One of the very first things we must ask ourselves as we sit down to write is, ‘who is telling the story? Who is the reader listening to?’
You may have an ingenious plot and a cast of wonderful characters, but you must also be able to tell the story in a way that will resonate with your reader. This is why establishing point of view is so important. In this article you will learn how to write in third person limited point of view, what that means, and how to make it work for your story.
Choosing What Tense To Write In
The two most common points of view (or POV) are first person and third person. In the first person, the character is the narrator, they talk about themselves using ‘I’. In the third person, the narrator is separate to the character, talking about them using their name or third-person pronouns such as she/he/they.
But how do you choose between first and third person? There are advantages and disadvantages to both. With first person POV, you are right inside the character’s head and constantly listening to their thoughts and opinions which can be hugely effective. However, with third person you can put space between the character and the narrator; useful for adding flavour and depth, and for withholding some elements to increase suspense.
You can also choose to mix it up! If you are writing a novel, perhaps have one character in first person, and others in the third. This may also help you to create a more distinct ‘voice’ for them.
Now, let’s assume you have chosen to use the third person. This article will explore in greater depth how you can use the third person point of view, offering tips and tricks to be more effective, and some key examples to help illustrate.
So read on for help on how to use third person POV to really make your stories stand out.
What Is Third Person Limited Point Of View?
Having decided on the third person POV, there is one more choice to make: how much does your narrator know? Are they an omniscient narrator, knowing all things about everyone? Or are they limited to only one character (or a handful if you are using multiple POVs – which we’ll talk more about in a moment)?
The third person limited point of view is where the narrator tells the story from the perspective of a single protagonist, referring to them by name or using a third person pronoun such as they/she/he. The narrator can only see inside the mind of the protagonist. They are sitting on their shoulder, watching as the action unfolds around them. By definition, the limited nature of this POV comes from the fact the narrator cannot tell what other characters are thinking or feeling.
How is third person limited different from writing in the first person? At first glance it may seem that the two are similar, you could just use ‘I’ instead of ‘he/she/they’. However, third person limited allows you to zoom in and out from the character, so you can choose to be right in their head at one moment (also known as close third person), and then further away from them at another, adjusting the lens for optimal impact. For more on this, read our article on narrative distance.
Some third person limited examples from books include Stephen King’s Misery, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and Jane Austen’s Emma.
Writing In Third Person Limited Point Of View
Writing in third person point of view limited can offer a plethora of opportunities, allowing you ample flexibility to tell your story, while still creating characters who are vibrant and seem to leap off the page as the action unfolds through their perspective.
Five top tips for writing in third person limited POV are:
- Choose your POV character carefully
- Consider multiple POVs (if appropriate)
- Be consistent
- Show the world as your character sees it
- Allow your POV characters to be fallible
1. Choose Your POV Character Carefully
The third person limited narrator is most likely the protagonist, the primary person around whom the plot is centred. Can they see enough of the action to make the plot satisfying for the reader? If not, consider using a second POV character.
Can they carry the story? Will the reader enjoy being with them? They do not have to be ‘liked’ per se (and their flaws will add flavour) but they must be engaging. Do they have a sufficiently interesting perspective to ensure readers continue to turn the page?
In The Midnight Library, Matt Haig tells the story of Nora who, following a suicide attempt, is given the opportunity to experience some of the other lives she could have lived. Haig uses a limited point of view to show us these lives from Nora’s perspective, whilst being able to add narrative flavour through the third person style. The result draws you into the story and helps to suspend your disbelief at the semi-speculative nature of the plot in a more powerful way than if it was written in the first person. It also helps to create suspense as the novel progresses, because the third person POV avoids answering the question of the potential ending of such a book (where first person may have hinted at a conclusion).
2. Use Multiple POVs
You can use the limited third person whilst utilising more than one point of view character. There are many successful novels that employ this mechanism, including the Games of Thrones series by George R. R. Martin wherein events unfold across a huge number of characters to great effect.
Multiple POVs can help provide the reader with information, filling in gaps with things that the protagonist doesn’t know, as there’s only so much that one character could feasibly experience. With just one POV character you may find yourself inventing increasingly ridiculous or clichéd ways of finding out key information; rather than have them spend their whole time eavesdropping, why not introduce a new POV character?
You can use multiple POVs to show contrasting experiences, including how the same events may be seen completely differently by two different individuals. Think about how you could play with showing the same scene through the lens of one character, and then replay it from another character’s perspective. Those contrasts can help to provide further information to the reader about the plot but might also provide the opportunity to deepen the character development based on the things they each observe and how they react.
In The Power, Naomi Alderman uses four major POV characters (Roxy, Tunde, Margot, and Allie) to tell the story from a much wider perspective than if she had used a smaller cast. The effect of this is significant; showing that, although different cultures may react differently to the development of ‘the power’, there are stark similarities with how that power is used and eventually corrupted. The novel would be significantly less powerful (excuse the pun) with only one or two POV characters.
