Third person multiple provides your readers with varying points of view, to enrich your plotline and familiarize readers with what’s happening in your characters’ heads and hearts. As the author, you’re already in your characters’ heads. Third person multiple PoV is what will bring your readers there, too.
Leveraging third person multiple PoV is a heavy-hitting strategy of the greats like Tolkien and more. When executed properly, this shifting perspective will bring your readers further into the inner worlds of your characters.
In this article, we’ll focus on how to write in third person point of views and being able to do so with multiple characters— or simply put, “third person multiple PoV.” We’ll go through the advantages and disadvantages, tips, rules, and examples. By the end, you should be well on your way to using this powerful tool to breathe new life into your work and enhance your storytelling.
What is the Third Person Multiple PoV?
Different writers have different styles. Some may write in the past tense, some in the present tense. Some use adverbs in abundance, while others cringe at the use of even one.
But one of the biggest factors in a writer’s style is their choice of point-of-view (PoV). First, second, and third person points of view are all different types of PoVs writers use. But there’s more to it than that. Many PoVs are broken down even further, including third person subjective, omniscient, objective, and multiple views.
Multiple third person PoV involves writing separate scenes from the viewpoints of each of your characters. The author must stay in the one characters’ head for the entire scene and maintain proper PoV rules, such as not relaying to the reader what the thoughts of the opposite character are.
Advantages and disadvantages of Third Person Multiple Point of View
As with any style of PoV, there are different advantages and disadvantages when writing in third person multiple.
One advantage is the ability to move into each of your characters’ heads, giving an in-depth look at characters who normally may not have the chance to voice their thoughts. It provides you, the writer, the opportunity to grow and develop a character every time you get in their head. The reader learns first-hand not just why the character is doing something and why they’re acting a certain way, but they also learn more intimate details about the character as the reader witnesses the character’s inner thoughts.
Say, for instance, you’re reading a crime thriller written in third person multiple PoV. The reader is then able to follow along with both the antagonist and the protagonist, and watch what drives them both to make the decisions they do. The reader will be in the head of the killer when they commit their crimes, get to know them as an individual, and—if the author is skilled—learn about the character on a whole different level than they would have had the author not used this PoV. This makes the overall storytelling more effective and compelling.
That said, using third person multiple isn’t always necessarily advantageous, with pitfalls that many new and seasoned authors alike can fall into. Choosing whether or not to use this shifting perspective will depend on your genre, plotline, and what you want your readers to feel or know at any given moment.
Third Person Point of View pros
Multiple points of view allow your reader to learn what drives each of your characters to do things they may do.
It helps the author to broaden the scope of who should be included in the story, from main characters to secondary ones.
Different third person points of view keep up the tension. You don’t want your readers bored, and this PoV lets you shift perspectives in different scenes, keeping the reader on their toes and providing them with more dynamic insight into the plot.
It keeps the pace moving. You want your plot to move briskly and you want your reader looking forward to the next chapter. Moving from one character to another gives the story that momentum.
Third person PoV offers the reader a variety of perspectives and can make a story more complex and intriguing for a reader. For example, allowing the reader to watch the antagonist plot his crimes, while in tandem, showing the intricate details of what drives the hero or heroine.
Third Person Point of View cons
As an author, you have to stay on your toes and methodically maintain a character’s PoV in each scene, rather than head-hopping between characters and confusing your reader with too many perspectives at once.
If you shift PoV too much, you can lose momentum, and ultimately, the reader.
Shifting third person can sometimes put emotional emphasis on the wrong characters. If you’re attempting to shift perspective simply for the sake of it, you risk throwing your character development out of whack.
The third person multiple PoV won’t be applicable to all genres. It’s obviously not ideal for memoir-style fiction, books for younger readers, and novels with parallel narratives that are better off in the first person.
Should I use Third Person Multiple PoV?
An author who’s mastered the third person multiple PoV can wind up with a really compelling story. Getting into the heads of characters can help the reader grow to love them almost as much as the author who created them did. If you can nail the third person multiple, your readers will have a better understanding of the inner workings of the hearts and minds of your characters. Whether they grow to love or hate them, readers will be emotionally invested.
If you have more than one character (you probably do) with whom you want your readers to intimately connect, third person multiple PoV will provide the lens to do just that. For this reason, third person multiple PoV is popular in the romance and fantasy/adventure genres, and in novels with many parallel narratives.
However, if you’re writing in the style of a memoir, or any story in which you want the PoV to be coming solely from one character or from a non-omniscient observer, third person multiple isn’t the best choice.
