Third-Person Limited: When It’s All About That One Character
When you write in the third-person limited point of view (POV), you basically follow one character around any given scene.
You tell the reader what this one character thinks and feels. You talk about their choices, fears, motivations, and interpretation of events. In most cases, you even take on aspects of their tone and voice.
As for the other characters? Sure, you see them. You describe what they’re up to, too. But you don’t know them like your POV characters. You don’t try to get inside their heads. Their stories aren’t, like, your whole life.
Maybe I’m making third-person limited narration sound creepy, but you get the idea. The third-person limited point of view is the view of an observer who only has deep insight into one character per scene. Some authors even limit the focus to one character for an entire book.
And this happens to be an extremely popular way to tell a story.
But why is third-person limited narration so common? What are the advantages of using it? Is it right for your novel? And how do you do it well?
That’s a lot of questions. Fortunately, I’ve got a lot of answers. We’ll start simple.
What is Third-Person Limited Narration?
Let’s break this down.
Third-person narration occurs when the narrator is an unnamed observer. They’re not part of the story, they don’t refer to themselves, and the reader doesn’t really care who they are.
A third-person narrative is easy to spot by the fact that all pronouns in the narration are third-person pronouns (he, she, ze, it, they, etc.). If you see any first-person pronouns (I, we), it’s not a third-person narrative. It’s first-person.
As for the “limited” part of the equation, this means the narrator’s POV is limited to one character per scene or chapter. If Buffy and Muffy are having an argument, a third-person limited narrator can only tell you what Buffy is thinking and feeling. The narrator can observe what Muffy says and does, but they don’t know the innermost workings of Muffy’s soul.
This is different from third-person omniscient, where the narrator knows and can report on anyone’s thoughts and feelings.
So why choose third-person limited over third-person omniscient? Or over first-person, for that matter?
Here’s what this narrative approach can do for your story.
Why Use Third-Person Limited?
There is no “best” point of view. Each narrative option has its own set of advantages and potential pitfalls. Ultimately, which one you choose comes down to what makes sense for your story.
To help you decide if third-person limited is what you’re looking for, here are a few of the biggest advantages to using this viewpoint.
Avoid Clunky Head-Hopping
At first glance, the third-person omniscient approach seems like the easiest. It feels less restricted. If you want the reader to know what a character is thinking, you can just say it, right?
Not exactly. There's actually an art to shifting perspectives (also known as “head-hopping”).
Consider these two examples:
“Natasha eyed Charlie suspiciously. He didn’t even care about this case.”
“Natasha eyed Charlie suspiciously. Meanwhile, Charlie didn’t even care about this case.”
In the first example, it’s not clear whether Charlie actually doesn’t care about the case or if we’re still in Natasha’s head where she’s silently accusing him of not caring. The second sentence draws that line much more clearly.
When you stick with third-person limited, you avoid these particular narrative gymnastics.
More Intimacy, Less Bias
Depending on how you write it, the third-person limited point of view can provide your readers with a sense of intimacy similar to what they’d get with a first-person POV.
What’s different is that third-person limited narration often feels a little more honest and reliable than first-person narration.
Sure, with first-person you get the account of someone who’s actually living inside the story. But this means they bring their own biases to the tale. They’re going to present their opinions and assumptions as truth.
In the third-person version, there’s some distance between the narrator and the idea. This nameless, faceless voice is just letting you know what the POV character thinks.
In some styles of third-person limited, the narrator’s tone might suggest agreement or empathy with the character’s position. But they’re ultimately observing and sharing rather than advocating. This gives the reader more space to form their own opinions.
On that note, this narrative style gives you, the author, a lot of room to decide just how intimate you want the storytelling to be.
In other words, does your narrative voice almost mirror the voice and attitude of the character, as it does in A Man Called Ove?
“He’s fifteen yards from his broken mailbox when he sees Blond Weed… That little barking thing—more of a mutt than a proper dog—which has been pissing on Ove’s paving stones is running around her feet.”
The nicknames, the harsh opinions, the less-than-formal word choice… these things create a third-person limited narration that feels almost as intimate as first-person. It’s as if Ove were telling the story himself.
However, because it’s third-person, the narrator also shares details that the hardened, blunt-spoken Ove would probably withhold. Things like:
“She had a way of folding her index finger into his palm, hiding it inside. And he always felt that nothing in the world was impossible when she did that. Of all the things he could miss, that’s what he misses most.”
And just like that, we all fall in love with the curmudgeon.
More Detective Work
Third-person limited narration shows up a lot in mysteries and suspense novels. When we can only see the story through the sleuth’s eyes, we feel like we’re solving the case alongside them.
Of course, this idea extends well beyond these two genres. Every story is a story about someone trying to figure something out, whether it’s how to prevent an alien invasion or how to get one’s groove back.
What Alice Forgot is a great example of this. Alice suffers a brain injury that erases the last ten years from her memory. When she regains consciousness, she’s living a life she no longer recognizes.
