Third-Person Point of View

Traditionally, the third-person point of view is the voice of the storyteller: "Once upon a time there was a poor widow who lived in a little cottage with her only son Jack . . ." ("Jack and the Beanstalk")
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In a work of fiction or nonfiction, the "third-person point of view" relates events using third-person pronouns such as "he," "she," and "they." The three main types of third-person point of view are:

  • Third-person objective: The facts of a narrative are reported by a seemingly neutral, impersonal observer or recorder. For an example, see "The Rise of Pancho Villa" by John Reed.
  • Third-person omniscient: An all-knowing narrator not only reports the facts but may also interpret events and relate the thoughts and feelings of any character. The novels "Middlemarch" by George Eliot and "Charlotte's Web" by E.B. White employ the third-person-omniscient point of view.
  • Third-person limited: A narrator reports the facts and interprets events from the perspective of a single character. For an example, see Katherine Mansfield's short story "Miss Brill."

In addition, a writer may rely on a "multiple" or "variable" third-person point of view, in which the perspective shifts from that of one character to another during the course of a narrative.

Examples and Observations in Fiction

The third-person perspective has been effective in a wide range of fiction, from the biting political allegory of George Orwell to E.B. White's classic and emotional children's tale.

  • "At the age of seventeen I was poorly dressed and funny-looking, and went around thinking about myself in the third person. 'Allen Dow strode down the street and home.' 'Allen Dow smiled a thin sardonic smile.'" (John Updike, "Flight." "The Early Stories: 1953–1975." Random House, 2003)
  • "They all remembered, or thought they remembered, how they had seen Snowball charging ahead of them at the Battle of the Cowshed, how he had rallied and encouraged them at every turn, and how he had not paused for an instant even when the pellets from Jones's gun had wounded his back." (George Orwell, "Animal Farm," Secker and Warburg, 1945)
  • "The goose shouted to the nearest cow that Wilbur was free, and soon all the cows knew. Then one of the cows told one of the sheep, and soon all the sheep knew. The lambs learned about it from their mothers. The horses, in their stalls in the barn, pricked up their ears when they heard the goose hollering; and soon the horses had caught on to what was happening." (E.B. White, "Charlotte's Web." Harper, 1952)

    The Writer as Movie Camera

    The use of the third-person perspective in fiction has been likened to the objective eye of a movie camera, with all its pros and cons. Some teachers of writing advise against overusing it to "get into the heads" of multiple characters.

    "Third-person point of view allows the author to be like a movie camera moving to any set and recording any event....It also allows the camera to slide behind the eyes of any character, but beware—do it too often or awkwardly, and you will lose your reader very quickly. When using third person, don't get in your characters' heads to show the reader their thoughts, but rather let their actions and words lead the reader to figure those thoughts out."

    —Bob Mayer, "The Novel Writer's Toolkit: A Guide to Writing Novels and Getting Published" (Writer's Digest Books, 2003)

    Third Person in Nonfiction

    The third-person voice is ideal for factual reporting, in journalism or academic research, for example, since it presents data as objective and not as coming from a subjective and biased individual. This voice and perspective foreground the subject matter and diminish the importance of the intersubjective relationship between the author and the reader.

    Even business writing and advertising often use this perspective to reinforce an authoritative tone or even to avoid creepiness, as the following example from Victoria's Secret displays so well:

    "In nonfiction, the ​third-person point of view is not so much omniscient as objective. It's the preferred point of view for reports, research papers, or articles about a specific subject or cast of characters. It's best for business missives, brochures, and letters on behalf of a group or institution. See how a slight shift in point of view creates enough of a difference to raise eyebrows over the second of these two sentences: 'Victoria's Secret would like to offer you a discount on all bras and panties.' (Nice, impersonal third person.) 'I would like to offer you a discount on all bras and panties.' (Hmmm. What's the intent there?)...

    "Unabashed subjectivity may be fine for ever-popular memoirs on incest and inside-the-Beltway intrigue, but the third-person point of view remains the standard in news reporting and writing that aims to inform, because it keeps the focus off the writer and on the subject."

    —Constance Hale, "Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose" (Random House, 1999)

    Personal and Impersonal Discourse

    Some writers on writing suggest that the terms "third person" and "first person" are misleading and should be replaced by the more precise terms "personal" and "impersonal" discourse. Such writers argue that "third person" incorrectly implies that there is no personal viewpoint in a piece or that no first-person pronouns will appear in a text. In works using two of the subset examples cited above, third-person objective and third-person limited, personal perspectives abound. To work around this confusion, another taxonomy is proposed.

    "The terms 'third-person narrative' and 'first-person narrative' are misnomers, as they imply the complete absence of first-person pronouns within 'third-person narratives.'...[Nomi] Tamir suggests replacing the inadequate terminology 'first- and third-person narration' by personal and impersonal discourse, respectively. If the narrator/formal speaker of a text refers to himself/herself (i.e., if the narrator is a participant in the events he/she is narrating), then the text is considered to be personal discourse, according to Tamir. If, on the other hand, the narrator/formal speaker does not refer to himself/herself in the discourse, then the text is considered to be impersonal discourse."

    —Susan Ehrlich, "Point of View" (Routledge, 1990)

    Despite such concerns, and regardless of what it is named, the third-person perspective is one of the most common ways of communicating in almost all nonfiction contexts and remains a key tool for fiction writers.