Point of View – Third Person Past

Tense

Third person is written in the simple past and past perfect tense.

Use

Modern fiction recommends one character’s point of view per scene, and usually in the third person (he, him, his, she, her, hers, they, them, theirs).

The third person is used to convey the main characters’ experiences, as if they are the narrators of the story and are reporting what has already just happened in the form of thoughts and relevant experiences.

Something to keep in mind when writing in third person is not to write anything else except the viewpoint character’s thoughts and experiences, so that the reader can only perceive events from the character’s perspective. Unless you’re using third person omniscient, it could be a mistake to add other information about your story in between the character’s perspective to satisfy the reader’s curiosity, for doing so may take the mystery away from the scene and will interrupt the flow of the viewpoint character. And most of all, the inconsistency will be noticeable.

Exceptions

Third person is written in anticipation of building up towards present events, which are usually written in first person in the form of dialogue or internal dialogue (protagonist thoughts). First person is also used for italicised text in fiction, such as in the case of internal dialogue.

Advantages

One of the advantages of the third person point of view is the flexibility to switch between tenses: simple past, past perfect, and simple present. The writer has the freedom to express a wide range of closely related circumstances that had occurred, have just occurred, or are occurring; and yet are written in the same scene or chapter. It takes skill for even experienced writers to master the tenses in such a way that is both correct and can relate a story’s events in an interesting way.

The disadvantages of the past perfect tense in third person

The past perfect tense can sometimes, when used excessively, become a platform for exposition and reader bombardment, which all writers should strive to avoid where they can. This tense can be rigid to read: ‘I had done’, ‘but when he had gone to the store’, ‘before he had thought about heading out he forgot to spend his money’. If you have to digress into background events, try to keep them at a minimum or at least directly relevant to what is happening in any given scene.

In this sense, try to limit the number of passages you write in the past perfect tense, or don’t use too many ‘hads’, which may hinder the reader’s enjoyment of the story. Instead, once you have introduced the tense with ‘had’, in a given paragraph, you are free to continue writing in the simple past and the reader should still understand what is meant. The same goes for background events that occur while the writer is already relating background events. As long as you introduce the tense with a single or a few ‘had’s’ to relate the most important immediate events in the first few sentences, then the reader has been informed of the tense and knows that what they are reading occurred in a time earlier than the time currently being discussed. It requires a bit of skill, judgment, and practice to use effectively, but that’s what writing is!

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