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Powers and Perils of Writing in Third Person

Writing in third person can be both liberating and overwhelming. As writers, we have greater freedom in how we tell the story, but we also have more narrative choices to make.

For instance, do you want your narrator to be close to one character or to multiple characters? In first person, we show only one perspective. Another example: How much does your narrator know? In first person, we're limited to a single character's knowledge, whereas in third person, there is a spectrum for us to consider (more on that below).

The good news is that understanding both the powers and the potential perils of using third person can help you leverage this freedom (and not be intimidated by it).

POWERS

Mobility: Third person narrators can be close to multiple characters, allowing the writer to present different viewpoints to the reader. An example we use at The Writers Studio is Etgar Keret's short story “A Good-Looking Couple,” from his collection The Nimrod Flipout: Stories. His third person narrator moves seamlessly among the perspectives of a man, a woman, a cat, a TV, and a door in the same room. As readers, we always know which perspective we're in because each character has a distinct take. Together, their individual perspectives help build depth and complexity in the narrative.

Omniscience: In third person, there is a spectrum of knowledge the narrator can access: what one character knows, what multiple characters know, or everything (omniscient). When the narrator knows everything, they can strategically present information to the reader. For instance, in “The Paperhanger” by William Gay, which revolves around a child who goes missing, the narrator knows what happened to the child the entire time, but both the reader and the mother don't find out until the end. This allows the narrator to create and sustain tension throughout the story.

Awareness: Third person can be a good choice when working with a character who is disconnected from others or themselves in some way and unable to tell their own story in an engaging/revealing manner. The third person narrator can offer insight the character lacks and put into words what they are feeling or experiencing. Such is the case in Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays, for example.

Separation: Having a depressed narrator tell a depressing story in a depressing way is too much for the reader. However, in third person, the narrator’s mood can be separate and distinct from the character’s. Although the character may feel sad or angry, the narrator can feel something different, such as amused or curious. A good example is Shannon Cain's short story "Juniper Beach," about a woman grieving the death of her parents. Although Cain's third person narrator is empathetic to the character's plight, the narrator isn't bogged down in her grief. Instead, the narrator finds ways to provide moments of lightness and uses unexpected language to keep us entertained.

PERILS

Confusion: If you switch perspectives too often in third person and/or fail to distinguish the perspectives, it can be extremely confusing for the reader.

Inconsistency: Even though the narrator may reveal different perspectives, how the narrator communicates each character's feelings, thoughts, and actions should remain consistent. Otherwise, not only are you changing perspectives, you are also changing narrators.

Too Distant: If the narrator is too distant, it can become challenging for the reader to connect with the characters and invest in what happens to them. You need to be able to develop enough emotional depth and complexity to engage the reader for the long haul.

No Perspective: It's important that your third person narrator maintains their own distinct take on the events unfolding, separate from the characters. Otherwise, the narrator disappears entirely.

What's Your Experience?

Now that we've taken a look at both first person (see Perks and Pitfalls of Writing in First Person) and third person, I'd love to know: which point of view do you find yourself gravitating toward more? What do you find are your biggest challenges?