Finding the right point of view through which to tell your story is one of the most important decisions a writer makes. How close do you want your reader to be to your characters? How much information do you want to reveal? Every point of view style has something different to offer.
Third-person limited point of view (or PoV) is one of the most popular narrative styles in contemporary literature, and one of the most reliable for new writers. We’ll take you through what third-person limited means, how it compares to other points of view, and the benefits and drawbacks of using it to carry your story.
What is third-person limited point of view?
Third-person limited point of view is when the narrator tells the story with the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of a single character from their point of view using the pronouns “she,” “he,” or “they.” The narrator will know everything that’s happening from the main character’s perspective, but can’t see into the minds of any other characters.
This point of view follows the protagonist through the events of the plot and allows the reader to experience it alongside them. Unlike some other third-person narrative styles, third-person limited PoV doesn’t let the reader into everything that’s happening in the story—just what they can see and experience through the main viewpoint character.
We’ll look more at the differences between third-person limited PoV and other PoVs next.
How does third-person limited compare to other PoV styles?
Third-person limited point of view has certain elements in common with other narrative styles, so it can be tough finding the right one for your story. Here are the differences between this narrative style and other, similar points of view.
Third-person limited vs. other third-person points of view
Third-person narration can be a bit confusing at first because there are really four(!) different kinds: third-person limited, third-person multiple, third-person objective, and third-person omniscient. They’re all linked by their use of an external third-person narrator—the story is told using the pronouns “she,” “he,” or “they.”
Third-person limited perspective, as we saw above, follows one character throughout the entire book. The narrative will be closely linked to this character’s perceptions and feelings.
Third-person multiple perspective is very similar, but it follows two or more viewpoint characters. For example, a romance novel might follow two lovers, or a historical fiction novel might follow two protagonists in a dual timeline. However, a third-person multiple narrator can only see inside the head of one person at a time—not in the same moment.
Third-person omniscient perspective is the “god” voice. The narrator can see what anyone in the story sees, hears, or feels at any moment. They know everything about the characters’ desires and hidden motives (but may only reveal pieces of them to the reader).
Finally, third-person objective perspective is the “camera” voice. The narrator can see everything the characters are doing and saying, but not what’s going on inside their heads.
There are a lot of choices when it comes to finding the perfect point of view style for your story! Fortunately, we’ve got you covered with our helpful article here.
Third-person limited vs. first-person point of view
Third-person limited perspective and first-person perspective are very similar, in that they each follow the internal workings of just one main character. But while the third-person limited narrator uses the pronouns “she,” “he,” or “they,” first-person stories are told by the character themselves using the pronoun “I.”
This means that instead of having an external narrator describe what’s happening, the protagonist describes what they’re seeing and experiencing around and inside of them.
You may find it helpful to try writing a chapter or so of your work in progress (or a few paragraphs of a short story) in each of these points of view to see which one feels the most authentic. Most of the time, a story will settle more naturally into one narrative style or the other.
Benefits of writing in third-person limited PoV
There’s a reason third-person limited narration is one of the most popular PoV choices in contemporary literature. Here are some of the benefits of using this type of third-person point of view.
Third-person limited balances action and introspection
The limited third person is a great point of view for balancing a well-paced plot with complex character development. Books written in this style show both the main character’s internal experiences and the external events and conflicts that create these experiences. This means third-person limited PoV is one of the most versatile for books of any style of genre.
Third-person limited allows for unreliable narrators
Unlike the third-person omniscient point of view, the limited third only shows one character’s perspective. This gives you as the writer an opportunity to show how certain events and realities may appear different to that character than they really are, or show how your character remembered them happening in a different way—which sets the page for fun and surprising plot twists later on.
Third-person limited is great for character-driven stories
Because this type of narration brings your reader so close to your central character, it’s a great lens through which to explore the nuances of things like coming of age, the hero’s journey, or descent into moral decay (in an inverted hero’s journey). This point of view style allows you to highlight complexities of the human experience which you wouldn’t necessarily be able to do with an omniscient narrator or an objective narrator.
