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How to understand point of view (part two)

This post is the second of two articles on understanding point of view. It discusses third-person point of view in its various forms. Part one covers first-person and second-person point of view.

A recap of point of view

A point-of-view character is the character through which a story – or part of a story – is being told. The reader will experience the story from the perspective of that character. That means the reader should feel as if they are in the character’s mind, experiencing everything that the character does and at the same time. This should include all thoughts, emotions and sensory experiences of the viewpoint character. There can be several viewpoint characters within a book or just one.

Point of view can be confusing and difficult to get right, especially for first-time authors. Some authors prefer to use one point-of view character throughout the book. Others may alternate points of view between chapters. However you choose to use point of view, remember to avoid headhopping, which happens when you jump from one viewpoint character to another.

Third-person limited point of view

Third person limited is, as the name suggests, limited to that particular character, and is the most popular point of view for authors to use.  She, he, it and they pronouns are used instead of I, as in first-person point of view. The reader experiences the story from inside the mind of that viewpoint character.  We are with them as events unfold and experience all their emotions, feelings and senses.

In the extract below, we are experiencing the story from Esther’s point of view.

It was the smell that bought her here. The filtered air and her weak lungs meant that most of the House was as scent-less as they could make it, but here no one could stop the rich, almost spiced aroma of the tomatoes. Mother called it grassy, but Esther could no longer remember what grass smelled like to be able to agree with her.

The Safe House, Louise Mumford, Chapter 3, Kindle

Consider the examples below:

Mal had never liked parties, especially those filled with people he didn’t know.

We are in Mal’s head, so we know he doesn’t like parties. If we are in his head, we can’t experience anything that he isn’t aware of.

Mal had never liked parties, especially those filled with people he didn’t know. The guy standing next to him was thinking the same.

As mentioned above, we are in Mal’s head so he cannot know what the chap next to him is thinking (this is an example of head-hopping). But we could tweak the narrative to give Mal’s observations of his fellow party pooper instead.

Mal had never liked parties, especially those filled with people he didn’t know. The guy standing next to him looked as bored as he was.

As when writing first-person point of view, reporting facial expressions can be troublesome.

Mal had never liked parties, especially those filled with people he didn’t know. He looked around the room with a bored expression on his face.

We are experiencing the story from within Mal’s head, so Mal can’t know he has a bored expression.

Mal had never liked parties, especially those filled with people he didn’t know. God, he was bored. He rolled his eyes and looked around the room. 

By adding in Mal’s thoughts through free indirect style along with some actions, we can keep the point of view on Mal. This also makes the prose more interesting to read,

Third-person objective point of view

Third-person objective point of view provides the reader with the experience of looking in on a character rather than looking out, as with third person limited. She, he, it and they pronouns are used, as in third-person limited point of view. Third-person objective point of view is sometimes referred to as third-person cinematic. With third-person objective we are able to observe what the narrator can see but we don’t know what the characters are thinking. With this point of view we can’t observe anything that is not able to be observed by the narrator in that particular scene.

This point of view is not so intimate as first person and third person limited as it is more impersonal, and the reader is distanced on the outside. 

Kelly had walked for miles. She was limping and her black leggings were splashed with mud. A rucksack hung heavily on her back, the front pocket gaping open. She stumbled and fell to the ground. She swore loudly.

Third person-objective point of view is often used alongside third person limited to covey factual information and allow access to a character’s thoughts and feelings.

Third-person omniscient

Third-person omniscient point of view can be challenging to write, especially for new authors.

An omniscient narrator knows everything about any event or place at any time and observes everyone’s thoughts and what everyone is doing. The narrator is not limited to the viewpoint of any one character. Their knowledge goes beyond what a third person objective narrator could know as they are an all-knowing being.

As the omniscient narrator is a separate entity, any character observations and thoughts should be reported by the narrator in their own tone and style rather than given in the unique voice of the character. Characters’ own voices can be shown through dialogue. As omniscient creates more distance from the reader, there is often more description and more telling than showing.

Platform Seven by Louise Doughty is written in third-person omniscient point of view. The narrator is a ghost that is confined within Peterborough railway station. In the extract below, the narrator is observing Melissa, a duty manager at the station, and comments on her scarf that was knitted by her mum for Christmas and that her mum is going to knit her matching wrist-warmers too. Only an omniscient narrator could know the facts about Meliissa’s knitwear.

Inside, Melissa unwinds her scarf – a lengthy process as it is very long and wrapped around her several times, like a python. Her mum knitted it for her last Christmas and has promised her matching wrist-warmers this year. She hangs up her coat, then puts on her red VTEC jacket. She will go and talk to the staff first of all make sure everyone is okay then go to Platform Seven and take a look around.

Platform Seven, Louise Doughty, Chapter 2, Kindle

An omniscient narrator can only observe a character’s thoughts and does not have access to direct (stream-of-consciousness) thoughts. Doing this would put the reader in the point of view of that character.

She wondered why she had been overlooked for promotion again. Perhaps she was terrible at her job.

The first sentence is reported by the omniscient narrator reporting their observations of the character. The second sentence is the character’s thought given in her own voice rather than in the voice of the narrator. This can be easily changed by adding a thought tag to show that the omniscient narrator has observed her thought.

She wondered why she had been overlooked for promotion again. She decided she must be terrible at her job.

Headhopping

I’ve mentioned headhopping at various points throughout this article and part one, but it’s worth giving another example as headhopping is a particular problem for new fiction authors.

Peter sighed and took a sip of his lukewarm coffee. How long should he stay? He was never comfortable at networking events and always felt completely out of place next to all the high-flying executives. He didn’t know anyone there. He glanced at the woman standing next to him. She wasn’t comfortable either and was wishing she was back in her office. Her name was Lola and she worked as a dispute-resolution solicitor in a small firm in Manchester.

This passage is told from Peter’s point of view. As we are in Peter’s head, we can only experience the networking event from his perspective. He doesn’t know that everyone else at the event is a high-flying executive. As he doesn’t know anyone there, he can’t know the name of the woman next to him, nor her occupation or that she was wishing she wasn’t there.

This could be fixed by some simple tweaks. Now we stay in Peter’s head and still glean the same information as when we were hopping about in everyone’s head.

Peter sighed and took a sip of his lukewarm coffee. How long should he stay? He was never comfortable at networking events and always felt completely out of place next to people who looked like they were high-flying executives. He didn’t know anyone there. He glanced at the woman standing next to him. She didn’t want to be there either judging by the way she kept sighing and looking at the clock. Was she wishing she was back in her office too? Peter took a deep breath and introduced himself.  She told him that her name was Lola and she worked as a dispute-resolution solicitor in a small firm in Manchester.

You can find out about first-person point of view and second-person point of view in part one of how to understand point of view in fiction.

Final thoughts
  • Third person-limited is the safest choice for new authors and is the most popular option in modern fiction.
  • Third-person objective is not so intimate as first person and third-person limited as it is more impersonal, and the reader observes rather than getting close to the characters. 
  • Third-person omniscient is tricky to get right and is less popular in modern fiction. It adds more distance between the reader and characters.
References

Platform Seven, Louise Doughty, Faber and Faber, 2020

The Safe House, Louise Mumford, HQ, 2022

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I’m Clare Black, a fiction book editor based in Stockport, UK. I help independent authors prepare for publishing by fixing the important details and improving the readability of their books. I specialise in crime, thriller and contemporary fiction, but I am happy to consider other genres. I am a Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP).

I offer various packages to help indie authors get published and would love the opportunity to discuss your book and how I can help you prepare for publishing.

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