Third person limited point of view is one of the most common points of view in all of fiction. It has been around for centuries, and will likely continue to be a dominant style for writing.
But what exactly is third person (or 3rd person) limited, and how can you write in it. After all, unwarranted changes in tense are one of the biggest red flags that an author has not had their book professionally edited.
Thankfully, third person limited is so common that you are likely familiar with it, and may intuitively write in this form already.
- What third person limited is
- Third person limited vs third person omniscient
- The benefits of using third person limited
- How to write in third person limited
- Examples of third person limited
Table of contents
- What Is Third Person Limited Point of View?
- The Benefits of Third Person Limited
- How to Write in Third Person Limited Point of View
- Examples of Third Person Limited Point of View
What Is Third Person Limited Point of View?
Third person limited point of view is a style of writing that lets you get into the head of specific characters, while still maintaining a detached, third person narrative voice.
Unlike first-person point of view, you are not speaking with the actual words of the character. Instead, you are able to peer into the head of that character and view their thoughts.
However, as the name suggests, your options are limited. For example, you cannot peer into the heads of every character in a scene. To do that, you would have to create a scene break and move to the perspective of a different character.
Third person limited, together with first-person POV, are the two most common writing styles. In fact, third person narration might be the more popular of the two, because it comes with many of the benefits of first-person point of view (i.e. character thoughts) without some of its drawbacks (i.e. not being able to change characters).
Third Person Limited vs. Omniscient
There are two types of styles that allow you to write from third person POV: limited and omniscient. So what is the difference between the two?
Third person limited follows a single character at a time, you can see into that person's thoughts, but not anyone else in the scene. We are essentially seeing the scene through that person's eyes.
Third person omniscient point of view let's the author peer into the minds of every character in a scene. Nothing is left secret, because you can know everything that each person is thinking.
Overall, most books are told with a limited perspective instead of an omniscient one, as an omniscient narrator can be difficult to master.
For example, imagine trying to write a murder mystery where you could see into the heads of everybody in the room. You would immediately figure out who did it, because you would be able to hear that person's thoughts.
The Benefits of Third Person Limited
We've already mentioned a few of these in passing, but there are many benefits to using third person limited POV in your writing. Here are just a few:
Allows Access to Character's Thoughts
While you do have access to character thoughts in other points of view, third person limited is unique in the way it treats point of view.
With third person limited, you are removed from the scene as a third person narrator, and yet you still see through the eyes of a single character as if they are providing their narration.
Plus, you have the ability to view the perspective of other POV characters, as long as there is a scene or chapter break to clearly indicate to the reader what you are doing.
This is something that is not possible in first-person point of view, where you are essentially stuck in the head of one character for the entire book.
Third person limited allows you that freedom to switch characters, while still maintaining that deep point of view that you get with a first-person narrator.
Easier for the Reader to Understand
Third person limited and first-person point of view are the two easiest forms for a reader to understand, so it is not surprising that they are both the most popular.
Third person omniscient can become confusing to readers, as rapidly jumping into the heads of multiple characters is disorienting if not done well.
Third person limited, however, allows you to stick with one character at a time, clearly show that character's perspective, and forge a connection between them before moving on.
Maintain the Mystery
One of the downsides to omniscient point of view is the fact that nothing can be kept secret. For example, in Dune by Frank Herbert, which is written in third person omniscient, you know exactly who was going to betray the family from the beginning.
In fact, keeping secrets in third person omniscient will often be seen as poor writing, since that is deliberately hiding information that should be presented. It doesn't follow the rules.
Third person limited, on the other hand, lets you keep as many secrets as you want, because you are viewing the world through the eyes of each individual character. If that character does not know the secret, then the reader will not discover it.
An Objective Narrator
When telling a story from a first-person point of view, you run the risk of having an unreliable narrator. While this can be a good thing, sometimes people want an objective narrator.
That's where third person limited comes in.