When should I use it?
As far as when the best time is to adapt third person multiple in your work, stick with scene changes, new chapters, and the idea of change in general. The easiest way to confuse people is to use third person multiple PoV just for the sake of it. Instead, make the PoV change correspond to a change in events or scenery that necessitates getting into the head of another character. That way, you’ll maintain your story’s flow and momentum.
Tips For how to write in Third Person Multiple
A lot of novice writers sometimes try to use this PoV and get confused, break the rules, and lose their readers. Multiple third person PoV and head-hopping often get mixed up when in fact they’re two entirely different matters. Learning how to write multiple PoV isn’t necessarily difficult, as long as you attack it methodically.
Remember to keep a strong grasp on how your novel is paced and to strictly discipline the number of different views, and third person multiple can be a great tool for your author’s toolbox. If you stick to the following three tips for writing in third person multiple, you’ll be able to effectively harness shifts in PoV without falling prey to common mistakes.
Develop a Distinct Persona, Purpose, and Voice for Each Character
One of the most important rules for writing in third person multiple PoV is to make sure each of your characters is different enough so that when the PoV changes, the reader isn’t confused about which character is in focus. Technically this falls more under character building than PoV, but it’s a very important point to consider. To avoid this problem, make sure your characters all have original and distinct traits. Give each of them very different backgrounds, jobs, ages, and personalities.
TIP: Think of the third person multiple as a tool for character building: that is, constructing the inner world—thoughts, emotions, and motivators—of your characters. Be sure to stay true to each character’s inner voice and not intermingle it with those of the others, as this can seriously dilute character development and confuse readers.
How to Switch Point of View When Writing Third Person Multiple
One of the best indicators for switching character PoV within a story is when something changes that necessitates inner input from a different character. This change in perspective can be used to provide greater insight or understanding for your reader and heighten the impact of the plot on the characters.
Most commonly, this will be a scene change. Be sure to make scene changes distinct. If you change PoVs in the middle of the scene, make it 100% clear that you’ve changed. When changing scenes, make sure the story picks up where the last scene left off.
Another common error writers make when switching point of view is doing so too frequently. Some writers may use the PoV as an excuse to enter the heads of several different characters within one chapter too quickly. There’s no real rule about how long a particular scene should be for any character, but switching back and forth too quickly can make the prose confusing. If you find yourself shifting heads more than two or three times in a scene, there might be a problem, and you might want to take a step back to see which character will benefit the scene the most and then rewrite the scene to hold that one person’s PoV. An easy rule of thumb is to avoid head-hopping completely and stick to one PoV for one scene, especially when you’re new to using the third person multiple.
TIP: Watch the number of times you switch PoV. You want to make sure to use the character that’s getting the most benefit from the scene and stay in their PoV before you start writing from another character’s perspective. Remember that something should change, i.e. the scene, the mood, etc., to make the PoV shift natural and not superfluous or confusing.
How to Balance Character PoVs
If you’re a beginning author trying out writing multiple PoV, choose which characters are most important to you and stick to their heads. Don’t sweat not being able to write from the mind-body-spirit of every single character in your story. Switch heads only when there’s a need, and never switch characters just because you can! The result can be confusing and can feel forced.
Also, limit the number of characters in your book if you want to consistently leverage third person multiple. Too many characters with separate PoVs can end up confusing the reader and even you as the author. You can still have many different characters, but strictly limit the number of head changes in the manuscript.
TIP: Keep your story focused. Just because you’re giving the view of many characters doesn’t mean you can’t maintain pace. Give each character their own emotional weight and their own specific hopes and fears. Place emotional/cognitive emphasis where the readers need it, not for the sake of getting into every single head in your story.
At the end of the day, always put yourself in your reader’s shoes. No matter what, don’t force the shift. If you don’t need it, don’t do it.
Shift in Point of View examples
Let’s look at some examples effectively and ineffectively shifting the PoV between characters.
An example of an effective PoV shift
The following passage is an example of switching from a group point of view to a singular third person PoV.
Grandma Elisabeth headed into the dining room and took her seat at the head of the table. Atop every plate was a small folded piece of paper, each adorned with a name in a long cursive sprawl. The rest of the family awkwardly shuffled into the dining room. Their eyes darted from plate to plate, their faces attempting to conceal their inner thoughts— soft smiles of relief of a seat out of the line of fire, or resignation pulling at their eyes and the corners of their lips as they found their chairs closer to the head of the table. The family mechanically sat down in their respective seats in reserved silence.
