Point Of View | Third Person Close/Limited
The Point of View (POV) in a story or novel is the narrative perspective from which the story is told. When you tell a story about other people using he/she or they (or it) to describe the events they experienced: that is a third person narrative. It’s a natural way for us to tell stories about things that happened to other people or things.
In third person narrative it is clear the narrator is not personally involved in the story and play no part in the events and have no influence on the outcome.
There are two distinct ways to use third person narratives: close or limited and roaming or omniscient. In this article we will discuss the former.
This narrative perspective allows you to stay close to one character so you can create an intimacy as you might with a first person POV. The narrator can tell us what our character is doing and is privy to their thoughts, ideas, observations and motivations. However, the actions, motivations and emotions of other characters will have to be shown and inferred from the things the central character is party to: dialogue, facial expressions, body language, actions or behaviour.
As with first person POV there is a challenge in exposing important events that happen ‘off stage’ or between other characters as the narrator cannot witness them.
Third person point of view enables you to be more objective that first person. By definition a first person POV is subjective. Someone telling their own story might say another character was completely unreasonable and haughty but in a third person narrative it’s easier to show the other character trying to meet the protagonist halfway. The narrator and the viewpoint character are different people so third person can say things a first person might not.
So for example, a passage from my own novel, Lacking Grace.
“Blue, you’re distracting me,” muttered Grace.
Blue had her fingers laced together and rested in her lap, thumbs rolling slowly around one another.
“I’m not making a sound.”
“You’re twiddling and fiddling and it’s annoying.”
“Grace is trying to write a letter.” said Mabel.
“I know that,” Blue rolled her eyes, “That’s why I was sitting quietly minding my own business.”
“Oh will you two just stop squabbling. I am trying to concentrate.” snapped Grace.
A first person narrator might just say, Blue and Mabel wouldn’t stop interrupting me and I asked them very politely to stop (because that’s how the character imagines things were.) If I am telling you about myself I am less likely to paint myself as bad tempered or unreasonable that a third person narrator who is likely to be more honest.
I chose third person close/limited for my novel because, Grace, the protagonist, has periods of deep depression and self-loathing and I felt we needed some distance from her at those times. However, I wanted the immediacy of being able to bear witness to her journey even at times she didn’t understand what was happening to her.
Here’s an excerpt from Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, ‘Unsheltered’.
“I didn’t know there was like a baby,” she said finally.
Willa resisted pointing out it wasn’t like a baby, it was the actual article. This was not much of a friend, if Tig hadn’t mentioned the baby bomb dropped on the family.
“I mean, that you guys were still, you know, parents. It’s little.”
With some effort Willa worked out the girl’s mistake, and nearly laughed. She could have been flattered but knew better; fifty-five and thirty-five look just alike to the more self-absorbed of the younger set. They don’t see themselves reaching either of those ages, so it doesn’t matter. And it wasn’t a compliment: braless in her sleep T-shirt and sweatpants, Willa was the picture of worst-case motherhood. And in no mood for chitchat about the family tragedy, frankly. She opted to stick with small talk until she could be dismissed.
This is being related from the POV of Willa but in third person limited. We are privy to Willa’s irritation that the girl uses the word ‘like’ inappropriately and her amusement that she is mistaken for the baby’s mother (she’s his grandmother) but the description of her braless in her sleep T-shirt and sweatpants and the conclusions ‘Willa was the picture of the worst-case motherhood’ is probably harsher than she might have described it. Perhaps she would have excused her slovenly appearance on the basis she’s a grandmother, coping with a small baby at a time when she could be expecting to relax and enjoy time to herself.
POINT OF VIEW EXERCISE:
Take a passage from a favourite book written in the first person POV (ie. a story told from the perspective of ‘I’) and rewrite it in third person closed. Analyse how this changes the immediacy, honesty and intimacy of the piece. Post your ideas and thoughts in the comments box below.