Limited third person point-of-view (POV) lets you experience the world through the eyes of a single character. The experience is so intimate that you’ll soon begin to hear the character’s voice inside your head. As an author you’ll be especially interested in knowing about limited third because of its potential to build a close emotional bond between the character and reader.
Similar To First Person
Limited third is similar to the first person point-of-view. You can learn more about first person POV by going here.
If you’re still not sure what the heck I’m talking about, think of the voice in a letter or e-mail. That first-person voice is coming from someone in particular. It’s an “I” voice. The voice might be formal (your boss) or informal (your best friend).
As the recipient of this communication, you will recognize the voice immediately. The more the missive reads like a business letter, the more likely it’s from your boss. Also, the more boring it will be. However, if the letter is full of inside jokes and particular turns of phrase only your best friend would use, the more that letter is “voice driven.” Both limited third and first person are examples of voice-driven writing. They convey the voice of the writer as much as the message.
If you’re a writer, here’s a quick exercise. Write a scene using first person. Strive for a unique “I” voice. Then do a simple search and replace. Change all the pronouns to he or she. What you’ll find is that the limited third still retains the voice of the original “I” narrator, but without that annoying “I” popping up all the time.
An Example of Limited Third
Here’s an example from “Oregano,” one of the stories in my short story collection, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD.
I’ll give you some orientation to the story because I’m taking this excerpt from the middle.
In hopes of reviving her flagging career, photographer Janice Dawkins goes away for a weekend of wildlife photography. Her husband has fronted her the money, and she feels guilty about it, especially because the weekend didn’t turn out the way she’d expected.
Home at last Janice eased open the door from the garage, praying that the crap would be gone, but it wasn’t, and the house smelled like onions. How could that be? They had no food in the house, apart from some frozen hamburger and moldy vegetables. Unless Greg had gone to the grocery store. That would be a first.
“Are you cooking dinner?” The kitchen windows were so fogged, she couldn’t see out. Greg stood at the stove, whistling and stirring spaghetti sauce. He’d drained the pasta in the sink.
She picked up the colander. You want me to put the noodles on a plate?”
“Sure,” he said.
The strands of spaghetti had stuck together, a gummy, glutinous mess. She turned on the water and tried to rinse the slime. The noodles felt thick and cold as earthworms. He’d forgotten to put in a tablespoon of olive oil and then cooked them too long. Had he never heard of al dente and the little trick of throwing the noodle against the wall?
“You can put the salad on the table,” he said. “It’s in the fridge.”
“I didn’t think we had any.”
“Oh yeah. I found some tomatoes and lettuce in the bin.”
Janice looked. The lettuce had turned to compost. The tomatoes had acne. She went straight to the service porch. You couldn’t make a federal case about every little thing, not and stay married. Still, the sound of the lid slamming down made its own statement.
With a limited third the author doesn’t need to use “she thought” or “he thought.” Imagine a court reporter transcribing the self-talk: no comments; no addenda. “The tomatoes had acne” is an example.
Limited third let’s you use the snide “head comments” we all make. Usually, this improves the story voice, as I’ll demonstrate below.
The Advantages Of A Limited Third
The trick with limited third is that everything must be filtered through a single character’s experience. If you put down a detail, the detail must be one that character would see. If you put down a feeling, the feeling must be a feeling that character would have.
With a limited third, however, you are limited by one thing. You cannot go flitting from one character’s head to another’s, especially in the same scene.
Of course, you can structure your novel with alternating points of view. That’s just fine. But, please, for the sake of clarity, switch point of view only after a scene break. (A scene break is the white space that separates sections of your story.)
Why Not Just Use First Person?
Many stories and novels use first person–Huck Finn and Catcher In the Rye to name but two. And, today, many young adult (YA) novels are written in first person.
First person requires you to stand in that person’s shoes for the entire length of the novel. If your character is young and aspiring and trying to figure out the difference between right and wrong, chances are good the reader will hang in there.
But that’s not always the case. If the first person narrator is nuts, a serial murderer, or whatever, the reader may not feel comfortable walking in those shoes. In workshops I’ve seen manuscripts where authors have attempted to use first person narration for Hannibal Lector-type characters, and I’ve found those stories very hard to endure. That’s because first-person narration is the most intimate of all narration techniques, and I don’t want to be that intimate with threatening people.
Stories told from a limited third often have sections where a narrative voice enters for a paragraph or two. In these sections we’ll see the character from the outside. Fiction workshops often call this “pulling back.”
In “Oregano” I have a couple of sections where that happens. Here’s one:
Two days of trooping around behind professional birders who merely wanted to come home with close-ups from their latest bird walk convinced her that wildlife photography was not a direction she would ever pursue. Classes weren’t going to turn her into Eliot Porter or Ansel Adams, and she doubted this weekend would give her anything mountable in an exhibition or printable in a book. Frost clung to the hairs of her nose, and she was frozen through.
This section is the author looking at her character and providing info that sums up the character’s state of mind as she’s about to reenter the house. The tone is informative, not snarky.
Let’s see how that passage might have turned out in first person:
What a colossal waste. The weekend wasn’t going to turn me into Eliot Porter or Ansel Adams, and I’d come away with nada. Zip. Not even an image for the faculty art show. And the money! Money didn’t matter to the old geezers crowded into the duck blind. If they bagged a shot for Audubon, they were over the moon. But the money would matter to Greg. When I walked in, I was going to have to put on a fake gush. Frost clung to the hairs of my nose, and I was frozen through.
Actually, I like this section better than the first summary passage. Why? Because the “voice” is not as flat.
The Bottom Line?
Like first person, limited third can be more engaging to read. It’s voice driven, meaning that part of the writer’s goal is to capture a character’s unique voice. Readers form an intimate, emotional connection with your main character. If you can sustain that for a whole novel, you’ve got a winner.
In case you’re curious about this story, here’s me reading “Oregano.”
Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers’ Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.