Drawbacks of writing in third-person limited PoV
Now that we know the strengths of using a limited third-person narrator, let’s look at some of the drawbacks to carefully consider when choosing a PoV style for your story.
Third-person limited can be… limiting
As you might expect, the third-person limited narrative style has its limitations. You’re confined to the physical settings which your protagonist is currently occupying, which can be frustrating when you find you suddenly want the reader to know something that’s happening out in the parking lot behind your main character’s school.
You’re also restricted to what the viewpoint character already knows, or learns through the things they perceive around them. If a hidden piece of information suddenly becomes integral to the plot and you need your reader to know about it, you’ll have to either find a way to reveal it through your protagonist or come up with another way of resolving your story.
If you find you’re running into obstacles like these, consider writing in third-person multiple PoV instead.
Third-person limited invites head hopping
Head hopping is one of the most grievous errors new writers can (and often do) make. Because you’re writing in third-person narration, it can be easy to accidentally move from your viewpoint character’s thoughts into another character entirely.
When using the limited voice, you’ll need to keep yourself on track of speaking through only a single character and conveying only what your viewpoint character observes—without “hopping” into a different character by mistake.
Third-person limited requires careful planning
Because so much is happening “off screen,” it’s helpful for you as a writer to know exactly what’s happening in the far corners of your story. This is especially true for books that rely on surprise, like mysteries and thriller novels.
If you don’t know what’s happening outside your main character, you might find yourself running into obstacles and plot holes later in your drafting process. For this reason, the third-person limited viewpoint is a better choice for plotters and pantsers than for pure-bred pantsers.
Examples of third-person limited PoV in literature
Many writers have used limited third-person narrators very effectively. Here are some third-person limited examples from literature to show you how this style works on the page.
The Lost Letters of William Woolf, by Helen Cullen
William risked a long look in the mirror. His curls looked tangled and his beard needed trimming. Something about his eyes made him nervous. They seemed, well, less brown. Like faded chocolate. It was probably just the fluorescent light bulbs. Eyes don’t fade, do they? Was he vanishing? A man diluted? He shrugged his navy-blue pullover into position and braved the sorting office.
In this novel about a postal worker on a mission, Cullen freshens up the “looking in the mirror” trope for describing characters by using the moment to reveal the character’s internal erosion. This excerpt uses third-person pronouns, but the narration is very close to the protagonist; the reader gets to see exactly what he’s feeling as each feeling emerges.
The Paris Bookseller, by Kerri Maher
Well. There was simply no concentrating on her Spain essay after that. Sitting at her little desk in the Palais, Sylvia kept catching the scent of dust and lavender that reminded her of A. Monnier—the shop and the woman, both—and every time she buried her nose in her sleeves to find the source of it, she found it was always elusive.
In this historical novel about American bookseller Sylvia Beach, Maher uses the third-person limited voice to show the way the protagonist is processing her surroundings. She uses sensory imagery through the eyes (or in this case, nose) of her viewpoint character, which reveals that the two women have a deeper connection than either of them realize.
The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig
It was hard to remember, exactly, what he had sounded like before. What he had been like, precisely. But that was the nature of memory. At university she had done an essay drily titled ‘The Principles of Hobbesian Memory and Imagination’. Thomas Hobbes had viewed memory and imagination as pretty much the same thing, and since discovering that she had never entirely trusted her memories.
This deeply character-driven novel uses a third-person limited perspective to highlight what the protagonist is experiencing on her strange and insightful journey. This moment shows her caught between different moments, considering her own perceptions of the present and the past.
The close third-person narration style is a close-up character lens
The limited third-person PoV can be a tricky one to master; you need to be cautious of head hopping, or accidentally jumping into different characters’ perspectives within the same scene. But when done well, it can be an incredibly effective way to shine a light into your point of view character. Keep this narrative choice in mind next time you want a story with rich, complex characterization.