One of the biggest challenges with third person narratives is how to balance multiple perspectives.
This isn’t always something beginning writers give much thought. Third person is third person, right? Can’t you just jump from one character to another as you need to? Aren’t all-seeing perspectives essentially the same?
Head jumping can be really confusing for a reader. It can be wildly disorienting to see three, four, five characters’ inner thoughts in succession. You stop feeling anchored in a scene and instead feel like you’re swimming through a thought explosion.
There are two main ways to solve this: sticking to third person limited (anchored to one character’s perspective) or third person omniscient (Gods-eye). But most novels deviate slightly from these strict categories and cheat from time to time.
Rather than telling you “rules” about omniscient vs. limited vs. hybrid, here are some directional tips that will hopefully help you keep the reader feeling anchored in a scene:
1) Consider separating a shift in perspective with chapter or scene breaks
This is the most straightforward approach to multiple perspectives in a third person limited narrative. Pick a character and stick with their perspective through a cohesive chapter or scene. This is how George R.R. Martin handles the Song of Fire and Ice books (aka Game of Thrones). The novels are anchored by several key characters per novel, and we see what is happening through their eyes.
2) If you’re going to break perspective within a scene, think of it as keeping a “camera” in place
Occasionally you might want to remove the narrating character and show something that is happening out of their view, whether in order to show the reader something the main character can’t see or because it just makes sense for them to bounce for a second.
If you’re going to do this, I compare this to keeping a “camera” in place in the scene. Remove the main character, but keep the narrative going with the other characters who remain. Don’t suddenly shift deeply into someone else’s thoughts and feelings, but it’s okay to linger a bit and show something the anchoring character shouldn’t be able to see.
When/if the character returns, you can slide back into showing their thoughts.
3) If you’re using a more omniscient third person perspective, imagine the narrator as a fully-fledged character
Third person omniscient allows more head-jumping and more flexibility in showing various thoughts and motivations. But it’s tricky to keep things consistent and avoid disorientation.
Rather than thinking of the narrative jumping from one character to the next, imagine that there is an unseen narrator who is observing the action.
This does two crucial things. One, it smooths things out for the reader, because rather than taking into account multiple perspectives and biases, you’re seeing things essentially from one point of view. The other is that it stops you from diving so deeply into one character that it’s jarring to shift to another character’s thoughts.
This omniscient narrator doesn’t have to actually be a real, named character, but it’s helpful to think of them this way so you tell the narrative through a consistent perspective.
4) The more the perspective is limited, the deeper the inner thoughts. The more omniscient the perspective, the shallower the thoughts
This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but generally, if you have tied the perspective very closely to one character you can go as deep as you want into what they’re thinking. It won’t be jarring for the reader to see inner monologues, straightforward thoughts, etc.
If you have a more omniscient perspective that includes multiple characters, you may want to stick more to observing outside, physical actions and general, apparent emotions rather than diving too deeply into what multiple characters are thinking. This way we’re seeing what’s happening on the outside rather than having to wonder how it is that we’re jumping around to what everyone is thinking.
Have you tried balancing multiple perspectives in a novel? How did you handle it?
Art: Hercules Killing the Hydra by Cornelis Cort