Monday, October 29, 2012

An Overview of Third Person Point of View

In simplest terms third person point of view stands outside the action and describes what is going on as an objective and anonymous reporter. In essence, it is the print equivalent of a camera. However, third person gets complicated in terms of where that camera is located and whether or not it is also able to read thoughts.

Third person point of view always has to deal with two different dichotomies: Scope and Empathy.


Scope refers to what the camera is able to see within a given scene or over multiple scenes. The dichotomy here is between limited and omniscient points of view.

Limited refers to a story or scene which stays focused entirely on one character. It's like the camera is attached to that person's forehead. Whatever happens in their presence is what gets recorded.

Omniscient point of view allows the author to view everything regardless of it happening in the presence of the character. The author can break away from the main character's point of view to provide the reader with information unknown to the character. Here's a comparison of limited and omniscient points of view:


Jennifer entered the room. She looked around. A statue of a man riding a bucking horse made out of bronze set in a space between a line of old leather bound Zane Grey novels.
"I see you are admiring my collection of novels." Jennifer turned quickly to see a man about fifty with greying hair and dark eyes. His hand stroked a scar on his left chin. 


Jennifer entered the room. She looked around. Her eyes settled on the "Bucking Bronc" Statue by Remington. Jason Culpepper acquired it on a trip to Cody Wyoming. His generous donation to the Buffalo Bill museum made them more than willing to part with the sculpture. Jennifer perused the bookshelves crammed with leather bound first editions of Zane Grey novels.
"I see you are admiring my collection of novels." Jennifer spun around to see Jason Culpepper himself, a man about fifty with greying hair and dark eyes. His hand stroked the scar left on his chin by the knife of a Viet Cong assassin who met his own death at the hands of Private Culpepper. Jennifer had never heard the story and didn't know of the nightmares Culpepper still had nearly forty years later. She thought the scar added character to his rugged face. 

One point here. Don't confuse omniscient point of view with a novel that switches points of view between scenes or chapters. The omniscient point of view can be found within each scene, as shown above and throughout the book. However, many authors will switch from one third person limited point of view in one chapter to another third person limited point of view in another chapter. For instance, a political thriller might switch between the president's POV in one scene to that of his press secretary in another to that of his chief of staff in another. Eugene Burdick's novel Fail Safe does an excellent job of this approach.


The second dichotomy I call empathy because it refers to how much insight the narrator gives his reader into the thoughts and feelings of the character(s) in the novel. The two dynamics here are: subjective and objective.

Subjective point of view allows the reader to know directly the character(s) thoughts, emotions, attitudes, perceptions and inferences directly.

Objective stories only allow the reader to see the outside of the character(s) with no insight into their thoughts or feelings except what they express through dialog.

Here are two examples of subjective and objective:


Bob left the diner. He pulled his coat tight as the wind hit him. I guess I'll be sleeping at the mission tonight. The mission was alright, but he hated to be preached at just for a hot meal and a warm bed. Still on nights like this it was a lot better than on the street. 


Bob pulled his coat tight after leaving the diner.
"Not much defense against the cold." The man speaking was about Bob's age, but dressed in a full overcoat. He adjusted the clerical collar at his neck.
"You have a place to sleep tonight? If not, we have just expanded the downtown mission." The priest handed Bob a card.
"Not much for missions, padre. I hates bein' preached at jest fer a hot meal and a warm bed."
The priest laughed a loud, deep laugh.
"Can't say I blame ya. Just bring this card and you can decide whether you want to hear the 'preachin' or not."
Another gust of wind and the priest tipped his hat and started to leave. "Hey, padre. Seems like a fair enough deal. And even a bit of preachin' is better than spending the night out in this wind."

Writing in an objective style, even if you eventually want to use another point of view is a valuable exercise since it forces you to show instead of tell.

Four types

So, if you have been keeping track you can see we will have four types of Third person points of view


The next four lessons look at each.

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