“It wasn’t dad’s fault,” Joe whispered in the silence of the room. He sat in a chair at the far end of the table.
Half the family looked quickly to Joe in astonishment, the other half looked downward, deeply concentrated with the pattern of leaves and flowers on the cleanly pressed tablecloth. Grandma Elisabeth’s blue eyes shone piercingly; no one spoke in the broken silence.
Joe felt the dread of the upcoming battle, and then a surge of anger boiled up in his stomach. He let the rage wash over him and spoke again, this time more loudly with every word.
“It wasn’t his fault, and you know it.”
In this passage, the beginning PoV is that of the family as a group, and then shifts to Joe’s perspective. At the beginning of the passage, the reader is shown information about the family’s actions that indicate how the family feels—how they move awkwardly and shuffle, how their eyes “dart” in anxiety.
The PoV shift occurs when Joe takes an action by “speaking” and breaks the tension of quiet anticipation in the room. At this point, the reader is prepared for the argument to take place, and more specifically, from Joe’s personal perspective.
Using this shift in perspective from the collective to the individual is an example of how to give your reader an overview of the overall group feeling, and then shift to the feelings of the individual character. Everyone knows what it’s like to feel awkward and uncomfortable in a group, and the burning desire to state how you really feel no matter the consequences. This particular PoV shift is highly effective not only at setting the emotional scene but at making the character more relatable.
An example of an ineffective PoV shift
In this passage, the antagonist is the murderer Bill and the protagonist is Detective Smith:
Detective Smith sat back in the chair, draped his laced fingers over his chest and eyed the man across the silver table. The room, set up for interview and interrogations only, had no paintings on the walls, nothing to adorn the tabletop sitting between them, and only held a two-way mirror, which sat directly behind his head._
He set his feet flat on the ground and leaned forward, moving his elbows to the hard metal separating them. He’d been chasing this guys for months and now all Smith needed was a confession._
“So Bill, how about you tell me where you were on the night of January 9th?”_
Bill’s eyed widened briefly before the mask of granite came back in place, then opened his mouth and promptly shut it again. Detective Smith eyed the man, and fear levels spiked in Bill._
Bill hesitated, didn’t know what the Detective had on him, but had a sudden feeling that he might not make it out of this room without a brand new set of bracelets adorning his wrists._
Can you spot the PoV error? There’s two: “fear levels spiked in Bill,” and “Bill hesitated, didn’t know what the Detective had on him but had a sudden feeling that he might not make it out of this room without a brand new set of bracelets adorning his wrists.”
Why are these PoV errors? Because Detective Smith can’t tell what Bill is thinking and feeling unless Bill says so. This is a common PoV error and one many novice writers make.
You’ll also note that there isn’t a scene change in this passage. While using a scene change isn’t cardinal rule, something tangible should shift to compel the corresponding shift in perspective. Going back to the effective example: In the first passage, Joe’s interjection into the silence of the group marks a change in mood and sets up the scene for the argument to occur from Joe’s perspective. In the second passage, Detective Smith and Bill remain in the same room, under the same circumstances, making the PoV switch awkward and superfluous.
If I had placed a scene cut after Detective Smith asked his question, I would have written it to immediately pick up on Bill thinking about the answer. This would be a more effective way to shift the PoV in this particular example.
Third Person Multiple PoV examples to learn from
Books with alternating points of view give heightened dimension to characters and are regarded as highly enjoyable by readers, provided the author is skilled. If you take a look at the current NYT Best Sellers List, you’ll see that the majority of the fiction on the list is written in third person multiple. It’s an uber-popular technique in the modern novel that’s not going away anytime soon.
If you want a masterclass in third person multiple, pick up something by Tolkien. Tolkien is known as one of the greatest worldbuilders of all time, but his seamless shifts in PoV are partly why readers of all ages become emotionally attached to his characters.
Third person multiple is also frequently used in romance writing. You can quickly recognize the style by the use of pronouns such as “she” and “he.” Romance authors like to use this PoV because it’s extremely helpful in showing how the budding relationship expands between both the protagonist and their love interest. Even though romances are intimate by nature, dual PoV romance novels allow the reader to make an even deeper connection with each character.
Finally, it’s easy to observe the benefits of writing in third person multiple in works of parallel narratives. In fact, shifting PoV is part of the essence of these novels where readers are taken on a ride bouncing between characters and their version of events.
Here’s a short list of books written in third person multiple that’s a great go-to resource as you sharpen your skills: