I wrote this a couple years back. It originally was part of some wikipedia efforts of mine to improve apocryphal (or rebranded) information there under the heading of Alternating person view in the entry under narrative styles. This was up there for 9 months before the original wikipedia writer got all butthurt about it, saying I should have my own page. So much for encyclopedia by committee. This comes from a creative writing curriculum taught in the 1980s by a prof with an MFA in Creative Writing. These days in America most writing courses are taught by idiots on the subject or an English teacher forced into extra service. Anyway…
Understanding Third Person Point of View in Creative Writing
When discussing third person narration there are two main aspects to consider: the objective/subjective spectrum and the difference between limited and omniscient.
The first aspect of third person point of view is to understand the spectrum (or sliding scale) between objective and subjective. A narrator staying on the objective end of this spectrum can only describe the exterior world and cannot relate the thoughts, feelings, or inner workings of any character’s minds. A narrator staying on the subjective end of this spectrum tells the story exclusively from the perspective(s) of the character(s) and cannot relate any of the exterior objective world.
Traditionally, mainstream fiction with third person narration operates near the middle of the subjective/objective spectrum, alternating between objective and subjective reality and also offering alternating perspectives of the main characters. This allows the narrator to present both the objective reality and the subjective perspectives of the various characters on that reality. Given this information, the reader can then judge for themselves (without being told outright by the narrator) whether the character is a hero, fool, or other type based on the way they perceive and interact with the established reality.
The second aspect of third person point of view is to identify whether the narrator is limited or omniscient. There is no sliding scale between these two voices, no semi-omniscient or semi-limited. Within literature, limited or omniscient are considered absolutes.
The third person limited narrator is limited to knowing about one main character including the objective sphere of things that influence or have an effect on that character’s life. The limited narrator cannot leave the main character and relate the subjective inner workings of any other character in the story. This limitation is absolute. If a third person narrator seems limited but then jumps away from the main character to tell a different character’s thoughts or perspectives, they have just broken out of limited voice and shown themselves to be a third person omniscient narrator.
The third person omniscient narrator presumably knows all the objective occurrences and subjective perspectives of the entire universe where the story takes place, but they tell only the elements necessary to the story. A common mistake in understanding third person narration is to think that a narrator cannot know everything because the writer cannot know everything. However, the narrator is not the writer and vice-versa. The idea of omniscience is a convention in literature — the third person omniscient dwells within the collective unconscious and the creative writer taps into that to tell stories. Naturally, any being that is omniscient is supernatural, or God-like, and must hold back information due to the constraints of time and the potential to overwhelm the reader.
For this reason, a third person omniscient narrator may tell a story to children or young adults in a way that might feel limited to an adult reader, but this does not make them a third person limited narrator. One common device in young adult novels (such as the Harry Potter series) is to alternate perspectives of characters in different chapters. This is not a change of point of view; the same narrator is still telling the story. For the sake of the young reader, the writer made the narrative jump to an alternate perspective at a chapter break.
Many mainstream third person novels employ an omniscient narrator that delves into the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters, alternating perspectives in some form. Given multiple perspectives and objective descriptions of the reality, the complexities of big picture storytelling are more fully realized in third person narration than any other voice.