Third Person Limited: An Intimate POV (With Examples)
Third person limited is a narrative viewpoint where the story is told from the close perspective of one character. It still mainly utilizes he, she, and they pronouns, but creates the immediacy and intimacy of a first-person narrative without being "trapped inside" a protagonist's head.
In Steering the Craft, Ursula Le Guin’s invaluable writing manual, she provides a succinct definition of this limited viewpoint:
Only what the viewpoint character knows, feels, perceives, thinks, guesses, hopes, remembers, etc., can be told. The reader can infer what other people feel and think only from what the viewpoint character observes of their behaviour.
In this section of our guide to literary points of view, we’ll break down what it means to write from a limited perspective. We’ll also offer a few pointers to get the most out of this ‘best of both worlds’ viewpoint.
The limitless potential of third person limited
Third person limited narrators are more common in contemporary fiction than their omniscient counterparts. There are unique qualities they bring to their stories, ones that make this viewpoint perenially popular with authors and readers alike.
Create greater intimacy with your reader
Third person limited offers access to a character’s inner thoughts and emotions, much the same way that first-person narration does. As a result, it creates a sense of ‘narrative empathy,’ making it easier for readers to imagine themselves in the viewpoint character’s shoes — or as their confidante.
Example: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
In this example from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, we are given a peek into our protagonist’s thoughts. From his deductions of another’s behavior (“But Ender knew [...] that Peter wouldn't leave him alone”) to scenarios where Ender imagines he’s being harassed by Peter, we’re right there in our protagonist’s head.
When handled well, you could argue that third person limited is even more intimate than a first person narrative. Instead of a protagonist telling you their story, you are — in some way — encouraged to experience the story as the protagonist. Powerful stuff!
Force your readers to engage with the story
Returning to LeGuin’s quote — “[t]he reader can infer what other people feel and think only from what the viewpoint character observes of their behaviour” — we see a big reason why this narrative mode is so popular. Because the limited narrator can only reveal what the viewport character observes, the reader often has to play detective. They have to take these observed details and connect the dots to understand what is happening.
Example: “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway
In this extract, Hemingway doesn’t name his characters. He does, however, let us know how they are feeling: hot and irascible. By mentioning in the same breath that a) it was very hot, and b) the train wouldn’t come for forty minutes, we see that the characters are connecting these two facts. The reader, without even putting on their detective hat, will have deduced the physical discomfort both characters are in: the perfect context for a tense conversation!
Maintain a level of uncertainty and surprise
In the mystery, suspense, and thriller genres, you’ll commonly see third person limited narration. Compared to other POVs, it’s a natural way to tell a story that has a lot of unknowns — things like revelations, and plot twists.
An omniscient narrator, by their very nature, knows who the killer is in a mystery but they must carefully omit details to keep the mystery alive. In this sense, an omniscient narrator can be unreliable. However, a limited narrative only reveals what the viewpoint character knows, which allows the reader to uncover the mystery only as it occurs to the protagonist. If the viewpoint character is surprised by a twist, the reader will be as well.
Example: A Sword of Storms by George R.R. Martin
In this section of A Sword of Storms — which Game of Thrones fans will know as “The Red Wedding” — the viewpoint character of Catelyn Stark is thrown for a loop when she and her family are betrayed by their allies. Thanks to this particular viewpoint, the reader shares in her shock, confusion, momentary hope, then despair.
Compared to first-person narrations which usually imply that the narrator survives to tell the tale, third person limited is highly conducive to uncertainty. In Catelyn Stark’s case, her time as a viewpoint character might be coming to an end, but the reader won’t know that until it actually happens.
Take advantage of the unusual objective narrator
The difference is that there's a critical sliver of distance between the protagonist and narrator, which will change the way the main character is portrayed. Maybe the protagonist has a nasty habit she wouldn’t readily reveal if the narration were left entirely to her. Maybe the narrator can “see” something happening behind the protagonist’s back a moment or two before the character realizes it.
Example: The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
In The Lie Tree, our protagonist is a Victorian girl who is insatiably curious — a quality not becoming of young women at the time. While Faith will admit to herself that her curiosity was like an addiction — the limited narrator can go one step further, revealing to the reader a clarity that Faith would not likely articulate, not even in her own mind.
Common mistakes with third person limited
If you’re a writer who’s making use of a third person limited narrator, there are a few pitfalls you should look to avoid — either because they break the reality of your viewpoint or hamper the narrative flow of your story.
Filtering the action
Your narrator is exceptionally close to your main characters (plural, since you can use more than one) and, as a result, you may find yourself contextualizing all observations and actions through their consciousness. In John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, he calls this ‘filtering’ — something he strongly recommends writers remove from their prose.
The amateur writes: "Turning, she noticed two snakes fighting in among the rocks."
Compare: "She turned. In among the rocks, two snakes were fighting ..."
Generally speaking — though no laws are absolute in fiction — vividness urges that almost every occurrence of such phrases as "she noticed" and "she saw" be suppressed in favor of direct presentation.
— John Gardner, The Art of Fiction
As with a first person point of view, if a limited narrator describes an action (“two snakes were fighting”), readers will already assume that the viewpoint character observed this detail. Therefore, any sort of filtering language will be largely unnecessary.
Did we mention head-hopping?
If you’ve read our previous sections on third-person writing, you’ll be very familiar with ‘head-hopping,’ where your narrator reveals the thoughts or feelings of a non-POV character. They, in a sense, hop between the heads of multiple characters instead of sticking close to their viewpoint character.
Here’s an example:
Your POV character is speaking to her priest in a scene. You shouldn’t write:
Father Walsh was reluctant to tell her the truth...
This is bad form when writing third person limited, as there’s no way for your main character to know Father Walsh’s reluctance — unless she is a mind reader, in which case, all bets are off.
You can, however, demonstrate Father Walsh’s reluctance by employing some classic show, don’t tell action. Your POV character can observe him avoiding eye contact, stopping and starting sentences, or fidgeting with his cuffs — all evasive gestures that suggest reluctance.
Head-hopping is not ideal when it happens with omniscient narrators — but positively disastrous with a limited POV. While modern editing programs will detect when you're shifting between passive and active tense, they won't be able to warn you when you've accidentally swapped your point of view character! So be on the lookout when you do come to revising your manuscript.
Murder at Reedsy Manor: A Limited Mystery
Remember our illustrated example of the omniscient narrator from the previous section? Let's take another look at that story but from a limited perspective this time.
Of course, there are also books that feature multiple third person limited narrators — a popular example would be George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
If you're ready for a 'wider' viewpoint, head on to our next post on Third Person Omniscient. Enjoy!