As you search for a way to deepen your reader’s connection with your protagonist while maintaining flexibility in narrative control, third person limited narration beckons enticingly. “I’m here,” it chimes with a dulcet tone and slightly sinister smile.
Third person limited narration offers a myriad of opportunities to make your story’s symphony sweet along with potentially jarring discords and cacophony.
Third person limited narration can create a way for the reader to get very close to the protagonist with the flexibility to use narrative distance to add suspense or irony. Who doesn’t want that?
A way to have the best of both worlds? Readers who are deeply engaged with your protagonist but who also can step away and see the whole picture?
Ready to take the challenge and test yourself? Read on for some pointers to help you wield this baton with artistry and skill.
What is Third Person Limited Narration?
In third person limited, the narrator tells the story from the viewpoint of a single character, usually the protagonist.
The narrator refers to the character by name or by third person pronoun like they, she or he. It is as if the narrator perched on the character’s shoulder, acutely aware of how the character views the world.
At times, the narration may even move inside the mind of the character, giving a close POV and perceiving the world through their eyes and with all their emotions and biases. This creates an intense connection for the reader and limits understanding of other characters.
With third person limited, the narrator will not know what the other characters are thinking or feeling.
So why not use first person instead?
With third person limited, the narration can move from inside the head of the character to outside to offer some narrative distance.
This shifting lens can provide control over how the reader perceives the character. Before you raise the baton to lead the symphony, remember with this power comes responsibility to honor the readers trust and to give them a great story that they will love.
Pointers for Using Third Person Limited Narration
Choice: Who tells the story?
Your protagonist offers a strong choice for limited POV. This gives the reader close insight, similar to first person point of view.
A protagonist is intimately connected to the story and story goal.
The protagonist has the most to lose or gain as the story progresses.
All these attributes make this character a strong contender for the POV of your story. Using third person POV instead of first person removes the promise of survival.
In Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, close third person narration allows the reader to experience different versions of life with Nora without giving away whether she survives the night.
As you edit, ask yourself
- What is the scene goal and stakes for my protagonist? What could my protagonist lose or learn in this scene?
- Does the scene create a strong connection with the protagonist for the reader?
- Is the perspective clearly in my protagonist’s voice and viewpoint?
- If I have changed narrative distance, is it clear and smooth? What is the purpose for moving away from the close perspective?
- Is there part of the plot that my protagonist doesn’t know or can’t know? Yes? What now?
Third person limited doesn’t confine you to only one POV throughout the story.
Instead, the story may be stronger with different voices and viewpoints. Other characters offer the opportunity for the reader to see the world through different perspectives.
The reader may learn information the protagonist doesn’t know, leading to dramatic irony and tension.
Moving away from the protagonist’s POV ensures that the reader may not know everything the protagonist knows which can be great for mysteries and thrillers. Using a character with the strongest stakes in a scene will drive the pace and tension for the reader.
As you edit, ask yourself:
- Have I added POV characters with caution to allow readers to become close to the characters chosen? Are they the best choice for the story?
- Is the POV character strong enough to carry the scene?
- Does the reader care about the POV character? The reader does not have to like the character, only to care about them.
- Does the POV character have a strong scene goal?
- Does the POV character have the most to lose if the scene goal isn’t achieved?
- How does this POV choice offer contrast or contradiction for the reader? What is the effect on the story?
Craft: How strong is the perspective?
Whether the narration stays close to one character or shifts between a few, each scene offers a chance to develop the reader’s understanding of the POV character. Show the world through the POV character’s perspective.
As they enter a new venue, the manager of a band may notice the capacity and sightlines while the band may notice the space on the stage.
This limited POV has unlimited potential for character development!
Each of us sees the world in a unique way. Word choice and tone can give your reader a clear insight into the POV character.
Through this perspective, the reader gets a deep understanding of how the character thinks, feels and reacts to the environment and to other people. The power of presenting other characters as seen through the eyes of your protagonist or POV character creates tension, empathy and curiosity.
Playing with your POV’s humanity, you can create conflict naturally through misunderstandings and mistakes.
We all make them!
Using your POV character’s personality to lead to misunderstandings can make conflict seem natural and inevitable.
Third person limited narration keeps the reader fixed in a perspective. With this limitation, red herrings and plot twists can be created due to the boundaries in place.
As you edit, ask yourself
- Are the feelings and reactions consistent with the POV character’s personality?
- Do words chosen and tone match my POV character?
- Have you removed filters (he said, she thought) to intensify reader experience?
- Is my character’s background or experience reflected in the POV as written?
- Is everything seen through the POV’s eyes or over their shoulder?
- Have I used the character’s humanity (faults and biases) to create realistic conflict?
- How can I use the POV to create red herrings or plot twists for my readers?
Consistency: Have you kept your promises to the reader?
The most important rule of third person limited narration is to keep your promises to the reader.
Avoid jarring the reader by moving accidentally from inside one character to another. Whether you use narrative distance to guide the reader smoothly through the shift or employ natural breaks in scenes and chapters, your reader trusts you to craft the experience.
As you edit each scene, ask yourself:
- Could the POV character know that?
- Have I shifted perspective clearly and with intent?
- How have I used shifts in narrative distance to naturally move between viewpoints?
- How have I used natural breaks in the story to make smooth transitions between different viewpoints?
- Have I kept to limited POV? Is the narrative distance appropriate or have I moved to a more objective viewpoint?
As you edit your story, be sure that your protagonist has POV in the majority of scenes.
If not, there may be a few questions to ask yourself about the story.
Is the reader most connected to your protagonist or to another character? If it is another character, why? What is the impact on your story and on the reader?
Strong stories deserve powerful narration. Choosing from the close range of first person, the artistic and challenging second person or the more distant third person can be daunting. Which works best for your story? Who will tell this tale?
Limited third person narration maintains surprise and uncertainty for the reader. Lack of information seems natural when the reader only sees things from a single point of view. Writing in third person limited gives the intimacy of first person while keeping the suspense that anyone can die, even the protagonist.
Conclusion: Third Person Limited Narration
Writing in third person limited narration requires discipline and focus, like conducting a huge orchestra with a complex symphony. The listener is moved as the music plays. With skill and artistry, third person limited narration gives you a powerful baton to transport your readers through your story.
Article Written by Lisa Taylor
Stories are powerful. Through my experience as an educator and librarian, I’ve explored how stories work and supported writers in finding their voices and honing their craft.
As a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach Editor, I offer a thorough, objective structural story edit that honours your voice, recognises and celebrates your skill, and offers clear, actionable ideas on ways to make your story shine even more. You can reach me through the Fictionary Online Community.
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