Should I Write in Third Person Limited?

There are two ways to look at third person limited.

1. A “narrator” narrates the story, using “he”, “she”, and “they” pronouns, but this narrator only knows the thoughts and feelings of only one character, usually the protagonist. This narrator follows the main character throughout the story and stays in this character’s perspective.

2. The main character narrates the story but, instead of using “I” and “we”, uses “he”, “she”, and “they” pronouns. The main character is indirectly speaking to the reader, and the character’s voice is in the narration. Some people call this POV third person close or deep third person limited.

Third person limited has evolved and skyrocketed in popularity over the last few decades. Overall, third person limited is limited to one perspective. On most writing websites, you’ll find the first definition to define third person limited. The traditional one is like third person omniscient, where there is a narrator, except that you focus on only one character. Nowadays, more third person limited books are written in deep POV.

 

What is Deep POV?
Deep POV means going through the eyes of the character. First person is naturally a deep POV because we are already in the main character’s head. For deep third person limited, we are eliminating that third-party narrator and letting the protagonist tell the story, only except with first person pronouns, the protagonist is using “he”, “she”, and “they” instead. I describe deep third person limited as the protagonist indirectly telling the story because it helps new writers distinguish third person limited and omniscient.

In the traditional third person limited, the narrator would have a neutral voice. For deep third person limited, the character’s voice is in the narration. Since the character is the narrator for deep POV, the reader experiences what the character is doing, thinking, and feeling, like in first person.

Here’s what traditional third person limited looks like:

The crowd packed the whole arena. There were so many people that the heat was pushing past the tolerating point, but Ryan didn’t mind. He was having the time of his life as he listened to his favorite rock band performing on stage, just a few feet away from him. I hope this night never ends, he thought.

In this example, there is distance between the person who is telling the story and our main character. The sentence “The crowd packed the whole arena” gives an image of the whole arena, rather than zooming in on Ryan. The narration is neutral and doesn’t have Ryan’s voice.

Here’s what deep third person limited looks like:

The vibrations of people stomping and dancing resonated in Ryan’s chest. How many were here in this arena? Hundreds? Thousands? Well, enough bodies packed together for a scorching heat wave to possess the air, but whatever. The best rock band was playing on stage, and Ryan had scored the best place in the show—first row, so close that the singer could kick him in the chin. If only this night would never end.

In this example, there is little distance between the reader and Ryan. The biggest evidence that we’re in deep POV is how Ryan’s voice is in the narration. Sentences such as “How many were here in this arena? Hundreds? Thousands?” and “The best rock band was playing on stage” and “so close that the singer could kick him in the chin” come from Ryan. These lines have Ryan’s personality and his voice. Also, we didn’t have to say, “I hope this night never ends, Ryan thought” because the line “If only this night would never end” is Ryan thinking that. For deep POV, we can omit dialogue tags for inner monologues.

So here’s a quick review of traditional and deep third person limited.

Things Traditional and Deep Have in Common:
-We follow only one character throughout the story, usually the protagonist
-We only know what the character knows and experiences. If the character does not see, hear, taste, touch, or smell it, we don’t know it
-We get to know the thoughts and feeling of this one character

Only In Traditional Third Person Limited:
-There’s a third-party narrator
-The voice in the narration is neutral
-The character’s thoughts are expressed with dialogue tags
-Some filtering is okay

Only In Deep Third Person Limited:
-The character is telling the story, indirectly
-The character’s voice is in the narration
-There are no dialogue tags to express the character’s thoughts
-Filtering is highly discouraged
-Deep POV is more limited than traditional. For deep, we are looking through the eyes of the character (meaning you cannot write about actions from your character’s facial features because we cannot see our own faces. So for example, you can’t say that your character’s face turned red. You would have to write these actions in the sense that your character felt them)

 

Advantages:
Compare to the other third person point of views, third person limited allows closeness between the reader and character. Whether you’re writing in the traditional or deep, the reader is much closer to the character compare to objective and omniscient POV, though deep third limited is much closer than traditional.

Along with first person, third person limited can help new writers build their craft. Focusing on one character can help you discover your writing voice and style. Also like in first person, it’s easier for the reader to know and understand the protagonist’s goals and motivation in third person limited.

Lastly, while deep third person limited isn’t as intimate as first person, this POV is the only third person that allows the readers to pretend that they’re the main character. The readers can feel they are part of the story.

 

Disadvantages:
Like first person, the reader is only exposed to what the character experiences. This POV limits your story. The character cannot reveal any events that happen without his or her presence.

Also, the same disadvantage that first person has, the protagonist can be unreliable. The main character could misinterpret another person or an important detail, though in some books, the protagonist is not supposed to be reliable.

 

Problems That Occur When Writing in Third Person Limited Person:
A common problem with third person is that a writer can accidentally write in BOTH third person omniscient and deep limited. I mentioned this problem already in my third person omniscient post. This problem occurs because the writer doesn’t know the difference between the two third person POVs.

