How to Write from Third Person Limited Point of View

What All Fiction Writers Should Know About Using a Third Person Narrator

A boy reading a book in a library
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Before you write a single word of fiction, you will need to decide who is telling the story -- and from which point of view. If the story is told by a narrator (rather than by a character), you will be writing from the third person perspective. But who is the narrator? How much does the narrator know? Can the narrator get inside the characters' heads to describe what they're thinking? 

What Is the Third Person Limited Point of View?

The third person omniscient (meaning "all knowing") point of view is a method of storytelling in which the narrator knows what every character is thinking.

 Third person limited point of view, on the other hand, is a method of storytelling in which the narrator knows only the thoughts and feelings of a single character, while other characters are presented only externally. Third person limited grants a writer more freedom than first person, but less knowledge than third person omniscient.

Why Choose the Third Person Limited Point of View?

There are a number of reasons why you might decide that third person limited may be right for your next work of fiction. Here are just a few possibilities:

  • You want the ability to show a situation through the eyes of an interesting or unique character;
  • You are writing a mystery, and want the reader to experience the clues and outcomes from the point of view of one of your characters;
  • You are telling a story in which your main character's perspectives evolve or change, and you want to show those changes through their eyes;
  • You want to maintain a sense of uncertainty about other characters' motivations, emotions, or past.

Examples of Third Person Limited Point of View in Fiction

Most works of fiction are told from the third person limited point of view. For example, Jane Austen's famous Pride and Prejudice is told entirely from the point of view of protagonist Elizabeth Bennett.

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series unfolds its secrets through Harry himself who, like the reader, is new to the world of magic and wizardry.

A classic example of third person limited fiction is Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, which sticks firmly with one character's consciousness, that of Robert Jordan, who shares:

"This Anselmo had been a good guide and he could travel wonderfully in the mountains. Robert Jordan could walk well enough himself and he knew from following him since before daylight that the old man could walk him to death. Robert Jordan trusted the man, Anselmo, so far, in everything except judgment. He had not yet had an opportunity to test his judgment, and, anyway, the judgment was his own responsibility."

The reader will only know Anselmo's thoughts and responses insofar as he reveals them through his actions. But Robert Jordan's thoughts will be shared throughout the story. It's his reactions and his interpretations of events that the reader will understand and follow.

Because third person limited is defined largely by what it doesn't do, it may help at this point to read an example of third person omniscient for comparison.

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