
Can a Third-Person Narrator be Unreliable?
Absolutely! However, this is much rarer than a first-person narrative and must be attempted very carefully. In most cases, this would involve a limited third-person narrative style that blurs the line between the character and narrator, known as third-person deep. Consider the following sentence:
Wherever he turned he could feel eyes watching him. Of course—it was all a trap! This whole situation had been set up by his parents, and teachers no doubt, to catch him in the act. Jack felt a bead of sweat drip down his cheek.
In this example, Jack’s paranoid thoughts are bleeding into the third-person narrative. It’s an effective way to bring the reader closer to the inner world of the character whilst still maintaining the flexibility of third-person narration.
How Does a Third-Person Narrative Affect the Reader?
Third-Person narrative can expose readers to the perspectives of multiple characters, which can affect how the reader understands the “truth” of the events unfolding. It also allows the writer to provide the reader with key information that might not be known to the main character, which can excite or frustrate the reader if the character makes decisions you know will lead to success or disaster.
Summary: What’s Third-Person Narration?
Writers use third-person narration when they tell a story from the perspective of someone who has nothing to do with the events. This invisible narrator is often omniscient, meaning they know what’s going on in each character’s mind. But it may also be that the point of view is limited to one or more characters.
When writing in the third person, it’s important to establish and stick to the boundaries of what your narrator can see. If you suddenly jump into the head of a character whose thoughts were previously unknown, you risk confusing your readers and spoiling their enjoyment of your writing.
Our eagle-eyed team of proofreaders is experienced in checking all kinds of texts. Whether you’re working on a novel or a short story, we can help you polish your writing. Our editing service also includes pointing out inconsistencies when you narrate in the third person. Why not try us out now by sending a 500-word sample of your writing to proofread for free?