Big readers will recognize third person limited perspective, even if they don’t know what it’s called. This is the most popular third person perspective in new western lit. Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling), The Mortal Instruments (Cassandra Clare), and The Giver (Lois Lowry), the popular school read, are all written from the third limited perspective.
How to Write Third-Person Limited:
Definition: a narrator reports the facts and interprets events from the perspective of a single character.
This means that the character you choose to follow has to be either present for every scene, or have every scene described to them. So, when considering using third limited, remember that whichever character you choose needs to be present enough to see all the essential parts of the story, and their opinions need to properly translate your tone to your audience.
From a technical standpoint, the rules are the same as for third omniscient, with the third-person pronouns being the easiest indicator. The moving action of the story is narrated using “he, she, them, they” and so on.
What sets third limited apart is how the action, setting, and tone are described. The author must pick a character and limit the telling of the story to the thoughts, impressions, and experiences of a single character. This is similar to first person narration, in that the character essentially narrates the tale, though in a less personal way. The following is an example of how this works using the classic story, Little Red Riding Hood.
First person: “I was only too glad to help my grandma, but I didn’t think it would make that much of a difference to go the path through the woods. Even as I approached the bridge she’d marked on the map, I wondered whether or not I should have asked for directions. The sound I heard next sent chills down my spine. My heart beat fast, my skin got cold, and it was all I could do to hold on to the basket and run!”
Third Limited: “Little Red skipped a bit when she turned toward the woodland road. It was a beautiful day, and enough sun streamed down through the canopy to make the path look harmless. The sunny day didn’t make it through the deeper woods, though. She started to hesitate until her skipping slowed to a walk. She thought she heard something back over her shoulder, but she missed the deeper growl as she approached the bridge. It was a familiar landmark, one from her grandma’s map, and it gave her some courage. She could hardly hear the normal forest sounds over the pounding of her heart, but the snap of a thick twig behind her came out loud and clear!”
The details are the same, and the character stays in focus throughout the action. This perspective is the option closest to the kind we see on a popular movie, though movie directors tend to shift perspectives to keep the visual story. The feeling evoked with this perspective, however, is closest to a cinematic experience.
Pros and Cons:
Third limited is one of my favorite methods, so I apologize if I come out a little biased. It does have a lot going for it, though.
As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, the cinematic feel of third limited is a real plus in its favor. By being outside the mind of the character, there’s some real freedom to describe what needs to be shown. Your character doesn’t have to be particularly poetic in order to have a bit of artistic description. Here, you can give the necessary sensory cues, and then let the character react according to their nature.
Third Limited also gives you room when it comes to pacing. Because you’re not tied down within their mind, there’s more wiggle room toward how close you want to be to them. Come in close for an emotional scene, “zoom out” by putting them in context with other characters, or even disconnect them from the activity to give the story a useful empty feeling.
There are many people who would argue that even third limited is too far away from a character to have a real character-driven story. I beg to differ on this point, but I do want to be sure to give their argument a chance. One of the difficulties that authors have with this point of view is that they stay too far away from the thoughts of their chosen character. Because it’s third person, it’s very tempting to keep the “camera lens” wide, gathering in as much of the scenery as possible. This can make your character seem more like a puppet than a person. First person narration has the opposite problem, but we’ll get to that later.
Another drawback is directly related to the fact that you’ve chosen a character to follow. There are difficulties in having information that needs to be shown to the audience when there’s no logical reason for your character to be there. It’s very hard to keep a secret from your character in third limited when the reader needs to know it, so dramatic irony can be difficult if you’ve chosen your protagonist as the character you’re following.
Tips and Tricks:
The cinematic effect of third limited should be clear by now. The best thing I can recommend to anyone wanting to learn third limited perspective is to watch movies! Watch movies closely, and study the way the story is told from a multitude of camera angles and spans. Ask yourself why a particular scene was shot close up, or what details you had to see when it was a wide shot with many people in it. I often pause a movie just after a scene and try to summarize it in a couple of sentences. Sometimes, if it proves to be difficult, I write down all of the things from that scene that I, as the audience, needed to know from it to understand the story. If you can’t value the different “camera shots” you can use in third limited, then you’re only tying yourself down. Get familiar with your many options.
I mentioned the difficulty of characterization in third limited, and I’d like to share a trick or two to help. When it comes to characterizing your chosen character, your best tool is your description. Consider what, out of all of the details you could share, would stand out to your character. What words would they choose? How do they feel about it? The answers to these questions can sculpt a unique tone for your descriptions. Also, if you want the reader to perceive the character a certain way (ex. If your chosen character is meant to be unreliable in some way), then use your description to show this character isn’t seeing clearly.
For example, if you described a beautiful park scene with children playing, families picnicking, and a really peaceful soft summer day, then said, “but Rick saw none of that. He sat, instead, under a tree with his headphones in and this thumbs flying on his game console. He felt a swell of satisfaction as he blew the head off another cyber zombie with the new weapon he’d won.” (This example is also what I mean by “zooming in” from a wide angle shot. Park to people to character.)
The final tip I have should help with the difficulty in plotting for third limited. As I mentioned before, it’s difficult sometimes to get your character in to see/hear things of which they wouldn’t normally be aware. J.K. Rowling approached this problem creatively with the “invisibility cloak”, the “time turner”, “marauder’s map”, and other magical items. Fantasy devices like these allowed her chosen character (in this case it was her protagonist, Harry Potter) to be invisible in a room, or travel back in time, to visit a scene so she could write them with more detail and action.
If fantasy isn’t your thing, your character can learn of these things via dialogue with other characters, clues only the reader can put together, or from simply eavesdropping/hiding where they don’t belong. See what other ways you can come up with!
There are a lot of great writing exercises out there, and this one is particularly good for anyone who doesn’t know which perspective to use for their book/story. It does require that you have something to start from, but it could be just a paragraph.
Claudia Gray wrote up this post about her choices between third limited and first person in her various books. Her opinion is more toward first person, so this is a good read if you want a more fleshed out view of the differences between the two.