For your own project, why not think about how you could broaden the story by adding another POV? I often use this as an exercise to work through a writer’s block; if I’m struggling, I flip the scene to look at it from another perspective. This often helps the words to flow again and has even thrown up some very interesting plot twists!
3. Be Consistent
When writing in the third person limited, consistency is key. Watch out for times when you might be inadvertently breaking the rules, for example by ‘head-hopping’. This is where you accidently switch into the perspective of a different character; it can be extremely jarring to the reader, pulling them out of the world you have so carefully crafted.
In the example below, Gary is the current POV character:
Gary looked at Ella and grinned. ‘We could go for pizza?’ Not that he was hungry, but it wasn’t actually about eating, he just wanted to spend more time with her.
But Ella was ravenous and to her it was all about the potential to eat. ‘I’d love to.’
Buoyed by the promise of a date, Gary sent a quick text to his mum to say he’d be late home.
Notice how the narrator tells the reader that Ella is ravenous? If Gary is the POV character, how would the narrator know this? The reader may now be sitting confused, wondering if perhaps Ella is the POV character for this scene, which will drag their focus away from the action you had intended.
One of the ways to avoid ‘head-hopping’ is to be very clear with the demarcation for any switch in POV. For example, you may choose to only shift at the end of a scene, or chapter. Then, during the editing process, make sure you scrutinise each sentence, asking yourself if that POV character could know that. In the example above, Gary wouldn’t know Ella was ravenous, but she could infer this through her body language, tone, or speech.
4. Show The World As Your Character Sees It
The use of the third person limited POV is an absolute gift for character development. When a character walks into a room, what do they see? A book-ish character may be immediately drawn to the towering bookshelves, while a character who embraces order may recoil at the piles of laundry strewn across the space. As well as providing a description of the setting, these observations reveal subtle clues about the observers themselves.
Take Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk. The novel opens from the third person limited perspective of Robert. A bold choice perhaps, given that Robert is a newborn baby. St Aubyn gives the narrator an advanced adult vocabulary, but the observations (including the angles of sight etc.) are decidedly infantile.
Another author using third person limited to great effect is Stephen King in Misery. Told from the perspective of Paul Sheldon as he lies with two broken legs in the home of his ‘rescuer’, you soon realise she is not the kindly nurse Paul would have hoped for! Limiting the perspective to the things he can see and hear from his bed creates a wonderful tension and heightens the suspense of the novel.
When writing in the limited third person, try to put yourself on the shoulder of your character, stepping where they step, seeing what they see. Colour your writing with the things that only they would observe, and the things that would be meaningful to them.
5. Allow Your POV Characters To Be Fallible
It may be tempting to make your POV character perfect. The kind of person who would remember every conversation, who would take the time to listen carefully or read all the small print. But that is not reality!
We all mishear things, or misconstrue the meaning of things, or jump to conclusions without having all the facts. We’re only human after all. Your characters are the same and trying to make them perfect will only make them seem false to the reader. You may find any misunderstandings are minor, merely adding further flavour to the scenes in the story. Alternatively, you may use them as a helpful plot devise. This is often used in romance novels to push the couple apart before they are reunited at the final moment or to provide a red herring in a thriller to keep the tension high.
You can also use third person to reveal negative traits about your protagonist that they may not reveal in a first person POV. After all, we don’t necessarily think of the things we do with an air of negativity, but the third person narrator can reveal those elements. This may be especially effective for villains in your story.
The fallibility of the POV character may also allow you to explore the use of an unreliable narrator (one who is not telling the reader the whole truth). Often unreliable narrators will be written in the first person, as it is often easier to obfuscate this way. However, it is possible to write a third person unreliable narrator; using their fallibility for effect may allow you to do so without destroying the reader’s trust in you by feeding them an obvious lie.
There are many examples of third person unreliable narrators. Jane Austen’s Emma is one such example, as the whole novel is told from Emma’s perspective, significantly influenced by her own biases. Other examples include The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and Atonement by Ian McEwan.
Try exploring fallibility in your own project. What happens if your character thinks they are meeting their friend an hour earlier than they are? Who might they meet as they wait? What might they witness? If you are working on a project with two POV characters, try writing a scene where one remembers an event from long ago. Then flip it around and write the memory from the other character’s POV. What are the key differences in how they remember the event? How have their own experiences in the intervening years coloured and twisted the memory?
Third Person Limited
The limited third person point of view is a gift for writers. It allows you to showcase the world from your character’s perspective, whilst giving you the ability to pull away from them at times. The overall effect can be immersive and compelling to the reader, giving your writing that added magic.
Just remember as you sit down to write to always ask ‘who is telling this story?’. Let go of your own biases and pre-conceptions and write with your storyteller in mind: sit on their shoulder and see what they have to say for themselves!
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