The third person point of view is the most complex because it allows for three variations that affect on a scene-by-scene level how you’ll tell your story.
Today I'll talk about the first two: third person limited (single character) and third person shifting (multiple character).
The last type is third person omniscient, which will be covered next Friday.
Third Person Limited (Single Character)
Third person limited (single character) is the easiest of the third person point of view options to manage.
“Single character” means just that.
As in first person and second person, the same character tells the entire story. The difference is that rather than “I” or “you,” you’ll use “he” or “she” (or perhaps “it”) when referring to the viewpoint character.
The “limited” aspect once again refers to knowing only what that the viewpoint character knows. As in first and second person, even if you as the author know there’s a bomb under the table, you can’t tell the reader about it unless or until the viewpoint character knows it.
Likewise, your viewpoint character can’t see into the head or hearts of other characters.
As with first and second person, this type of narration can delve deep into the viewpoint character’s mind and heart. The feel may be a bit more removed because “I” and “you” are out of the picture, other than in dialogue. The narration also is less conversational than first person, though it can still give a feel for the character’s voice.
Third Person Limited Shifting (Multiple Character)
Third person limited shifting (multiple character) means that you tell the story from the viewpoints of more than one character.
But you still are limited to sharing what is known and experienced by the viewpoint character when you are in that character’s mind. The shifts from one character’s point of view to another’s occur either at scene breaks or chapter breaks.
Also, while you can shift from one character’s POV to another’s, you can’t include a fact that none of your viewpoint characters knows.
Once in a while, an author breaks out of the limited viewpoint to share a generally-known fact for background.
For instance, my standalone supernatural suspense novel When Darkness Falls is mainly set in downtown Chicago, and my two viewpoint characters are in their mid-twenties.
In that novel, if it’s important to the story, I could include a detail about the Chicago L trains without making clear which viewpoint character knows the information, or that any character knows it. Such background information usually comes at the beginning or end of a chapter or scene.
If you need to do this, the key is to make sure it’s not distracting to the reader.
In my example, if in description I mention that the Red Line runs north and south, the reader probably won’t wonder which character’s point of view that comes from. But if I give a long history of the first L train, and talk about how each line used to be known only by destination and not color, the reader will likely start wondering whether my two twenty-something viewpoint characters actually know that and why.
Where To Find These Points Of View
Certain genres are more apt to use first person than others. Private eye novels (including the V.I. Warshawki novels that are my favorites (see Why I Love V.I.)) are often first person. This point of view gives the reader a strong sense of solving the mystery with the sleuth.
You’ll see third person limited shifting most often in thrillers. It gives the reader the chance to see the story unfold from different perspectives and allows tension to build when the reader knows something that the viewpoint character doesn’t. If the antagonist is a viewpoint character and knows there’s a bomb under the table but the protagonist doesn’t, the reader worries for the protagonist.
That ratchets up tension.
But there are no hard and fast rules, so write whatever you enjoy the most.
That's all for today.
Until next Friday when I'll talk about third person omniscient point of view–