Third person point of view has various subtle shades within fiction. There’s disagreement on the value and boundaries of categories like “third person flexible” or “third person objective”. For practical purposes, they can be boiled down to two groups – third person limited and third person omniscient.
Third person limited is the most common, and the stepping stone from first person to omniscient. It frees a writer from some of first person’s restrictions, while retaining some of its benefits.
Defining Third Person Limited
Third person limited perspective uses third person grammatical forms– he, she, hers, his, theirs, etc. The narrator does not exist inside the story, which is told as if by some abstract person watching events unfold. It’s so common that we don’t even notice that implied abstract presence.
As its name implies, third person limited sets some restrictions. What we see and hear is limited to the experience of a single character. We don’t live inside their head, but only get thoughts, opinions and experiences from their perspective. If they don’t see an event then we don’t. If someone else has a thought, we don’t hear it.
Benefits of Third Person Limited
Third person limited has two sets of benefits – those coming from its familiarity, and those from its place in between first person and omniscient perspectives.
Because it is so widely used, third person limited is familiar to readers, who will slip into it as comfortably as a pair of old pants. The reader knows where they stand. There are no surprises of perspective, no need for them to think about where the information is coming from.
The focus of the limited point of view helps to focus the reader. They become absorbed in the character’s life, much like first person perspective. They care about and ride along with the character.
Much like first person, third person limited gives you the benefits of seeing a character’s thoughts and perspective on the story. You have to do more work in making clear what is thought, with the character’s biases, and what is supposedly objective narration. But with only one set of thoughts to go into, there’s not much room for confusion.
Third person limited lets you see the narrator, and so describe their appearance and actions to a greater degree than in first person, perhaps mentioning height or hair colour. Extensive physical description is still jarring when applied to the point of view character, so it’s best to slip the details in a little at a time and use some of the same tricks as with first person.
Limitations of Third Person Limited
The biggest limitation of third person limited is that you can still only see what one character sees. As Nathan Bransford points out, J K Rowling goes to great lengths to get around this in the Harry Potter stories, with magical devices allowing the protagonist to gain information he wouldn’t otherwise have.
Unlike first person, third person limited can’t embed a reader in one person’s feelings and subjective reality. But this has benefits, as it gives your readers a surer footing in your world, a safer sense of what is and isn’t real.
The Nuances of Third Person Limited
So what are the pitfalls and possibilities you’ll face with third person limited?
The most obvious point of caution is that you have to be careful to stick with the viewpoint you’re in. Because you’re not describing directly from the character’s perspective, it’s easy to slip in little details they might not notice, whether it’s something physical in the world around them, knowledge of events, or insight into other characters’ thoughts. Doing this disrupts the reader’s understanding of the story. Be clear on how your character knows things, and if you’re describing what they think another character is feeling, make clear that you’re doing that rather than jumping heads.
Work out how you’re going to show the character’s thoughts. If they won’t be visibly separated from your narrative text then show that early on, and do it in such a way that the reader knows when you’re using the character’s subjective experience. You can make it more obvious by writing them like dialogue and putting them into italics or adding phrases such as “she thought”. If done well, this improves clarity. Done badly, it can seem clumsy. Whatever your approach, pick it and stick with it.
And remember, just as with first person, you can tell a story from several perspectives. You should not shift between them mid-scene, as this will create confusion. Instead give each character their own point of view scenes or even chapters, as in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Readers are far more used to this in third person than first, and you can use the different perspectives to create tension and irony.
Third person limited perspective is a useful, familiar tool. Think about how to use it best.