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Writing in Third Person

Writing in third person is the most common way of writing creative works like novels and short stories. However, it is also often used for biographies and academic papers. It gives the reader a rather omniscient perspective of the story. The third person sees the story in its entirety and describes everything they sees. Even the character’s emotions are not hidden from the third person narrator. Want an example? Just pick up any Harry Potter book by J.K. Rowling.

Writing in Third Person

The basic element of writing in third person is the fact that the writer plays the role of a narrator, and is not one of the story’s characters. Now, here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly about writing in the third person.

The Good

You can paint a bigger picture if you are writing in the third person. In first person, everything is limited to what the main character—one person—sees and feels. There is nothing outside of that character’s perspective. Conversely, when you’re writing in third person, you know all and see all: past, present, and future.

This omniscient viewpoint is very valuable because it lets you inside each character’s mind. You know everything about them. You know their history, why they think the way they do, why they do what they do, what they did last week, and what they will do next month. You know why they love and why they hate.

You should know. After all, you created them! When writing in third person, you are in complete control, and can share your all-knowingness with the reader when you want to…or you can hold back. You decide when the reader finds out each fact, each action, each word that is spoken, and ultimately what happens to everyone in the story.

Also, a third person writer has no emotional involvement in what’s happening. The writer shows no bias towards any character. He or she just tells a story. Think of how a news reporter would portray the storyline, just with a whole lot more depth and detail!

The Bad

It is hard to be relatable when you are writing in third person. Yes, you can report a conversation to the reader, but they are still hearing the story from the outside looking in. It’s almost like they are the proverbial “fly on the wall” and able to listen in on everything that happens—at least as much as the narrator lets them!

Contrast this to first person writing, where the reader can see into the mind of the main character. Yes, this can be awesome! It has its benefits. As the reader, you get an intimate and usually very detailed look into the mind of another human being. We get to see them process everything that comes their way as the story unfolds. Normally, we only see this much of someone’s mind when we are in our own heads!

However, in first person writing, we only get to see things from one character’s point of view. So it has its limits. Although we can see every conversation, interaction, and thought as if we (the readers) are the character, everything else that you are told is skewed by the perspective of this one person.

It’s interesting to note that by comparison, writing in third person is a lot of work. First person writing typically makes it easier to tell a story. All you have to do is tell the story from that person’s perspective. You relay information to the reader through what that character is seeing, hearing, and feeling. When writing in third person, you have to be everybody! You have to know every character’s motivations, thoughts, feelings, and backgrounds.

The Ugly

When writing in third person, it’s easy to give away too much information at the beginning of the story. Since you, the writer, already know everything, it’s tough not to give away all of the secrets before the story is finished. However, you must have something left for the reader to engage in all the way through your writing. You must carefully craft your essay, paper, or story so that you don’t simply blurt it all out at once! That obviously does NOT make for good writing. You must pace yourself. Take your time. Let the story develop.

Therefore, writing in the third person requires some planning. You have to know where each character is at all times. Not only do you have to know their emotions and motivations, you have to know where they are physically. Even though you may not include every detail as your writing unfolds, you should still know what is going on in the background.

If you don’t plan this way, you may find that at some point in your writing, something doesn’t make sense. It can be something as simple as the timing of events being “off” or overlapping, or something that just doesn’t fit. Why? Because it wasn’t well planned. Whether it is an academic paper or a novel, third person narratives must be planned out in detail so as to avoid confusion down the road.

It’s All About the Pronouns

Just like in first and second person writing, the third person perspective is driven by the pronouns used. So let’s get started with the pronouns you will be using, and how you will be using them when writing in third person.

Singular Third Person Pronouns

First, we’re going to check out the singular third person pronouns that are used in the subjective case. They are the subject of the sentence, and these pronouns are he, she, and it.

    He used my toothbrush.
    Did she just say that?
    It was a rude thing to do.

Do you see? All those pronouns appear in the subject of the sentence. You couldn’t use them as the object of a sentence, or you’d end up with something like this.

    I drove he to school.

Um…no. For that, you are going to need the objective case of the third person pronouns. They are used as the object of a sentence and are him, her, and them.

    Missy has a new boyfriend and drove him to the lake.
    Daryl, Missy’s old boyfriend, was looking for her by the dock.
    How awkward for them.

Oh, the drama! And all of it shown by third person pronouns in the objective case.

Of course, much like Daryl, we need to take a look at the possessive case for these third person pronouns as well. Your contestants in the possessive case pageant are:

  • his (subjective possessive), his (objective possessive)
  • her (subjective possessive), hers (objective possessive)
  • its (subjective possessive), its (objective possessive)

As you can see, the possessive prounoun his can be used as the subject or the object of a sentence.

    Subjective: His IQ is 300.
    Objective: All of the best test scores are his.

Not so with the feminine version of our pronoun. Like most other pronouns, there is a difference between the subjective case (her) and objective case (hers). Sure, it’s only a slight difference, but it matters.

    Subjective: Her retirement party was fun.
    Objective: The gold watch is hers.

Plural Third Person Pronouns

OK, hang in there, we’re almost done. We just need to cover the third person plural pronouns and it’s adiós grammar! This one is easy:

  • they (subjective case), them (objective case)
  • their (subjective possessive), theirs (objective possessive)

Here’s an example of each.

    They went walking in the darkened woods without a flashlight.
    Suddenly, it was upon them.
    Their hair stood on end as the beast attacked.
    This story is theirs to tell.

Scary story, but we were able to wedge all of the examples of the third person possessive pronoun into it.

So there you have it. The good, the bad, the ugly, and yes, the grammar of writing in third person. Be sure to check out our lessons and blog posts on first person writing and writing in second person narrative. They will help you decide which style best suits your next masterpiece.

P.S. Become a better writer. Find out more here.

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