Guide to Writing in Third person (2018 Edition)

writing in third person
  • Last Edited: August 25, 2018

The coffee was bitter. Nick laughed. It made a good ending to the story. His mind was starting to work. He knew he could choke it because he was tired enough. He spilled the coffee out of the pot and shook the grounds loose into the fire. (Hemingway, Nick Adams Stories, 2009).

Writing in third person can be found throughout the classics of English and American literature. Above is an excerpt written in the third person by the author who is perhaps a master at writing in the third person—Ernest Hemingway. Known for his simple, declarative sentences, Hemingway made an entire career out of writing only in the third person. This was an effective tactic because it always made the reader feel like a close observer to all his characters experienced. We watched, as if sitting on a chair nearby, as his characters drank, smoked, cursed, hunted elephants or had affairs.

While some writers don’t like the third person because they think it puts distance between their readers and the characters they’ve created, other writers depend on it. This is because even though there is a gap between the reader and the things being portrayed, there is also a strong amount of over-arching sagacity. The events stated cannot be questioned or opened up to much ambiguity. Writing in the third person provides a sense of observing. It is almost like a private detective watching suspects line up before a two-way mirror. This viewpoint also creates a sense of definiteness, as though little that is described can be questioned.

Third Person Defined

Quite simply, writing in the third person means that you stick to pronouns such as

he, she, it, they, him, her, them, his, her, hers, its, their, and theirs. The third person perspective means that it focuses on the individual/thing or group being discussed.

Jamie adopted a dog from the shelter and named it Mr. Marbles.

The members of the board were furious at the corruption the media had exposed.

Pronouns aren’t always going to give you a clue about which person-perspective a sentences has been crafted. Many sentences in the third person won’t have any pronouns. Take, for example, the following sentence:

Spencer in an award-winning figure skater.

If you had to assign this sentence a particular perspective, you could reject the first person right away. This is because you are not Spencer . You could exclude the second person perspective since you are not addressing Spencer. Thus, you would have to assign this sentence the third person perspective because Spencer is the person who is being talked about.

As the introduction discusses, many stories are crafted in the third person. This when there is an all-seeing narrator. Still, it’s not a narrator that allows you to wear the mask of their face and gaze at the world through their eyes. Rather, this narrator is more ethereal, and thus has a wider body of knowledge. The third person narrator can often feel like a ghost wafting around the world of the living, able to see what people are doing, thinking, and feeling. Just as a ghost would have a wider body of knowledge about the present and future, the third person narrator also has such a deeper body of knowledge.

However, it is important to make the distinction that there are in fact two forms of third person: omniscient and limited (Wiehardt, 2018). We’ve already discussed how an omniscient third person narrator can feel like an otherworldly being.  When this occurs with unhappy endings, the story can feel doomed. With a limited third person, the narrator might only know about one or two characters and does not necessarily know the fate of everyone involved. This perspective means that narrator makes discoveries as the characters do.

Writing Conversationally in the Third Person

Most of the time when people write informally they do so in the first person. It would certainly be eccentric to write or talk about yourself in the third person all the time. Though you may do it once in a while for comedic effect or to grab someone’s attention. In 1995 the hit NBC show Seinfeld had a very successful episode called “The Jimmy” where a man named Jimmy refers to himself in the third person all the time, creating all sorts of hijinks.

Sometimes people will converse in the third person, but it’s often just for fun or to make a point. Consider the following example below:

Jessica: Mandy is going through a rough time, so please don’t mention her ex.

Ryan: I wasn’t going to mention Mandy’s ex, so don’t worry.

Mandy: Mandy doesn’t care if you mention him or not. She’s over it.

In this case, by Mandy taking on the third person, she gently mimics back to her friends the fact that they are talking about her directly in front of her (which is rude).

Differences

First person

The first person viewpoint is often easy to spot because it uses pronouns like I, me, my, mine, myself, we, us, our and ourselves. As stated earlier, the first person is when you allow the reader to jump into your body and view the world through your pupils with your  biases, thoughts and feelings. First person narration has a person or character sound off on their lives, their attitudes and their experiences.

Ted Talks are often written in the first person, as the speakers usually like to share a story from their lives. They discuss how that experience helped shaped their understanding about the world.

“Sixteen years ago, fresh out of college, a 22-year-old intern in the White House — and more than averagely romantic – I fell in love with my boss in a 22-year-old sort of a way. It happens. But my boss was the President of the United States. That probably happens less often” (Monica Lewinsky, The Price of Shame, 2014).

Keep in mind that first person narration will incorporate use third person pronouns (he, she, it, they) because the narrator will be describing things in their world that they see (but that do not refer to the narrator). Take for example, one of the most beloved novels of all time, The Catcher in the Rye. In this novel, the first person narrator (Holden Caufield) asserts, “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life” (2001), a notion which is clearly in the first person.

But then Holden describe the things he sees in his world such as a woman sitting on the train across from him, “She had these orchids on, like she’d just been to a big party or something. She was around forty or forty-five, I guess, but she was very good looking. Women kill me. They really do.”

In this case, a careless reader might spot all the occurrences of “she” in the excerpt and think “ oh it must be third person” but if you look closely, you’ll see that he also uses “me” and is fundamentally still talking about what he sees in his world to the reader.