Here’s how the narrator describes Alice’s sister, Elisabeth, when Alice sees her for the first time after the injury:
“There was something bruised and wary and worn out about those washed-out eyes, as if she’d just been badly defeated in a fight she’d expected to win.
“Alice felt a surge of worry; something terrible must have happened.”
A third-person omniscient narrator could tell us “Elisabeth looked old and exhausted because of [SPOILER], but Alice didn’t know that.” But because Alice is our only eyes and ears, we’re as lost as she is.
How to Use Third-Person Limited
Now that we’ve established how mighty this style of storytelling can be, let’s explore some techniques for really nailing it.
Let Other Characters Be Mysterious
If you want to be successful at the third-person limited point of view, you have to, you know, keep it limited. This doesn’t just mean there’s a strict no head-hopping rule. It also means you’ve got to resist the urge to gift your POV character with uncanny psychological insight.
If you see yourself pulling a lot of this maneuver:
“Tanya knew that Miguel only left to ‘get a soda’ because the conversation was getting too personal.”
…stop doing that. Instead, give the reader the gift of mystery. Let them wonder why Miguel left or what Rebecca really thinks about Troy or why Mrs. Bean is alway like that. Let them speculate and discover and have “Aha!” moments alongside your POV character.
Take Delilah Green Doesn’t Care for example. This romance is told through alternating third-person limited points of view.
One POV comes from Delilah, who considers her step-sister, Astrid, to be a privileged brat who feels superior to Delilah. The other POV comes from Delilah’s love interest and Astrid’s best friend, Claire, who believes Astrid to be a good person with perfectionist quirks.
The reader doesn’t get the real story on Astrid until Delilah and Claire learn new information that gives them both a richer understanding of this non-POV character.
Neat, right? Third-person limited forces us over-excited writers to keep our secrets longer.
Don’t Filter Yourself
Because third-person limited POV locks us into one character’s experience of the story, it can be easy to slip into a filter-word habit.
Filter words are words that create separation between the reader and the story. The bolded words below operate as filter words in this example:
Clarissa saw a woman and a small child come out of the abandoned beauty parlor. She noticed they were each holding a small paper bag. She wondered what they were up to.
Compare that passage to:
A woman and a small child emerged from the abandoned beauty parlor, each holding a small paper bag. What were they up to?
See the difference? Both passages give Clarissa’s point of view, but the second allows us to live the experience through Clarissa’s eyes. The first constantly reminds us that this is all happening to Clarissa, not us.
Interpret the Scene Through the Character’s Eyes
Remember when you were a kid on a family road trip, getting repeatedly flicked in the face by a sibling? (Or do you not have older brothers?)
You may have reported this incident to your parents as your sibling “attacking” you. Your sibling probably claimed they were just “playing.” Perhaps your parents unforgivably scolded your sibling for the too-minor crime of “teasing” you.
One event, three different interpretations.
When you write in third-person limited, your word choice can tell the reader a lot about the way your POV character interprets a situation. Just look at all these loaded phrases in one half-sentence from What Alice Forgot.
“Over lunch, Roger took it upon himself to bring Alice up to date with his own interpretation of every historical event that had taken place over the last ten years…”
It may not be Alice narrating, but her attitude could not be clearer.
Be Deliberate About Voice
I love this one. This is magic.
When writing in first-person, you’re writing in the actual tone and voice of the POV character. In third-person omniscient, the narrator must have a voice of their own as well as their own attitude about the story.
But when it comes to third-person limited, you’ve got options.
In Butterfly Yellow, author Thanhhà Lại gently reflects the voice of Hắng in the narration, including Hắng’s phonetic Vietnamese approximation of English words.
“...thousands of Vietnamese had resettled in Tê-sát, second only to the abundance of black-hair, olive-skin refugees in Ca-li, short for Ca-li-pho-ni-à. It wasn’t possible to pronounce that many syllables without getting light-headed.”
Combined with Hắng’s unique descriptions of Texas sights and culture (and “red hairy caterpillar mustaches”), this helps the reader feel how foreign the world of the story is to Hắng while also drawing the reader closer to that which is familiar to the character.
Walter Tevis takes a more distanced approach to third-person limited POV in The Queen’s Gambit. Beth would probably not describe this scene this way:
“Abruptly she saw herself as a small unimportant person—a plain, brown-haired orphan girl in dull institutional clothes. She was half the size of these easy, insolent students with their loud voices and bright sweaters.”
Tevis still captures Beth’s feelings. But by remaining in the voice of a nameless narrator, he minimizes intimacy. It’s an appropriate choice for a story about a character who struggles with human connection.
Now for the big question.
Is the Third-Person Limited POV Right for Your Story?
Like the question of your life’s purpose or where that weird smell is coming from, I can’t answer this for you. But we at Dabble can at least help you find the answer for yourself.
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You may even find that you like the idea of mixing and matching. That’s fine, too! A lot of great books play with blends. What Alice Forgot is told through third person limited with interjections of first-person epistolary. The Sign for Home alternates first-person and second-person.
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