Point of view in fiction often seems complex. Yet stripping back to essentials and looking at examples makes it easier to get POV right. Read a definition of third person limited followed by examples that show how to use this POV to show feelings, assumptions, and characters’ differences:
Defining third person limited POV
Third person narration is narration using pronouns such as he, she (and 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 outside proceedings, observing and reporting.
Third person limited differs from omniscient third person because the viewpoint is fixed or limited to a particular perspective. In omniscient POV, the narrator is free to move between different characters’ perspectives in a scene. The narrator might say, for example:
He gazed at her from his seat in the cafe as she moved past the rippled windows, nerves mounting. When she walked in, she saw him sitting there slovenly, a stupefied half-smile on his eager puppy face.
This narration is omniscient rather than limited because the narrator has access to both characters’ thoughts and impressions. As Ursula K. Le Guin says in her writing guide Steering the Craft, in third person limited POV:
‘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.’
So how do you use third person limited POV well?
1. Use tone in limited third person narration to show characters’ feelings
Third person limited POV works well for showing how others’ actions impact on your main character. Because we can only access what the viewpoint character knows or guesses, the actions of secondary characters can keep all of their perplexing surprise, mystery or even cruelty.
For example, J.K. Rowling uses limited third person narration in her Harry Potter series. Harry is treated horribly by his aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, but most of their actions are filtered through Harry’s own viewpoint. For example, in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998) when they ignore Harry’s birthday:
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…
Even though Harry doesn’t tell us his feelings directly the tone of the narration, the narrator’s wording, is clearly informed by Harry’s own emotional experience. The ‘Of course’ and ‘but to ignore it completely…’ read as Harry’s own thoughts and rationalizations. This gives us Harry’s ‘I’, his subjective experience, even in the absence of first person.
2. Show the mystery and uncertainty of having a limited or partial viewpoint
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 a mystery.
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 the man merely glancing down out of shyness?
Here, we only know what the detective sees, knows, estimates. Because he’s looking for a suspect, the man’s smallest details – movement, where he looks – seem suspicious. Yet only to our viewpoint character. The man could be wholly innocent.
Third person lets us feel the tension of how ‘unknown’ another person – a ‘not-I’ – truly is. Because we don’t have direct access to 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 build situations involving flawed assumptions. Just as the inspector in the above example assumes or imagines guilt based on telltale signs in a suspect’s behavior (e.g. nervous movement), your third person narrator can assume the worst (or best) through the limited actions of others.
In Pride and Prejudice, Austen uses limited third person narration to describe Elizabeth Bennet’s first impression of Mr. Darcy.
We first meet Darcy at a dance. Darcy dismisses the idea of dancing with Lizzie to his friend after both have been admiring Lizzie’s elder sister. 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.
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.
It’s only later in the novel that we see the kindness and warmth Darcy is capable of and recognize his aloof bearing for his serious and even socially awkward character.
4. Use multiple third person limited POVs to create a diverse cast of characters
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 obsessions and foibles of multiple characters as they act on others and their surrounding world with partial awareness.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez uses third person limited to excellent effect in Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), his epic romance about unrequited lovers who cross paths again much later in life.
Early in the novel, we see the male lover, Florentino Ariza, confess his love to his youth’s sweetheart, Fermina Daza, at her husband’s wake:
“Fermina,” he said, “I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you oncse 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.
We see Florentino’s besotted gestures, but through the disbelieving, critical eye of Fermina. In the subsequent chapter, we see more of his view. Florentino remembers the first time he saw Fermina, when he delivered a telegram to her father, decades before:
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.
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.
Ready to develop your story’s viewpoint characters? Join Now Novel for guidance, brainstorming tools and constructive feedback.
Cover source image by Davidson Luna