The benefits and challenges of third person limited

Third person limited is one of the most popular viewpoints, and it’s not hard to see why. It allows us to escape the confines of a single character’s head, but there’s still plenty of scope for the reader to form an emotional connection to the story.

That said, in the wrong hands, third person limited can go off the rails. To make sure you play to its strengths and avoid its traps, here’s a guide to navigating its benefits and challenges.

What is third person limited?

Third person limited is a form of third person viewpoint (he did, she did, etc.) that is limited to the perspective of one character. As the reader, you can only see inside the head of that one character, and you can only experience the story world from the perspective of that one character.

However, you can switch to the perspective of a different character when you transition between chapters, or, potentially, between scenes. This gives you the ability to write a multiple point-of-view story.

In this viewpoint (and unlike in first person), the narrator is not the viewpoint character. The narrator is outside of the story; however, their access to the story, like the reader’s, is limited to the perspective of one character at any given time.

When does it work well?

The benefits of third person viewpoint become apparent when…

You want to write a multiple point-of-view story

If you want to write a story that’s told from multiple viewpoints, third person limited is usually a great option. Because you’re able to switch viewpoints between chapters, or potentially between scenes, you can have more than one focal character – just not at the same moment.

This allows you to break out of the confines of first person viewpoint, which limits you to the head of a single character throughout the whole story.

Very occasionally, writers will attempt to create a multiple first person viewpoint story, switching between first person narrators when they transition between chapters. However, this can be extremely jarring and confusing for the reader owing to the intimate depth of first person. Third person limited isn’t as deep as first person, so the switches are much smoother.

Just make sure you signpost whose perspective you’ve switched to. Some writers use the character’s name as their chapter title; others make it clear within the first line or two by referring to their name within the story. If you want to transition between scenes rather than chapters, this is all the more important as there’s more potential for confusion.

You want a close viewpoint that isn’t first person

Sure, third person limited will never be as close to the character’s head as first person is. That’s because the narrator and the character are separate. However, if you know what you’re doing, it can still come very close.

Third person ‘deep’ (also known as ‘close’ or ‘intimate’) is a particular kind of third person limited viewpoint that maximises the depth of the narration by trying to blur the line between narrator and character, even though we’re still in third person.

Here’s the difference:

Edward hated the colonel for what he’d done. Now that he saw him again in the flesh, he thought he might just kill him.

 

Edward saw the wretched colonel talking to his men as if nothing had happened. That animal. He’d die for what he’d done.

The second version is third person deep. The narrator ‘speaks’ as if in the character’s own voice, calling the colonel an animal and saying he’ll die for what he’s done. This technique brings us closer to the intimacy of a first person viewpoint.

You want to build tension by keeping things from the characters and the reader

Because third person limited traps us in the head of a single character, it’s possible to keep secrets from the reader. While the reader has access to the mind of our viewpoint character, they don’t have access to the minds of other characters who are in the same scenes as them, meaning those characters can have secrets and hidden intentions.

What’s more, third person limited also allows us to keep things from the characters while revealing them to the reader – unlike with first person. This is because you can switch viewpoints between chapters. One of your viewpoint characters might therefore learn something that another one doesn’t yet know.

You can use this very effectively to create suspense and tension, either because readers are desperate to find out the answer to a mystery or because they know their favourite viewpoint character is about to walk into a trap!

When does it get tricky?

Third person viewpoint can become challenging when…

You want to escape the confines of a single character within a scene

While it’s possible (and often desirable) to switch viewpoints between chapters and scenes when you’re in third person limited, it’s not possible to do it within the same scene unless you want to ‘head-hop’.

Head-hopping means you’re using third person limited, but you’re switching your viewpoint character within the same scene. This can be confusing for the reader if the switch isn’t clear – they may still think they’re in one character’s head when they’re actually in another’s. It can also reduce their emotional connection to the characters as they’ll spend less time consistently in the head of any one character.

If you find yourself wanting to head-hop, you may find that omniscient third person narration is a better bet since it allows you to narrate your scenes from a broader perspective, giving the reader access to the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters at the same time (though this is different from hopping between their viewpoints and voices – an omniscient narrator speaks with one voice and from one viewpoint).

You want to be in a lot of characters’ heads throughout the story

The more viewpoint characters you have in your story, the trickier third person limited becomes. If you have a lot, either you’ll end up head-hopping all the time to cram everything in, or you’ll be forced to write a very long story to accommodate all the scenes and chapters you’re going to need.

The upper limit depends on how long your story is and your skill as a writer, but no more than four to six viewpoint characters per story is a reasonable rule of thumb.

Again, if you want to give the reader access to a much broader perspective than this, omniscient third person narration might be a better option.

You want an unreliable narrator

First person viewpoint is great for unreliable narration since the character is also the narrator. The narration will therefore always be filtered through the character’s particular take on the world. If they’re biased, drunk, suffer from amnesia, or if they’re disturbed, the narration will naturally take on those qualities. In fact, no first person viewpoint can be truly reliable or objective.

Third person limited, on the other hand, is more challenging. That’s because, as above, the narrator isn’t the character. If the character’s perspective is warped, there’s no reason the narrator’s should be as well.

However, third person unreliable narration is still possible if you use the deep third person viewpoint outlined above. If you sufficiently blur the distinction between narrator and character, filtering everything through the character’s perspective and voice, then readers may accept the narrator’s unreliability on the basis that they’re completely trapped within the character’s head. For more on this, see my top tips for pulling off an unreliable narrator.

Third person limited is a great viewpoint to use. If you can reap the benefits while overcoming the challenges, it’ll give you the tools you need to write an intimate, suspenseful, and multifaceted story.

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Andrew Noakes

View posts by Andrew Noakes
Andrew is a specialist historical fiction editor based in London, UK.
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