Another problem is inconsistently switching back and forth from traditional third to deep third. As said before, these two limited POVs have two different narrators, and inconsistencies in the narration are jarring to the reader.

Should I Write in Third Person Omniscient?

Third Person Omniscient Definition: A “narrator” narrates the story, using “he”, “she”, and “they” pronouns. This narrator knows everything, including events prior to and after the story and all the feelings, emotions, and opinions of every character.

Omniscient means “knows all”, so this narrator knows everything. It’s as though the narrator is a God-like being.

The thing to remember about omniscient POV is that the narrator is his or her own separate being. The characters NEVER tell the story. Usually, the narrator is neutral, though narrators can have strong opinions and biases. Sometimes the most interesting narrators are the highly-opinionated ones.

Omniscient used to be the most used POV, but it has declined in popularity in the last few decades. Nowadays, you will find this POV more in adult books, as it’s rarely in modern children’s, middle grade, and young adult books. Despite its declining popularity, omniscient POV still has its place and is definitely a POV writers can consider.

 

Advantages:
The narrator knows all, so you have no limitations. Omniscient POV allows the reader to know all the characters and how the characters are interpreting events.

Omniscient POV is a good choice for epic, grand, adventure tales (Lord of the Rings, anyone?). If your story covers a lot of characters, spans over a course of many years, and covers many landscapes, omniscient is a good choice because it provides the freedom you will need.

Another advantage is having more freedom to craft your voice. With first person and deep third person limited, you have to share the narration with your protagonist. If your protagonist is a sassy, back-talking rebel, then that personality better come through in the narration. Omniscient POV doesn’t share the narration with the characters, and you, the author, have more authority over the voice.

 

Disadvantages:
Like third person objective, third person omniscient doesn’t have closeness. Knowing all the characters doesn’t mean you can bond with them, and there’s distance between the characters and the reader. This POV is losing popularity because most of today’s readers want to bond with the characters.

While the narrator doesn’t have to reveal everything, sometimes having someone who know all can kill the suspense in a novel. Part of the fun of reading, especially thrillers and mysteries, is figuring out characters’ secrets and who’s really good and who’s really bad.

 

Problems That Occur When Writing in Third Person Omniscient:
Omniscient POV is the hardest to master, and when new writers attempt this POV first, the amateurishness shows. Omniscient is about strategy, and if you go into a manuscript blindly with this POV, it will not work.

While omniscient has the advantage to give writers more authority over their voice, if you lack voice in the first place, the narration will be really dry. The reason teachers and mentors recommend starting with writing in first person is that writing in the POV of a character helps build your craft.

Besides voice issues, another problem is accidentally slipping into third person limited. This happens because the writer doesn’t understand the difference between the two POVs.

There’s also the problem of head hopping. Head hopping is when a writer jumps from one character’s perspective to another. Jumping from what one character is thinking to another is jarring and can pull the reader out of the story. Another head hopping problem is when the voice of the narration changes among the characters. Again, in this POV, the narrator tells the story, not the characters, so none of the characters’ voices should be in the narration.

I know these problems are complicated, so I will talk about them in another post.

Should I Write in Third Person Objective?

Third Person Objective Definition: A “narrator” narrates the story, using “he”, “she”, “it”, and “they” pronouns. This “narrator” can only narrate the characters’ external actions—anything they express or do. Some people just call this third person. It’s also called third person dramatic.
 
Out of the three third person point of views, third person objective is the uncommon one in modern fiction. The most popular example of third person objective is Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway.
 
This POV is what people describe as “fly-on-the-wall”, as the narrator describes what the characters are doing, as if observing them. The narrator gives an objective (hence why it’s called objective POV), neutral, unbiased perspective of the story. The narrator cannot give his or her interpretation of the characters’ intents and unspoken opinions. This narrator can’t even know the characters’ inner feelings or thoughts.
 
For objective POV, you have to show. The narrator can’t tell the reader that John is sad, happy, angry, or whatever. You have to show how John is feeling, just as the narrator can’t tell us that Jane is thinking happy or bad thoughts toward another character. It all has to be shown.
 
Advantages:
If your novel’s plot is driven by not knowing the character’s intentions, then objective POV could work, especially if writing mystery, thriller, or suspense. Concealing feelings and thoughts can make a plot more interesting.
 
Objective POV is also all action. That’s why it’s sometimes called dramatic POV. After all, you can’t stop to talk or interpret feelings and thoughts, so the action has no interruptions. If your story involves a lot of action, objective POV might work too.
 
If you want your novel to have multiple interpretations and leave the reader still guessing at the end, maybe give this POV a try.
 
