Third Person Close Point of View: Definition, Pros, and Cons
Third person close point of view is tied for the most popular and useful in the modern era. When the text uses “he,” “she,” “they,” “his,” “hers,” or “theirs” to tell the story, describe the characters and their actions, and reveal a single character’s inner thoughts and emotions, the piece is written in third person close. It is also known as third person limited or limited omniscient points of view. Johnny Worthen uses this in The Unseen Eleanor:
From the principal’s office, Eleanor thought she heard a name. Her heart stuttered, and she felt her face blush. She put her head down in her arms to hide it. She concentrated on the office, pushing out the sounds of Mrs. Hart’s ignorant speech. Had she heard that? Had she heard the name David? David Venn? “Eleanor,” Mrs. Hart said. “Am I boring you?” (14-15)
Eleanor’s story is told from her point of view, but she is not narrating the story. The author or an anonymous narrator is telling the reader the tale. Other books told from third person close point of view include Transference by Kate Jonuska, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, and When Demons Walk by Patricia Briggs.
Pros with Third Person Close
Characters with Secrets
Even though third person close is not being told directly from a character like first person, it still closely follows a single character, revealing their inner thoughts and feelings and, generally, no other character’s inner life. Showing a character’s thoughts and emotions makes readers feel like they know the character personally and creates a deeper connection; however, unlike first person, the main character in third person novels can know information the reader does not. In Transference by Kate Jonuska, Dr. Verbank thinks:
He was older in the meditation now, about the age he was right before . . . Stopitstopitstopitstopitstopit. Very dangerous territory there. Verbank cleared his throat, realigned his brain with a sharp shake and forced the waves to behave (132).
Dr. Verbank knows what happened and what he is trying not to think about, but the reader does not. By withholding this information, Jonuska piques the reader’s curiosity. What happened to Dr. Verbank? What is he trying not to think about? Third person close allows authors to keep information like this from the reader to create a sense of mystery, suspense, tension, and/or curiosity.
This is a great choice for point of view when the protagonist or other potential narrator would be annoying or boring or in some way overstimulate the reader. Third person close is still intimate with the main character without being inside their head for the whole story. Seeing the world through Dr. Verbank’s mind for an entire novel would be exhausting. By allowing the author to tell the story instead of having the characters dictate the tale, third person close infuses the exposition with the author’s voice and language skills while still hinting at the character’s voice through their thoughts and dialogue.
Although third person close centers around a main character, it does not have to stick to them like superglue. The author can pan away from the character for a moment to show the larger world or events bigger than that character. Sometimes this becomes omniscient, like in the beginning of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, where Gaiman establishes the world and characters before zooming in on Bod (the protagonist). Other times this shift isn’t as clear. Third person close and omniscient are more of a continuum than two completely separate categories.
Cons of Third Person Close
Weak Character Voice
While third person close point of view focuses on a single character, it is not told in that character’s words, so there is a distance between the reader and the character. This means the voice and tone of the story are not necessarily the voice and tone with which the character speaks or perceives the world. When the author says “the castle’s gates rose like the jaw of a great beast –ready to swallow Seraphina whole” this ominous perspective is not necessarily how Seraphina perceives the castle. Seraphina could think of the opening gates with a sense of relief because she is weary from her long journey and looking forward to a roof and bed.
Limited Knowledge of Other Characters
By closely following a single character, third person close limits the reader’s knowledge of other characters, events, and parts of the world. While the reader might be aware these things are happening, they are still limited by the knowledge and experience of the central character. The author can choose to pan out of first person or “head hop” (reveal what another character is thinking even though they are not the point of view character), but both can jar the reader. Stepping back form the central character becomes annoying and puts too much distance between the reader and character if overdone, and head hopping often confuses and irritates the reader because they weren’t ready for another character’s inner life. Both techniques can be useful in specific situations, but more often than not they create more problems than they solve.
An Editor’s Thoughts on Third Person Close Point of View
Third person close is most exciting to me when the character’s relationships and interactions and/or the environment are essential to the story. The author gets to bring these to life with all the skills and words they have acquired. They are not limited by the vocabulary of a character like in first person or a reader like in second person. The author’s voice can really shine.
An additional perk to third person point of view is the ease of describing characters. An author can simply say “Anthony was a wiry child with thick brown hair and a pout that put puppies to shame.” Whereas in other points of view, the author has to come up with a reason for the character to describe themselves. If you want to let your authorial voice shine or keep information the character knows from your reader, third person close point of view can help your writing resonate with readers and Ignite Your Ink.
Do you use third person point of view? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments, and to receive a chart comparing points of view, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
If you'd like to learn more about any of the books used as examples in this post, click on the book cover below.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.