12.6: Variations on Third Person

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard

This episode focuses on the third person POV, and some variations on them, like omniscient and limited, and some sub-variants like cinematic and head-hopping.

Credits: This episode was recorded aboard Oasis of the Seas by Bert Grimm, and mastered by Alex Jackson.


Write a passage, and then re-write it in limited, omniscient narrator, head-hopping, and cinematic POVs.

Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho, narrated by Jenny Sterlin

8 thoughts on “12.6: Variations on Third Person”

  1. Hello, Writing Excuses team. I’ve been binge-listening to the podcast and learning from it this past year, but this is the first time I’ve left a comment.

    I noticed you didn’t mention Close Third Person in today’s podcast. Is that because you consider it to be the same as Third Person Limited or a subdivision of it?

    The way I’ve had it beaten into my head the past two or three years— pardon me, the way I’ve been instructed in it— Close Third goes beyond Third Limited by eliminating filter words as much as possible and not allowing a hint of an outside narrator. So if the POV character doesn’t know something or wouldn’t be thinking of it in a given situation, the reader shouldn’t know it, either. What’s more, the prose must never pretend to get inside a non-POV character’s unspoken thoughts or feelings.

    I’m not complaining. I’ve been rewriting my WIPs to conform to these principles, and I believe it’s making my fiction stronger. But can you take Close Third to the point of absurdity? In everyday life, people look, do, and say things that we interpret as happy, sad, angry, or joyful without going into a clinical interpretation of the diameter of their eyes or the altitude of their chins.

    Maybe I’m looking for permission now and again simply to write something like, “Ned’s father gave him a dirty look and left the room,” without feeling like I violated POV, or needing to use weasel words like “he appeared to be,” or having to up the word count by describing exactly what Ned saw his dad’s face do that made him conclude the look was dirty.

    Thanks for today’s podcast and for Writing Excuses in general. It has improved my writing so much, and I recommend it whenever I can.

    1. In The Art of Fiction by Gardner, constructs such as “he appeared to be …” are called a “needless filtering of the image through some observing consciousness”. Unfortunately I tend to filter information quite often, and usually have to cut those words out when editing. There’s no need for those extra words because the reader will automatically attribute statements to the character’s POV, as long as the scene’s POV is clear.

  2. ‘Ello, anyone,

    When writing third limited, does the narrator have to be the voice of the character or can it also be a character in and of itself that knows the character’s inside and out so well that it can report to the reader what the character is thinking, but is basically just as limited as the character himself?
    It’s something I’ve been wondering. Maybe I’m thinking of a close omniscient?

    1. One of the most useful features of third person limited is that the voice of the narration changes when you switch POVs. What you’re describing sounds like a flavor of omniscient, or shared POV thing. It doesn’t matter too much what it’s called. What matters is whether you can communicate the POV to the reader without confusing them.

  3. This was the episode I have been waiting for, but like Catrin, bit disappointed that Close Third Person was not mentioned. Maybe you need to have another third person show since it is the dominant POV as you say?

    Anyways, I have a question. In the book I am trying to write, the story is told from the close third person POV of one character alone, with the exception of some flash backs and dream sequences of the past. The reason for this is that there are elements of mystery to this story, and giving POV to the other characters would involve with-holding information from the reader (which is a no no right if the information was readily available?)

    Regardless my question is this: Is there any point to using 3rd person PV close or otherwise if the whole stiory involves the POV of one character? Would I be better off just doing it in First Person and have done with it, or should I try to find a way to incorporate the POVs of other characters without giving away my clues too easily?

  4. What happened in Utah? We may never know, but… let’s take a look, shall we? He swung his hand up and pointed at the microphone. However, his audience couldn’t see him, all they knew was the sound of silence as he gestured. So… the fantastic foursome set themselves up to explore just what everyone knows, and why third person limited has taken over the world of sci-fi and fantasy. It’s all because of the hobbit living in a hole in the ground? Well… take a look at the transcript, in the archives or over here, and see what you think. He turned, slowly, and lowered his arm… and then he spoke!


  5. I have listened to your podcasts religiously for 4-5 years . I think this is the first time I’ve been compelled to post a comment.

    There were several points in the podcasts that either weren’t clear or were the OPPOSITE of what I believe to be true.
    1. The demise of third omniscient is simply not true. What is true is that contemporary omniscient isn’t much like Austen or Dickens. Contemporary omniscience _tends_ to be closer to the objective end of the subjective-objective gradient and without the invasiveness of a chatty narrator who speaks directly to the reader. OTOH, JK Rowling’s “Casual Vacancy” is pretty extreme and not typical of contemporary omniscient.
    The last book I’ve read – – “The Fireman” by Joe Hill has an omniscient narrator even though the story follows only one character. While the whole thing is omniscient he has some ultra-omniscient bits where the narrator says things like, “This would be the last time they entered the chapel.” (paraphrase)
    2. Omniscience is like being pregnant. Once you’re a little bit omniscient, the narrator is omniscient (the only exception to this when narration differs in different chapters or scenes, then only parts are omniscient). GRR Martin’s GoT series has often been offered as an example of third limited (with multiple POV), but he tosses in some very omniscient bits from time to time (meanwhile, on the other side of the narrow sea . . .). (The Harry Potter series is omniscient, too, although very little is outside Harry’s perspective). In reality, there is a gradient between pure third limited and pure third omniscient, and I think most novels fall somewhere in-between the extremes.
    As soon as the narrator makes a statement outside the perception or cognition of the POV character, it’s omniscience.
    3. Tolkien wrote third omniscient. The opening of The Hobbit is textbook-worthy third omniscient. It seems it’s not a style of narration that agents like much currently.
    4. Every transition that is used for change of POV in third limited can be used when going inside a different character’s head in third omniscient.
    5. You mentioned using omniscience in humor (Doug Adams), but it’s one of the best reasons for omniscience. Also, if the writer wants to make political/philosophical statements – – basically whenever the narrator comments on the story outside the POV of a character.

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