Disadvantages:
Third person objective doesn’t go inside any of the characters’ heads or reveal anybody’s feelings or thoughts. This causes distances between the characters and the reader. If your novel is character-driven, then this is not the best POV to use. Objective POV is the uncommon third person POV because readers want to connect with characters, and most modern fiction relies on the character/reader relationship.
 
This POV also involves a lot more work and pressure on the author. Without the character’s thoughts or feelings, you have to work more to convey all that needs to be communicated. Conveying information from the character’s internal actions makes writing so much easier.
 
Problems That Occur When Writing in Third Person Objective Person:
Voice can easily become dry when writing in objective POV. Writing in the perspective of a character can spice up your writing. Since objective POV is supposed to be neutral and unbiased, it can kill a writer’s voice.
 
Another problem is clear character motivation. In general, with all POVs, writers struggle to show what motivates their characters. Without clear motivation, the story won’t make sense. Showing motivation is easier in third person omniscient and limited (and especially first person) since the characters’ thoughts can tell us what motivates them. We don’t get that with objective POV. If you’re writing in objective, you will have to work harder to make sure character motivation is clear.

How Many Point of Views Are There?

Understanding point of view is crucial to novel writing. I have found that POV issues are the most common problem in the manuscripts and submissions I read. POV issues are not an easy fix–  almost an instant rejection from agents and publishers who don’t have the time to help you correct them.

From the writing classes I’ve taught, I’ve found POV issues arise because writers don’t know how many point of views there are. Writers are always surprised when I tell them there are FIVE POVs.

Yes, five, not three. Many writers can tell me there’s a first person, a second person, and generally a third person, but not the other two.

Here’s a list of all five point of views:

-First person
-Second person
-Third person (objective)
-Third person omniscient
-Third person limited

I’ll dedicate a post about each point of view in the future, but for now here’s a brief definition for each one.

First person:
The main character narrates the story, using “I” and “we” pronouns. The character is speaking directly to the reader, who is inside the character’s head.

Second person:
This narration addresses the reader as the protagonist, using “you” and “your” pronouns.

This POV is rarely seen in literature, though there are a few second person novels, such as the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. It’s more common in how-to books, help guides, opinion articles, poetry, lyrics, and other non-fiction.

Third Person Objective:
A “narrator” narrates the story, using “he”, “she”, and “they” pronouns. This “narrator” can only narrate the characters’ external actions—anything they express or do. This “narrator” does not know the characters’ internal feelings, emotions, and opinions. This POV is sometimes just called third person.

While not as rare as second person, you won’t normally find this POV in modern day literature. It’s usually more for non-fiction and short stories.

Third Person Omniscient:
A “narrator” narrates the story, using “he”, “she”, and “they” pronouns. This “narrator” knows everything, including but not limited to events before and after the story and all the feelings, emotions, and opinions of every character, whether the characters express them or not. However, the “narrator” is a separate being. The narration should NOT contain the voices of the characters.

Usually, the author considers him or herself the “narrator”.

Third Person Limited:
There are two ways to look at third person limited.

1. A “narrator” narrates the story, using “he”, “she”, and “they” pronouns, but this narrator only knows the thoughts and feelings of only one character, usually the main character. This narrator follows the main character throughout the story and stays in this character’s perspective.

2. The main character narrates the story but, instead of using “I” and “we”, uses “he”, “she”, and “they” pronouns. The main character is indirectly speaking to the reader. The character’s voice is in the narration. While the reader is not completely inside the character’s head, the reader is not separated from the character either. Some people call this POV third person close or deep third person limited.

The first definition is the traditional definition of third person limited, though more of today’s books are being written in deep third person limited. Deep POV means going into the head of the character, allowing the reader to experience what the character is doing, thinking, and feeling. Deep third person limited eliminates that third-party “narrator”, and since third person limited uses third person pronouns, the main character is indirectly telling the reader the story.

Is it Ever Okay to Switch Point of Views?
POV issues arise when the writer (unintentionally) switches POVs within a sentence, paragraph, or scene. POV should be consistent throughout a scene (usually a chapter). However, you may switch POVs at a line break, scene break, or chapter break, and the reader should be able to see that you are intentionally switching POVs.

Most books stay in one POV throughout the novel, but there are some that switch back and forth from first person to omniscient or omniscient to limited. Again, these switches are intentional and used for creative purposes. Most POV switches I see in manuscripts are unintentional and problematic.

 

Switching Perspective Among Characters:
Currently, many published books have multiple main characters who give their accounts of the story. These narratives are for first person and third person limited (which is then called third person subjective rather than called limited). There are two types of narratives with multiple perspectives.

Dual Narrative:
Dual narrative is when there are two perspectives instead of one. The story switches back and forth between each narrator/character.

Multiple Narrative:
Multiple narrative is when there are more than two perspectives, usually several. POV changes between characters are at intervals. Writing multiple perspectives for third person is called third person subjective.