Writing in first person presents the challenge of maintaining a voice that sounds like a distinctive character instead of that of the author, but third person narration comes with its own set of issues and these can be less clear. Writers need to determine whose third person point of view they are going to use. Are they using a single character? Rotating between two or more characters? Or will they zoom way out and use an omniscient narrative style? Once a writer makes their choice, they need to guard against slipping between them.
Omniscient narration has fallen out of style, but when done well it offers the advantage of not keeping secrets from the reader. However, close third-person POV — either of a single character or several — has become much more of the norm for third-person narratives, in part because many writers like the way it puts the reader right into the action. The trick with this point of view is to maintain that strict closeness and not slide into a more omniscient viewpoint. Some aspects of close third are obvious, and simply a matter of keeping track. Who knows what? Who has learned what facts, been present for a given discussion, overheard which secret? When it comes to plot points, it’s not difficult to determine if a character should know about something.
The tricky part of close third-person POV comes with description. There is a tendency to think of third person as the writer setting up their movie camera where the character stands, and writing as if they were filming from that specific spot. It’s logical — the description consists of whatever that camera “sees” from that position. But close third provides more than the view from the character’s eyes — it’s the view from that character’s brain, as well. Descriptions from a character’s POV must be both what they see and what they think about what they see, and here is where things often slip from the character’s POV to the writer’s — or from close third to omniscient.
In close third person, a character should see and observe in a way that makes sense for them, not just as a way to inform the reader of what a room looks like or what is going on in a scene. A wealthy society matron or an interior decorator might walk into a well-appointed living room and recognize the rug as a French Aubusson, but most characters probably would not. An actor who spends a lot of time on the red carpet and with stylists might identify his date’s dress as Armani, but an accountant for a computer company would be much less likely to make the same observation. A writer needs to know their characters, and understand how they see the world. Does the protagonist stick their head out the third story window and see a Porsche coming up the block or a red sports car? The reader must see what the character sees, and nothing more.
This distinction also comes into play in smaller details, such as how other characters are referred to within the text. When the protagonist walks into a room full of strangers, it makes sense to differentiate with physical details, such as the redhead, the woman in the black dress, the taller of the two men. But these vague descriptions should end the minute specifics are assigned. Once the POV character meets the beautiful redhead and knows her name is Susan, they should stop thinking of her as the redhead or the knockout or the beautiful woman, because people don’t reverse their thinking process in that way; she’s Susan.
Similarly, if a male protagonist is speaking to another man, and they are the only characters in the scene, the second character should never be referred to as the other man. Doing so pulls the reader out of the protagonist’s head, out of the room, to a place hovering above the scene where they are aware of two people talking. The protagonist doesn’t think of the person he’s speaking to as the other man — he just thinks of him as Joe or Dad or whoever he is. These sorts of errors often come into play when writers are looking for a way to avoid using a name or a pronoun too often, but it’s much more important to maintain the established POV than to avoid using he or him a few times in a paragraph.
Writing close third person involves really getting into the characters’ heads. When reviewing a scene, a writer needs to consider whether all of the details coming through make sense given the character’s POV. If vital information needs to be relayed, it’s important to determine how the character will know or discover it before it can be presented for the reader, and to keep the author’s voice from sneaking into the narrative.