Friday, July 18, 2014

Narrative Voices - Part Two: Third Person Limited

Photo by Ryan Wick, via Flickr
As noted in my previous post, in First Person narration, the angle of vision is “single-track”. The central character is also the story-teller who addresses the reader directly, uses first person pronouns for self-reference, and recounts events in his/her own words.

In Third Person limited narration, the angle of vision is similarly “single-track”. There is only one focal character, and our access to plot developments in channeled through his/her personal perceptions, experiences, and discoveries. But there the similarity ends. In Third Person Limited narration, the focal character is being viewed through a telescope wielded by the author. And this makes a Critical Difference.

In Third Person Ltd. Narration, the character is oblivious to the fact that he/she is under observation. Meanwhile, the author plays the role of an on-the-scenes reporter operating under cover. Like a Nato observer, he/she uses third person pronouns when reporting narrative developments to the reader - ostensibly without bias.

But by inserting himself/herself between the focal character and the reader, the author asserts his/her mastery over the writer’s craft, via diction and selective detailing, to influence our assessment of the focal character’s actions. The designedly ironic effect is that we see the character, not as he sees himself, but as he really is.

A stellar example of Third Person Limited narrative technique can be found in the Carnegie-Prize-winning Y/A novel The Scarecrows, by Robert Westall (Puffin Books, 1981).

Our focal character, teenaged Simon Wood, is the son of a soldier killed in action. At the point our story begins, Simon’s widowed mother has begun seeing a new man, who turns out to be a famous political cartoonist. Simon’s Oedipal tensions are evident in the first chapter of the novel, at a public school event at which his pretty mother is invited to play a tennis match on Parents’ Day:
Summer Parents’ Day. Started all right. Mum had done nothing to shame him. Red hair short and clean, her make-up slight, her skirt a decent length…Nothing for Bowden to get his rotten little teeth into.
  It was Montgomery’s father who spoiled it. Montgomery’s father, who used to play tennis for Gloucestershire…with his lanky legs and bounding stride and crinkly black hair. Montgomery’s father had buttonholed Mum. Somebody’s [parents had cried off from playing] tennis against the staff; would Mum step into the breach? Mum had fallen for it, like a sucker. Even though Simon begged her not to; with his eyes. Begged and begged…
  Mum coming onto court, beside Mr. Montgomery. In borrowed shorts. Showing her legs. Not that Mum’s legs weren’t all right…But when she bent over to pick up a ball, you could see her bottom…
From this short passage, we can tell Simon has serious proprietary issues when it comes to his mother. Even before we’ve seen the full extent to which he idolizes his dead father (whom Westall, using Simon’s memories, reveals to us in his true guise as a self-involved macho prig), we know that Simon’s views of his family situation are pathologically unsound. The dramatic tension thus created, as we wait to see how this toxic situation unfolds, renders this novel a riveting page-turner.

Third Person Limited narration demands a lot from the writer, but if you can pull it off like Westall, the effect is stunning!

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


  1. Third-person limited and YA fiction have a special affinity for the same reason that first-person narration is so often used in YA novels. These styles fit well with the orientation of much of the readership. They are also easier to sustain over the shorter length novels more common to this genre. An adult epic fantasy with a single POV character would likely be a strain on both reader and writer.

  2. While I prefer third person multiple points of view in both reading and writing, I am captivated the hook in the cited example -- I even want to know what happens next. This obviously works for the reader.

  3. Third person limited is my preferred narration style. I find it very easy to write like this and slip into it comfortably.

  4. Like Linda, I write in multiple close third person POVs. I like the variety to explore all the characters and get into their heads. One POV would make me crazy, um, crazier.

  5. Any POV can work in the right hands. There is no right or wrong. I do admit that after reading a series in first person, third person narrative style throws me a little. I miss the close connection to the character. But each story has its own requirements and you have to use what works best. If strugggling with a particular story, try changing the type of POV. In the past, changing the type of POV has made a story come alive for me.

  6. I would refer to what you're describing as Deep POV, which is what I write, and there's no real reason one can't have multiple deep POV characters. We romance writers are almost required to do it that way, since readers expect both hero and heroine's POV. Often, in romantic suspense, there will be the 3rd POV, that of the villain.


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