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In novels, when the PoV follows a particular character, is pretty common that we get to hear his/her thoughts. Sometimes, those thoughts take the form of questions that the character ask himself:

What does that mean? Jodie pondered.

Of course another way to do this is to cut the internal dialogue entirely and make the narrator report the question:

She wondered what the meaning could be.

But there's another way: making the narrator ask the question directly. This comes pretty naturally when the PoV is a first-person one, e.g., Jodie:

What was the meaning of that? Heck, I didn't know.

But I've seen it done before, and I tend to do it, even with third-person narrators, be they limited or not:

What was the meaning of that? Was it ok to ask? Jodie held those questions in her mind, while her fingers surfed on the keyboard and the white light of Writing SE blazed on the screen.

The question is direct, but it's not a thought; we're not in a stream of consciousness, and the narrator is otherwise impersonal.

What's happening here, to my understanding, is that the third person narrator is borrowing the "voice" of a given character for a little while, making the question in his/her stead.

Can this be done with a third-person narrator?

Maybe it makes no sense. It's pretty natural to do something like that in first person, but it might be a skill that has no right to exist when the narrator changes.

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  • Please see my answer here: writing.stackexchange.com/a/43733/23253 – wetcircuit Mar 31 at 21:27
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    @wetcircuit I don't think this is a duplicate since it is particularly asking about questions rather than narrating train of thought in general. Related yes, duplicate no. – linksassin Apr 1 at 2:16
  • An example may be in the Harry Potter books -- they're 3rd person, but mostly Harry's POV. A lot of times there are questions, sometimes with tags, sometimes just "How could Dumbledore do this?" in the middle of an action-narrating paragraph -- making it clear that it's Harry's mental question. – April --Un-Slander Monica-- Apr 1 at 13:22
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    Now I want to write a story where the Narrator asks the main character questions. "You idiot! What were you thinking? You were THIS close to living happily ever after, but you had to go and..." (Well, maybe not so overwrought as all that.) – Jedediah Apr 1 at 14:07
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Yes, you can use a third person narrator in this way.

In fact, this approach can be used somewhat liberally, to describe a thought process that may be difficult to form into distinct mental sentences, or feels too long when that is done, or feels artificial. An example might be to skip any internal monologue about what somebody said, and instead write: She tried to make sense of this, and failed.

Stating a thought by the narrator can also tone down the impact or intensity of the thought; and can make it seem more realistic. In your example, "questions in the mind" like "is it okay to ask" are not always formulated into crisp grammatical thoughts, they can be on the borderline between a thought and a feeling, or a combination of those, and are better described.

This approach is also useful when the character is having multiple simultaneous thoughts; as we often do IRL when under stress or pressure. Conveying what it is like to wonder about two or three competing ideas or worries, as one might in battle or an emergency, is best done in prose, not serialized individual thoughts. (IRL science shows us that thoughts in words come after processes in non-words; and that non-verbal thinking can occur on several tracks in parallel.)

This 'stated thought' approach is fine, it is a tool like anything else. Notice the difference between making the thought explicit in the character's head, and having the narrator state what is in the character's head. The former feels more intimate and immediate. That isn't always what you want; in fact (IMO) direct mental access is something you want to dole out to the reader, when it is important to maximize the impact of the thought -- And if you maximize everything, you have maximized nothing, it is like writing in all caps. Use whichever approach you think best conveys the scene.

However, I do not think this gives a 3rd person narrator (3PN) license to ask questions on their own behalf; that changes them into a first person narrator, and shifting back and forth between narration styles is confusing.

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It does not make sense if your third-person narrator is omniscient, impersonal and - perhaps most to the point - is not strictly speaking a character. If your narrator is set up as something which knows everything, then it logically does not make sense for that narrator to ask about anything.

The case where a third-person narrator could ask questions is when they are specifically presented as someone or something which does not understand everything which is happening and therefore has a right to contemplate upon it. I don't quite remember the name of the book off the top of my head, but the third-person narrator in that book was Death (and no, this was not a Discworld book). Death saw everything and he was explained as a "presence which was everywhere (because of course he was) but could only truly focus on one thing at a time". Nonetheless, Death did not understand many of the peculiarities of mortals and frequently pondered upon them.

In other words, in the example above, the narrator is basically a character who has the capacity to observe the story without strictly being part of it; the narrator has his/her own voice and personality which ensures they do not understand everything and therefore have the capacity to ask their own questions.

Quick sample of Death as a narrator:

If I recall correctly, it was on the 1st of April when Jeremy lit his friend's house on fire. Presumably, it was meant to a be day of hilarity. I still can't get the image out of my mind when he was shaking his head and chuckling, cursing Jeremy, even as I stared him in the eyes. What is it about such an arbitrary date that turns what would be feared into a joke, I wonder?

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