Third person limited allows you to get the best of both worlds, you can still write in the deep point of view of the character, whilst maintaining an objective third-person view of the scene.
How to Write in Third Person Limited Point of View
Now that we have covered why you should write in third person limited, let's talk about how you do that.
1. Choose Your Narrator
To start with, you will need to select a viewpoint character to focus on.
Most of the time, this will be your protagonist, though if you have multiple viewpoints throughout your book, you will need to write in their heads as well.
But for now, pick one character, and began writing in third person point of view from their perspective.
2. Don't Switch Perspectives without a Scene Break
Because third person limited is restricted to one character at a time, you can't just switch from the head of one character to another without a clear break.
The best way to do this is with a scene or chapter break.
When you start the new scene or chapter, you want to immediately establish who your new character perspective is, and perhaps find some creative ways to differentiate their tone from the previous character you were writing.
Note that, for certain genres, it is less common to have multiple viewpoints within a novel. This is especially true of young adult fiction, but you should do research into your genre to know whether it is acceptable to switch character viewpoints.
Even if multiple character viewpoints are acceptable in the genre, try not to overdo it. With the possible exception of epic fantasy, you generally want to stick to three or four character viewpoints at maximum. Even then, your protagonist should make up the bulk of your viewpoint.
3. Create a Mystery
One of the best ways to engage your readers is to create a mystery. Third person limited allows you to do this.
That is why third person limited is such a good style of narration for mysteries, because you don't necessarily know what is going on in the heads of everyone else.
Establish your main character, have them probe for clues, interrogate other characters, etc. and think through the possibilities.
4. Practice Deep Point of View
When writing in third person limited, it is helpful to practice deep point of view for your writing.
Deep point of view is when you write as if you are reflecting the characters actual thoughts.
For example, a bad way of writing deep point of view would be this:
“She rounded the corner and noticed that the streetlamps had gone dark. She thought that was unusual, but didn't think much of it.”
A better way of writing this using third person limited and deep point of view would be:
“She rounded the corner. Streetlamps had gone dark. Odd, that hadn't happened before. Perhaps it was a problem with the power lines.”
See how that makes a difference? The key is to see the world as your character would see it. If your character is a pessimist, make it clear in the narration how they feel in any given situation. Is your character a city girl suddenly thrown into a rural area? Demonstrate their discomfort when being presented with these new situations.
5. Contrast Different Narrators
A sign of a masterful writer is the ability to make each character voice sound distinctive within third person limited point of view.
Let's use a simple example:
Let's say we have two characters, one who is from the desert, and one who is from a rainforest.
Now put both characters into a desert environment.
The character that lives in a desert would likely feel right at home, and their point of view would reflect this. The character from a rainforest, however, would be highly uncomfortable, they would be unfamiliar with many different aspects of a desert environment, etc.
For example, the rain forest might not know what a cactus is, but the desert character might know several words for different types of cacti.
That is a simple example, but you get the idea. Each character views the world differently. Try to contrast each of your characters so that each one has a different voice and feels unique to the reader.
Examples of Third Person Limited Point of View
From Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card:
“But Ender knew, even as he thought it, that Peter wouldn’t leave him alone. There was something in Peter’s eyes, when he was in his mad mood, and whenever Ender saw that look, that glint, he knew that the one thing Peter would not do was leave him alone. I’m practicing piano, Ender. Come turn the pages for me. Oh, is the monitor boy too busy to help his brother? Is he too smart? Got to go kill some buggers, astronaut?”
From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen:
“Which do you mean?” and turning round he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.”
Mr. Bingley followed his advice. Mr. Darcy walked off; and Elizabeth remained with no very cordial feelings toward him.
From Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling:
“The Dursleys hadn’t even remembered that today happened to be Harry’s twelfth birthday. Of course, his hopes hadn’t been high; they’d never given him a real present, let alone a cake – but to ignore it completely…”