Let’s Put the “Limited” Back in “Third Person Limited”

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: I Gotta Pee by NOFX)


(See, it’s serious because I didn’t punctuate with a question mark.)

No, I’m kidding. I just wanted to take a brief moment today to talk about my writing style in my most recent projects, and why it tends towards third person limited POV. I know all of you have heard about the different forms of POV (or, at least I hope you have, if you’re an aspiring writer), but something I didn’t really pay attention to until I started reading as a writer was the depth of POV.

And, fair warning, there’s probably some canonical literary term besides “depth” for what I’m talking about, so if you know it, let me know. I just make this shit up as I go.

So here’s an example of what I’m calling a “deep POV” from a sci-fi book I’m currently reading (repping Kent Wayne woot woot!):

Atriya shut his eyes and slumped back, suddenly feeling immeasurably heavy. 

When he was younger, he’d dreamed of being a warrior. Of pushing his limits and growing his spirit, all the while punishing the wicked and saving others. But in light of his current circumstances, saving others was a distant fantasy.

Right now, he couldn’t even save himself.

I wanted to choose this section because I love the feeling that comes with it. Kent Wayne is a great writer, and the defeat here is palpable, along with this sort of ‘dying revelation’ of Atriya. It’s good writing, and I want to make that completely clear before I express my opinion about the POV.

See, a lot of Wayne’s books are written this way – heavy POV from the major characters, where you’re seeing, feeling, and thinking everything they are. And I myself have always shied away from that level of depth.

Before I get too wrapped up in explaining, let’s take a look at a scenario in my recent novel, Symphony of Legend:

“Well, this is new,” Qin said.

The two of them stood in the growing crowd of students clustered around the burnt message, Sera looming over the rest of the adolescents like an oversized stick bug. Qin, in contrast, had to get on her toes, her one hand on Sera’s shoulder for support, to even glimpse the bottom of the burn marks.

“What have the academae said?” she asked.

Sera’s eyes glazed over as he glanced to his right. “They haven’t said anything. I haven’t seen nobody since I – ”

“Anybody,” Qin corrected.

Sera halted. “I – what?”

“Haven’t seen anybody. A month in Terraven and you come back talking like a country hick.”

Sera’s mouth contorted into a grimace. “Good to see you again, Qin.”

You can see the difference immediately. You don’t read Qin’s exasperation with Sera – it comes out in the dialogue. It would have been equally fine for me to write something like this:

“I haven’t seen nobody since I talked to Dawn about it,” Sera said.

Qin grimaced. Did Sera always have to talk like some country hick? She knew he was better than that – hell, he could be the most eloquent person she knew sometimes – but it seemed like every single time he went back home to Terraven, he came back with that frustratingly coarse accent. Maybe it was habit catching up with him, but Qin suspected it was something else – some sense of nostalgia, maybe, when he got too lonely here at school. Yet another reminder that she couldn’t replace his precious family.

So here’s the interesting thing. When I place the scene in a deeper POV, where I’m actually hearing Qin’s thought process, I learn more about her – mainly that she feels jealous of Sera’s closer relationship with his family. And there’s a whole benefit to knowing every single thought of a character, to know them without the bias of only hearing their dialogue and trying to guess for yourself what they’re feeling.

But I never really liked that, both as a reader and a writer. I want my novels to feel cinematic – I want to see people’s facial expressions, hear their dialogue, and try to work out what their inner monologue might be. And, on rare occasions, I want that glimpse in their head, just to see if I’m on the right track.

That’s why in my work so much of the exposition and character building comes from dialogue. I love pitting my characters against one another, getting them pissed off and pointing out each others’ flaws – that way, you get an insight both into the character being talked about, and the one doing the talking. If Bob tells Suzy she’s a stuck-up bitch for not tipping at a restaurant, what does that say about Bob’s temper, or his sense of financial morality?

And the POV is still there – it’s subtle, but enough to give you an insight into the character. For instance, in the narration of the scene, Qin calls Sera an “oversized stick bug”, which no one else in the world besides this temperamental, snarky girl would think about a tall, thin guy. And that lets us know, in however a small way, that Qin is… well, temperamental and snarky.

I think every new author should explore not only various POVs but also various depths of POV. Do we hear every single thought of your characters, or are we left guessing about what makes them tick? I love to air on the side of subtlety, but sometimes that makes my readers draw wrong conclusions about my characters. Is that bad? WHO KNOWS? I’M ONLY A NEW WRITER!

But hey, if I find out if there’s an immutable truth to what makes for better writing, I’ll let you know.

(That was a joke; like I’ve said, there is no immutable truth. Come on, keep up.)

Yours, having spent the last… oh, God, six hours in lab (and with two more to go),

-R.R. Buck


4 thoughts on “Let’s Put the “Limited” Back in “Third Person Limited”

  1. You made some good points about both sides. I personally love to write introspectively, spelunking through those inner psychological depths, especially when not all is expressed outwardly. But I also see what you mean about showing a character through their dialogue, behavior, etc. I’ve been critiqued for staying in a person’s head TOO much, which I’ve had to work on. A good mix is key.

    I just stumbled on this post and enjoyed your blogging style, I’ll be checking out more. 🙂


    1. Hi Shannon! Thanks for your insightful comment.

      I think what I really want people to do is just consider – it doesn’t matter which one you choose, as long as you’re making a conscious choice about it 🙂

      (Also I honestly think my characters are too messed up – it would scare me to go spelunking in their poor psyches lol.)

      Liked by 1 person

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