Learning Point of View: Limited Third Person

One of the ways in which a manuscript can lack focus is if there is no consistent point of view. Point of view means the character whose eyes are observing what happens in the story.

There are three types of point of view focus–first person (“I”), second person (“you”), and third person (“he/she”). I have read many books where each of these was utilized successfully. For the purposes of this post, however, we are going to focus on third person.

In each scene, there will be more subtlety, suspense, and tension if you describe the action from only one character’s point of view. Sticking to one point of view per scene will also make your action easier to follow.

In the excellent book Stein on Writing, author and editor Sol Stein defines point of view as “the character whose eyes are observing what happens, the perspective from which a scene or story is written.” Stein goes on to say that he advises new authors not to mix points of view within the same scene, chapter, or even the same novel. When you mix points of view many times, it leads to a lot of confusion.

Of course, there are exceptions, and once you have mastered the art of point of view, it can be a wonderful way to create intriguing narrative. George R.R. Martin is one author who has utilized multiple points of view to his advantage. You may know him from the bestselling fantasy novel Game of Thrones. (Also currently a TV show on HBO.)

In his series, Martin gives each chapter a different narrator, so the reader is seeing the story from many points of view. He even does the unthinkable and kills off characters whose point of view we’ve been reading (although I won’t say who in case you haven’t read them). I recently finished The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, which is another book that switches point of view every chapter.

It is possible to switch POV and make it work. But before you can do it right, you need to first understand how POV works and the different types.

As mentioned earlier, limited third person point of view is best for a beginning writer because it is usually one of the easiest to write, and it is also the best for the reader in terms of being able to easily follow the story and keep all the characters straight.

When you use limited third person, you should describe only what the main character would see, hear, smell, and so on. Readers will experience the scene as that character ONLY, which is why it’s called limited, because the point of view is limited to only one character. We should never know what another character thought or said in a separate scene, because we need to stay with the main character at all times. Once you start introducing separate scenes where other characters are doing things privately, you have moved into another type of point of view: third person omniscient.

This is when you still use third person, but now we see the story from many characters’ eyes. Third person omniscient is the writing technique used by George R.R. Martin to switch up characters every chapter. Third person omniscient can also be useful when you are writing a suspenseful thriller and you want to show a scene of the antagonist plotting his revenge in a dark cave far away from the rest of the other characters. If you were just using third person limited, you couldn’t do that because the main character has to see, hear, or discover information firsthand, and readers can’t know anything the main character doesn’t know.

The key with point of view is to make sure that whatever you choose–be it limited or omniscient–it has to stay consistent. The fastest way to lose a reader is to switch around your point of view so many times they don’t know which way is up. That’s why, if you’re a newer writer, sticking with third person limited is a great way to learn the rules and boundaries of point of view before you take on the challenge of first person or any omniscient viewpoint.

For further reading, check out these POV articles:

Nathan Bransford’s article on Third Person Omniscient vs. Third Person Limited

Grammar Girl on “What Is Point of View?”

4 thoughts on “Learning Point of View: Limited Third Person

  1. Pingback: A Study of the Point of View in Henry James’s “The Wings of the Dove” | bloomy ebooks

  2. Pingback: Learning Point of View: Omniscient Third Person | Amanda Bumgarner

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