Third person limited point of view (or POV) is one of the most common POVs in modern fiction. What is third person limited? How can you use it effectively? Read a Ursula K. Le Guin’s definition, plus tips and examples:
What is third person limited POV?
Third person narration is narration using pronouns such as he, she, newer gender-neutral third person singular pronouns, or they. In this type of narration, the narrator is usually ‘a non-participating observer of the represented events’ (Oxford Reference). In other words, the narrator exists observes and reports the main events of the story.
Third person limited differs from omniscient third person because the narrator is an active participant. Although the pronouns may be the same as in omniscient POV, the narrator only knows what a single person or group (the viewpoint narrator or current narrator) knows. Or, as Ursula K. Le Guin puts it in her writing guide Steering the Craft (1998), in limited third person:
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.’
[Novel coaching editor and author Romy Sommer shares additional tips on POV in our monthly webinar series – follow Now Novel on YouTube for helpful extracts and tips.]
So how do you use third person limited POV well?
How to use third person limited POV:
- Use tone in limited third person narration to show feelings
- Show the mystery of a limited point of view
- Show characters’ mistaken assumptions
- Contrast limited viewpoints to show contrasting experiences
1. Use tone in limited third person narration to show feelings
Third person limited POV works well for showing how others’ actions impact your viewpoint character. Because you can only share what your viewpoint character knows or guesses, other characters’ actions keep all of their mystery.
In limited third person, our guesses regarding what other characters’ private thoughts and motivations are become only as good as the narrating character’s ability to observe, describe and interpret.
Example of effective tone in third person limited POV
For example, J.K. Rowling uses limited third person narration in her Harry Potter series. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998), she shows how habitual mistreatment by his aunt and uncle give Harry low expectations of occasions we’d expect to be happy:
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…
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998), p. 9.
Harry doesn’t tell us his feelings directly: The tone of the limited third person narration does. It clearly is coloured by Harry’s own experience. The words ‘of course’ and ‘but to ignore it completely’ could almost be Harry’s own voice, his own thoughts in italics.
Use emotive language in third person narration similarly to make your narration show narrators’ feelings.
2. Show the mystery of a limited point of view
Third person limited is a popular POV in mystery novels because when we don’t know what secondary characters are thinking and feeling explicitly, they remain an intriguing mystery.
Example: Showing another character’s unknown thoughts and feelings in limited third person
For example, we could have a scene where an investigator encounters a possible murder suspect:
Inspector Garrard watched the man behind the counter serving a customer. His movements were quick, almost agitated. As he approached he saw the man’s eyes flick to his chest, as though looking for a telltale badge. Or was he imagining things, the man had glanced down out of shyness?
Here, we only know what the detective sees and guesses. We see him actively reading people’s body language and giving it meaning.
Because he’s looking for a suspect, the man’s smallest gestures – movements, where he looks – seem suspicious. Yet our viewpoint character’s perspective is warped or rather shaped by his current focus – catching a culprit. The man could be wholly innocent.
Third person limited lets us feel the tension of how ‘unknown’ another person – a ‘not-I’ – may be. Because we don’t know with certainty their private thoughts and opinions.
3. Show characters’ mistaken assumptions
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) is an excellent example of how you can use limited third person to show assumptions and the surprises they lead to.
Just as the inspector in the above example assumes or imagines guilt based on telltale signs in a person’s behavior (e.g. nervous movement), your limited third person narrator can assume the worst (or best) through limited information.
Example of assumption in third person limited narration
In Pride and Prejudice, Austen uses limited third person narration to describe Elizabeth Bennet’s first impressions of her eventual love interest, Mr. Darcy.
We first meet Darcy at a dance. Darcy dismisses the idea of dancing with Lizzie to his friend. Lizzie overhears:
“She is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you.”
“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.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813), p. 9.
Note the emotive language in Austen’s third person description of Darcy. He ‘dismisses’ the idea of dancing with Lizzie; ‘coldly’ withdraws. These coupled with his spoken words convey icy superiority – but this is all Lizzie’s POV, shaped by the perceived insult regarding her appeal. A
Although to Lizzie Darcy ‘withdraws’ his gaze, he could just as easily be looking away out of shyness. Lizzie interprets the gesture together, however, with his indifferent-seeming words. This shows how effective limited third person can be in showing how people evaluate each other using the limited information they have.
It’s only later in the novel that we see the kindness and warmth Darcy is capable of and recognize his aloof mannerisms as signs of a serious, passionate yet socially awkward character.
[Discuss POV and more in an online writing group where everyone shares the same goal – finishing a novel.]
4. Contrast limited viewpoints to show contrasting experiences
In third person limited, although your narrator occupies a limited viewpoint in the scene, showing the reader only what a single mind sees, hears, thinks and assumes, you can still alternate between viewpoint characters from section to section.
The advantage of this approach is that you can show the beliefs and assumptions of multiple characters as they interact with others with partial, inherently flawed awareness.
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Example: Contrasting third person limited viewpoints in Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez uses this potential of third person limited to excellent effect in Love in the Time of Cholera (1985). His epic romance tells the story of unrequited love when two would-be lovers cross paths again much later in life.
Early in the novel, Florentino Ariza confesses his love to the obsession of his youth, Fermina Daza. Yet with very poor timing – at her husband’s wake:
“Fermina,” he said, “I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.”
Fermina Daza would have thought she was facing a madman if she had not had reason to believe that at that moment Florentino Ariza was inspired by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Her first impulse was to curse him for profaning the house when the body of her husband was still warm in the grave.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), p. 50.
We see Florentino’s besotted gestures, but through the disbelieving, critical eye of Fermina.
In the next chapter, we see more of his view. Florentino remembers the first time he saw Fermina:
As he passed the sewing room, he saw through the window an older woman and a young girl sitting very close together on two chairs and following the reading in the book that the woman held open on her lap […] the girl raised her eyes to see who was passing by the window, and that casual glance was the beginning of a cataclysm of love that still had not ended half a century later.
Love in the Time of Cholera, p. 55.
Throughout the novel, Marquez alternates the less romantic views of Fermina and the dogged, obsessive romantic viewpoint of Florentino.
The contrasts between how they interpret their encounters and the meanings they attach to them create a strong impression of two different characters with individual quirks, strengths and weaknesses.
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