The Ultimate Guide to Third Person Limited Point of View

  Kaitlin R. Branch    Jan 02, 2018
The Ultimate Guide to Third Person Limited Point of View
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Third-person point of view sets up the reader as a viewer from the side of unfurling events. In the limited variant, the narrative follows a single POV character and tells the reader what this character sees, hears, senses, smells, touches, thinks, and feels. The reader is limited to that character and may not know, for example, what happens in another location (unless the character knows it too).

Recognizing third-person limited POV

Read the first few pages of the story and watch for the following signs:

  • Is there “I,” “we,” or “us” outside of dialog? That would be first-person POV.
  • Is there “you” outside of dialog? That would be second-person POV, or in some cases, third-person omniscient POV.
  • Are there only “he,” “she,” “him,” “her,” “they,” and “them” outside of dialog? That’s third-person POV. It might be limited or omniscient.
  • Do you feel like you’re watching the scene from above, seeing everyone’s thoughts, actions, or feelings, or being told things that are unknown to the characters? That’s third-person omniscient point-of-view.
  • Do you feel there is a single focal character, and your knowledge of the story is filtered through that character’s eyes? That’s third-person limited point-of-view.

Should you write in this POV?

The benefits:

  • It’s familiar. The majority of fiction novels are written in limited third person.
  • It allows you to keep secrets from the reader. Just keep your POV character ignorant about those plot twists, and you’re good to go.
  • It’s flexible. You can control how close the reader feels to the POV character by displaying less or more inner thoughts. In action scenes, for example, you can easily cut down on emotions and thoughts and stick with the action for a fast-paced narrative.
  • It lets you easily shift between POV characters. Unlike the first-person, where all the “I” read the same, limited third-person allows you to easily identify the current POV character. (That doesn’t mean you can skip between characters mid-scene. Keep your POV changes to scene or chapter breaks—see “head-hopping” below.)

The disadvantages:

  • It’s prone to POV slipping. This occurs when you write in a detail the POV character has no way of knowing, or when you describe something differently from how the POV character would think about it. Characters describing their own eye color is a common example of POV slipping—no one does that unless given a good, organic reason to.
  • It’s prone to head-hopping. This occurs when you describe a group of people, and every sentence or paragraph comes from the POV of a different character. You can change POV characters, but you must alert the reader to it with a well-placed scene break or chapter break.
  • It has clumsy pronouns. When writing an active scene that involves a lot of characters, it’s easy to lose track of who’s the current “he” or “she”.

Working with the third-person limited point of view

In limited third person point of view, the writer can keep readers at arms-length to give eagle-eye views of the situation, or she can bring readers in to hear every thought and feeling of the POV character. The first makes for quick, easy reading; the latter, for intense reading.

In his book, Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card explains third person limited in terms of ‘camera angles’. This is an easy way to understand the levels of ‘closeness’ that writers can create with a character.

Deep penetration:

A common reference to this view is “on the shoulder.” The goal is to make the reader sink into the main character and make every move with them. Use this angle in big fights and emotional moments where the stakes are high and the reader needs to be engaged on all levels.

Light penetration:

An easy way to think of this view is “from two feet back.” We can still be privy to some of the POV character’s thoughts, but this angle is designed to inform the reader rather than to make them feel every beat. Use this angle in scenes with medium action and low stakes.

Cinematic view:

Use cinematic view to help the reader orient themselves. It’s best for setting, exposition, passage of time, and other instances where the reader doesn’t need to know any of the POV character’s thoughts. This doesn’t mean we lose the POV character’s perspective. All thoughts must still filter through the character’s point of view. If something happens outside that point of view, the audience shouldn’t know about it either.

Writing a tight limited point of view

First of all, remember that everything written in this POV must come from the POV character’s consciousness. Avoid slip-ups by constantly asking yourself, can my character know that? 

Second, remember that your narrative is not meant to portray an objective view of events. It only portrays the character’s view of events. Your descriptions, in that sense, reflect more on the POV character than on the object being described. To nail the right words, ask yourself, what would my character think about it?

This also means that you should describe only what your character notices. And the order in which you describe objects or locations is the order in which your character notices details. To get it right, ask yourself, what would my character notice first?

In fact, every word you put on the paper is coming from your character’s mind, even when it’s not inner thoughts or dialog. Choose your metaphors and similes according to your character’s inner world and frame of reference. Ask yourself, if my character mentioned this detail out loud, how would she word it?

Common pitfalls of the limited POV

  • Describing your POV character is always a challenge, because a character rarely stops to take stock of her own looks. The simplest solution is placing the character in front of a mirror. This solution has been over-used and is considered cliché, so do your best to avoid it.
  • Writers tend to report other characters’ emotions, especially by pinning on adverbs. When “she said angrily” refers to someone other than the POV character, it should be considered a POV slip, because you’re giving the reader a direct look into the other character’s mind. Let your character infer this anger from actions, not explicit emotion adverbs.

Examples of third-person limited point-of-view novels

  • Classic: 1984 – George Orwell
  • Contemporary: Orphan Train – Christina Baker Kline
  • YA: The Giver – Lois Lowery
  • Middle Grade: The Dollmaker of Krakow – R.M. Romero
  • Sci-Fi: Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
  • Romance: Thanks for the Memories – Cecelia Ahern
  • Contemporary Military: Be Safe, I Love You – Cara Hoffman
  • Thriller: The Quest – Nelson DeMille
  •  Fantasy: A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin

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