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What Is Third Person Limited?
Third person limited point of view (or POV) is a narration style that gives the perspective of a single character.
Most novels are written in one of two styles: First person, which involves a narrator who tells their story. (“I ran toward the gate.”) Or third person, which is the author telling a story about a character. (“He woke up that morning.”) While first person narration can provide intimacy, it is also limited by the perceptive abilities of the character.
Third person narration is a more flexible choice for a writer, as it allows them to switch between characters’ points of view. You can even zoom in and out from complete omniscience (a narrative voice that has access to all information in the novel) to what’s called a limited or “close” third point of view (a narrative that adheres to a single character). This latter style gives you the ability to be inside a character’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations, which can give readers a deeper experience of character and scene, and is the most common way to use point of view.
2 Examples of Third Person Limited
Many of the best writers who focus on sustaining a reader’s attention use point of view to convey multiple elements efficiently.
Jack London, “To Build a Fire” (1902) : In his short story “To Build a Fire,” Jack London introduces the deadly Alaska Yukon through the eyes of his protagonist. In the space of a paragraph, we learn about the character’s perspective, see the gloomy world he inhabits, and begin to understand the dangers he will face.
“Day had dawned cold and gray when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail. He climbed the high earth-bank where a little-traveled trail led east through the pine for- est. It was a high bank, and he paused to breathe at the top. He excused the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o’clock in the morning. There was no sun or promise of sun, although there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day. However, there seemed to be an indescribable darkness over the face of things. That was because the sun was absent from the sky. This fact did not worry the man. He was not alarmed by the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun.”
The House of Mirth (1905) by Edith Wharton: In the first paragraph of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, we are introduced to the protagonist, Lily Bart, through the eyes of another character: Lawrence Selden. By positioning this first scene from Selden’s perspective, we experience suspense and a desire to know more about Miss Bart.
“Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart. It was a Monday in early September, and he was returning to his work from a hurried dip into the country; but what was Miss Bart doing in town at that season? If she had appeared to be catching a train, he might have inferred that he had come on her in the act of transition between one and another of the country-houses which disputed her presence after the close of the Newport season; but her desultory air perplexed him. She stood apart from the crowd, letting it drift by her to the platform or the street, and wearing an air of irresolution which might, as he surmised, be the mask of a very definite purpose. It struck him at once that she was waiting for some one, but he hardly knew why the idea arrested him. There was nothing new about Lily Bart, yet he could never see her without a faint movement of interest: it was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation, that her simplest acts seemed the result of far-reaching intentions.”
4 Tips for Writing Third Person Limited Point of View
- Choose your narrator. When choosing which character will serve as your main point of view for any chapter or scene, hone in on the person who has the most to lose or learn. Whichever character is facing the highest stakes—the one who has the most to lose in a particular scene—will be the one to follow closely, because their thoughts and reactions will carry the most tension for the reader. Readers tend to identify with characters who are learning like they are, and through these characters you can provide valuable information to the reader.
- Switch perspectives. Once you’ve established a clear narrative perspective, consider switching it up. At times, you may choose the point of view of a secondary or unimportant character—a security guard, for example, instead of your hero. This secondary character’s curiosity or confusion can guide the reader to ask the questions you want them to ask. Perhaps your main character knows something you don’t want the reader to learn yet. The secondary character doesn’t know the information, so narrating from their point of view allows you to withhold the information from the reader in a plausible way.
- Stick to your point of view. While you’re in a point of view, stick to it. For example, if you’re narrating from your hero’s perspective and, in the middle of a scene, you suddenly switch to the point of view of a different character, the disruption will jar your reader out of the story. If you want to switch perspectives, only do so if your scene, chapter, or section is over.
- Create an unreliable narrator. One of the classic tools for building suspense is to create an unreliable narrator. When you limit the information on the page to a single character’s point of view, and that character happens to be hiding something from you (or simply doesn’t know an important piece of information), you can withhold startling information from the reader and generate enthralling plot twists. Learn more about unreliable narrators in our article here.
What Is the Difference Between Third Person Limited and Third Person Omniscient?
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In third-person point of view, the author is narrating a story about the characters, referring to them by name, or using the third-person pronouns “he,” “she,” and “they.” But there’s more than one way to approach the third-person narrative mode.
- With third person omniscient point of view, the omniscient narrator knows everything about the story and its characters. This narrator can enter anyone’s mind, move freely through time, and give the reader their own opinions and observations as well as those of the characters. It’s rare that a narrator is fully omniscient, because it’s usually just too much for readers to have every character’s thoughts in their head at once.
- Limited omniscient point of view (often called a “close third”) is when an author sticks closely to one character but remains in third person. The narrator can switch between different characters, but will stay doggedly with one until the end of a chapter or section. Close third narration not only allows the reader to have a more concrete experience of a scene, it can be used to heighten suspense. By limiting a reader’s perspective, you can withhold information from them, which is critical in building interest.
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