First off, I would like to make a shameless plug for my second story up at QuarterReads.com, “You’re Worth It.” The story is 1,358 words by Microsoft’s count, above average length for your quarter. It is a young adult romance story at heart, with sci-fi elements amplifying the conflict and seasoning the story overall. If you aren’t already signed up for QuarterReads.com and you like reading stories that are 2,000 words or less, you really ought to try it. The cost is $5 for 25 reads, usable for any story up on the site. There are a load of gems at QuarterReads from the likes of Amanda C. Davis, Cat Rambo, Ken Liu, and Alex Shvartsman.
Funny enough, every single story of mine that has been published (three stories pro-published by SpeckLit, two stories gathering royalties at QuarterReads, and two stories up “gallery-style” at non-paying MicroHorror.com) was written in 1st-person POV. I don’t have an exact stat, but my guess is that at least two-thirds of all of my stories are written in the 3rd-person. So maybe I’m not quite so qualified to write about 3rd than I am 1st. Oh well. (I actually already have an article about 1st-person narration on this blog, as well as one on how epistolary POV can lead to unreliable narration.)
In middle/high school, only two forms of 3rd-person are generally discussed in depth: limited and omniscient. 3rd-person objective was mentioned once during my sophomore year, but it’s an extremely rare POV and could probably be lumped into a different form of 3rd. I classify 3rd-person stories into five categories: limited, regular omniscient (or simply “omniscient”), head-hopping omniscient (or simply “head-hopping”), cinematic, and narrative. Most people consider the two different omniscient POVs to be one-in-the-same. I do not.
I’ve written about the elder incarnation of 3rd-limited already on this blog, so I’m going to focus on the modern structure of the POV here. 3rd-limited is almost certainly the most-used POV in fantasy and sci-fi novels today (excluding YA). It contains the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of just one character at a time. Who the POV character is can change any time a scene changes. Many novels in this POV have only one or two POV characters, but some contain a dozen or more *cough* Robert Jordan *cough*.
Regular omniscient is difficult to explain. It exists in a gray region between narrative and head-hopping. Usually stories I would consider to be written in the 3rd-person regular omniscient POV are thrown into one of those two. After much debate, I have decided to consider regular omniscient a distinct form of 3rd-person. When 3rd-limited and 3rd-cinematic have been ruled out, you’re left with the other three and possibly a tough decision. If a story looks like narrative but feels like head-hopping, I would consider it regular omniscient. In other words, if it’s clear that the narrator has access to unlimited information and yet spends most of its time inside characters’ heads in a limited-style, the story is regular omniscient. Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein is 3rd-regular omniscient, by my classification.
Dune by Frank Herbert is the classic example of head-hopping. Head-hopping is the same as limited, except the POV character changes constantly within each scene, rather than only switching at a scene break. This is done in order to see inside every important character’s head without losing the intimacy of 3rd-limited. Head-hopping is rare.
Cinematic is the rarest of the 3rd-person forms, as far as prose goes. It is the POV of films. Everything is perceived as if from a camera. No character thoughts are shown. Cinematic is very similar to the objective form. They may even be the same form. I would say that cinematic is “allowed” to have a certain element of voice to it, whereas objective is not. That would be the only major distinction. Cinematic is used almost exclusively for individual scenes because using it for an entire story would rip the humanity inherent in stories of every other POV.
If a story sounds like it could be told around a campfire, it’s probably written in 3rd-narrative. Narrative stories are told by the author or by a character outside the context of the story (though sometimes featured in the story, in the case of a story told in recollection of an event after all important knowledge on the subject has been obtained). There is a separation between characters and readers in narrative. To make up for that, narrative has a lot of freedom as far as voice goes. If the voice of the story is great, it can make up for the lack of intimacy in the form. Novice writers tend to default to narrative. While it’s the simplest form, it is also, in my opinion, the hardest to do well. The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction contains many marvelous 3rd-narrative stories (but does not contain exclusively narrative stories).
There’s plenty of room for discussion as far as the 3rd-person POV goes. Some writers may prefer to generalize to two or four forms and that’s perfectly fine. I like to get into the nitty-gritty details to see how each form works. All five forms have their uses, though limited and narrative are definitely the two most commonly used.