How to Write in the Third Person

Image by © The Balance 2018

It can be easy to fall into the habit of writing in the first person but 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 impact of writing in the third person point of view, which might open up new directions for your story that 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 the point of view can give you a new perspective, often illuminating new pieces of your fiction, inspiring new ideas, and making for deeper and more introspective fiction.

What You Need

  • A scene from a recent story or novel
  • Computer or paper and pen
  • A quiet place to work

How to Write in the Third Person

  1. 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. 
  2. 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.)
  3. 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 the 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?
  4. 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? 
  5. 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?
  6. 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.

More Writing Tips

  • 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 the 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."