Writing in the Third Person
Though it's easy to fall into the habit of always writing in the first person, it's crucial to be able to use the third person as well. Both first person and third person have their strengths and weaknesses; what works for one story may not work for another.
This exercise will help you observe the effect of writing in the third person point of view to add this tool to your toolbox. It might also show you directions for the story you hadn't considered before.
Any distance you can have from the page, or new ways you can have of seeing the same narrative are important.
Often, as writers, we are too focused on what we think the story is about, rather than - perhaps - what it has become on the page. Changing point of view can give you a new perspective, often illuminating new pieces of your fiction, inspiring new ideas, and - ultimately - making for deeper and more introspective fiction.
What You Need
- A scene from a recent story or novel.
- Computer or paper and pen.
- Quiet place to work.
How to Write in the Third Person
- Choose a particularly compelling -- or problematic -- scene from a piece of prose you have recently written in the first person. Try to find a piece that includes both dialogue and exposition.
- Rewrite the piece from the third person point of view. Take your time. It may require some strategizing to pull off the transformation. You'll also have to consider whether or not you want to use third person omniscient or limited. In moving from first to third, it might be easiest to try the third person limited first.
- Notice how the change in point of view changes the voice and the mood of the story. What freedom do you have with this narrator that you did not have before? If you have chosen limited third person, is there anything that you now know about the character that you didn't before? If you have chosen omniscient, does the new information inform or inhibit the story? Likewise, are there any limitations in using this point of view?
- Make a list of three or four advantages of the new point of view: ways the new voice helps develop plot and/or character. Does it change the structure? Does the heart of the story change, or does it become more refined?
- Make a list of the limitations of the third person point of view with regard to this particular piece. Is it the most effective way of telling this story? Were there ways in which it was harder to develop your central character with the third person? Did it force you to use other techniques in revealing your character? Was the voice stronger or weaker? If weaker, was the trade-off worthwhile?
- If the new point of view works well with this scene, consider changing the point of view for the entire piece. Otherwise, return to your original.
- Even if changing to the third person point of view has not improved this particular piece, remain open to it in future work. Use the lessons learned in this exercise to evaluate point of view in all the fiction you write. As you become more comfortable with the third person, you might begin to find the distance it can provide helps you have a new perspective on your narrative.
- Lorrie Moore has a good explanation for how she chooses POV: "There are times when the first person is necessary for observing others (not the protagonist) in a voice that simultaneously creates a character (usually the protagonist); then there are times when the third person is necessary for observing the protagonist in a voice that is not the character’s but the story’s."
- Want to practice other aspects of craft and technique? Find more craft exercises here.
A personal narrative is a story about an important incident or experience that has taken place in a person’s life. The author shares the experience, thoughts, emotions and sometimes the lessons learned or knowledge gained during the course of the events.
To plan a narrative, decide on the story, recall or construct the setting, facts or events, the people and the emotions involved in the incident or event. A fictional story may draw on emotions from one’s own life injected into similar imagined events to give the narrative authenticity. Making a diagram or notes may help you plan your story.
Narratives are usually written in either the first (‘I’, ‘we’) or third (‘he/she’, ‘they’) person, far less often in second person (‘you’). Third person narratives can sound more formal than those written in the first person. They allow a distance from the main characters not possible when the person involved is telling the story in their own voice. It also gives authors more flexibility, allowing them to change point of view to another character without confusing the reader.
Planning a 3rd person narrative:
- Decide on an incident or experience as a focal point of the story
- Who will be the narrator? Do they have a bias or point of view, or are they objective?
- Who is the main character? You may need an additional one or two other characters.
- Setting – Where does the story take place?
- Decide on a plot structure. What are the main events, points along the way, the climax of the story, and its resolution? You may need to brainstorm and/or plot what happens on a graph to keep your story on track.
Structure of 3rd Person Narrative
A narrative text usually contains the following three parts:
- Orientation – start in the middle of the action, involving the main character from the start.
- Complication – where conflict, tension or a problem is created.
- Resolution – the problem is resolved, sometimes with a twist.
- 3rd person ‘he’, ‘she’, as though the narrator is watching the event take place.
- Language will suit both the characters and the setting (time and place).
- Use language conventions – sentence and paragraph structure, speech marks etc.
- Your narrative will include action, description, realistic dialogue and reflection (without preaching).
- Use variety in your writing style: a mixture of short and long sentences, hard-hitting action sequences and longer poetic descriptions, short snatches of dialogue and longer paragraphs which create atmosphere and suspense.
- Show don’t tell! Try not to state the obvious; use finesse.
Brainstorm, draft, (if you get stuck, start from whichever point you can), write, let your writing sit a day or two, read aloud to yourself several times, check all of the points above, rewrite.
These websites give you more advice about writing a personal narrative in third person voice:
Personal Narrative Writing
Take note of these helpful hints from great writers:
Here is an example of a narrative of a personal incident written in 3rd person voice.
For the length of narratives written at school and for the QCST, it is recommended that the action of the story happens within no more than a ten minute time frame.
Adapted from an original piece by Loretta D.