Second Person

The second person point of view is when the narrator puts an arm around you and pulls you near. There’s a strong sense of intimacy that can exist when a person uses the second person. It’s not as close as the first person, when you are essentially taking on the writer’s viewpoint. However, there is a strong sense of closeness. Often writing in the second person can make the reader feel like a friend or confidante or advisee. Second person pronouns commonly harnessed for this are: you, your, yours, yourself, yourselves. The second person is more commonly used in self-help or advice writing.

“It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about it” (Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends & Influence People, 2018)

Advertisers love to use this tense because it makes the spectator feel as though they are being spoken to as a friend.

You’re in good hands with Allstate.

Only you can prevent forest fires (U.S. Forest Service)

Can you hear me now? (Verizon Mobile)

But some novels do use it and when they do, it is considered very artsy, deliberate and distinct.

“You’re proud of your ability to both believe and question everything. Secretly you think everyone does, but at some point they give in, surrender to the comfort of certainty” (O’Nan, A Prayer for the Dying, 2009).

Third Person

Many writers gravitate to the third person without giving it much thought because it can often appear to be the most unbiased way to write. This naturally gives your words more of a sense of authority and trustworthiness. It also makes it easier for you to insert as much information in necessary areas. Furthermore, this perspective is often the expected one for professional situations and academic writing.

How to Write in Third Person

  1. Focus on the subject at hand and write freely on what you want to say–

be it a description, an argument, or a piece of prose. The key is not to censor your writing but to get a good start.

  1. Reread your draft and tighten up any clunky phrases or repetitive words.
  2. Note which viewpoint you’ve actually written it in, such as first or second.
  3. Cross out any pronouns that do not accurately reproduce the third person
  4. Reconstruct each sentence to properly reflect the third person.

For example, this sentence: You need to remember that everyone feels insecure at times.

Could be rewritten to:

One needs to remember that everyone feels insecure at times.

Insecurity is common to everyone.

Many people feel insecure at times.

  1. Reread your work and evaluate the impact that the third person has had on what you are trying to say. Is your writing more elegant? More awkward? Make adjustments as necessary.

Exceptions to Rule

Most of the time, when you use the third person in fiction, you will probably just harness it in a limited manner, allowing your narrator to discover things as the plot unfolds, along with the characters. One big exception to this would be when you might want to highlight the sense of distance and use phrases like “our hero” or “our heroine” when discussing the plot.

If you are stuck on using “you” and all other second person pronouns, try swapping out “one” for you. It instantly makes your writing seem more academic.

Third Person Writing Examples

While Hemingway seems to almost always use an omniscient or nearly omniscient third person narrator, many writers offer more contrast. Though the third person is common for a variety of writing endeavors.

“And her joy was nearly like sorrow.” (John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 2006)

“She said she knew she was able to fly because when she came down she always had dust on her fingers from touching the light bulbs.”  (Salinger, Franny and Zooey, 2018).

“Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth – but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget” (Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1950).

“But he instantly saw that it would be impossible for him to escape from the regiment. It inclosed him. And there were iron laws of tradition and law on four sides. He was in a moving box”  (Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, 2016)

It’s not the literary titans who are the ones who depend on the third person. Advertisements use them all the time to create memorable slogans.

Energizer Batteries: It keeps going… and going… and going

Fed-X: When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight

Clairol: Does she or doesn’t she?

And the third person is also used to comment upon the act of using the third person.

“The third person narrator, instead of being omniscient, is like a constantly running surveillance tape” (Andrew Vachss).

“That’s a sure sign someone is going crazy – when he refers to himself in the third person, talks in low tones, and walks around wearing shades all day!” (Chris Rock)

Conclusion

The greater your comprehension of writing in third person in comparison to other perspectives, the more you will have command of your writing. Using the third person successfully means you will inspire more confidence in your readers. You will also be able to give a greater variety to your sentence structure. More importantly, the better your grasp on how the various person-perspectives work and influence the reader, the more refined your work will be.  No doubt, you will begin to notice the various person-perspectives when you encounter the written word as you go about your day. And as always, if there’s ever any doubt, you can always reach out to us for help. Our writers are familiar with the various nuances of these distinct viewpoints and enjoy crafting sentences that elicit the desired intention within the reader.

Resources

Azquotes.com. (n.d.). Top 25 Third Person Quotes (of 74) | A-Z Quotes. Retrieved from https://www.azquotes.com/quotes/topics/third-person.html

Carnegie, D. (2018). How to win friends & influence people.

Crane, S. (2016). The Red Badge of Courage. New York, NY: Diversion Books.

Fitzgerald, F. S. (1950). The Great Gatsby. Harmondsworth, NY: Penguin Books.

Hemingway, E. (2009). Nick Adams Stories. New York, NY: Scribner.

Lewinsky, M. (2014, October 20). The Price of Shame. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/clareoconnor/2014/10/20/full-transcript-monica-lewinsky-speaks-out-on-ending-online-abuse/#5703e1692579

O’Nan, S. (2009). A prayer for the dying.

Salinger, J. D. (2001). Catcher in the Rye. New York, NY: Little Brown.

Salinger, J. D. (2018). Franny and Zooey. New York, NY: Back Bay Books. Little Brown.

Smith, J. (2018, January 29). Tips on handling the omniscient POV in fiction – The Writer. Retrieved from https://www.writermag.com/2018/01/29/omniscient-pov/

Steinbeck, J. (2008). The grapes of wrath and other writings, 1936-1941. New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States.

Wiehardt, G. (2018, November 10). Third-Person Omniscient Versus Third-Person Limited Point of View. Retrieved from https://www.thebalancecareers.com/third-person-point-of-view-1277092

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