If you want to learn how to write a story in third person limited, we’ve included 7 comprehensive tips for you below.
1. Choose the best protagonist
The starting point in writing any story is choosing the best protagonist. You might have started with an idea in mind, a semblance of a plot, a cool world that you’ve created, or even, an interesting character. But, all of that will be for nothing if you do not choose the best protagonist to tell the story.
Who is the best protagonist then? The protagonist is the person who is in the perfect position to drive the plot forward, and, who will be affected the most by the plot itself.
For example, in a murder mystery, we usually follow the detective, because they have the best opportunity to solve the case. Oftentimes, that detective has a cold case that they were unable to solve previously that is haunting them. It is even better if the current murder is done in a similar way to that cold case, which points to a possible connection between the cold case and the current case.
Another example – let’s say that a child has disappeared. In this story, the best protagonist to follow is a family member: mother, father, sister (older or younger). Missing people cases often go cold if there are no leads within the first few weeks, and it is more suitable to follow a family member trying to find the missing child instead of the detective who has been assigned to the case.
Maybe the detective is a fun character – charismatic and nuanced, but the child’s disappearance will hit the family members a lot more than the detective, even if he has personal motives for solving the case.
2. Understand the limited perspective
Third person point of view (or narration) is when the author writes the story using third person – usually he or she, for the protagonist, whose name is also used often in the narration. For example:
“Cassie turned to the right as black smoke billowed down from the sky, engulfing her lungs. Nausea gripped her stomach.”
Third person point of view comes in two basic forms: omnipresent (also referred to as omniscient), and limited.
In omnipresent narration, the author does not really write from the perspective of a single character. Even when there is a single protagonist (not an ensemble cast of protagonists), the author will slip into the perspectives of different characters within the same chapter, will let the readers know what each character might be thinking or what is happening somewhere beyond what the characters in a scene might be able to see or know.
In third person limited narration, the author writes the story solely through the perspective of the protagonist. It includes what is happening to the protagonist, how they feel about it, what they are thinking at a certain moment, and how they perceive things.
But, this narration never leaves the protagonist’s mind. So, when writing in third person limited, remember that you cannot reveal more than what the protagonist knows.
For example, if the protagonist is participating in a battle, you cannot describe said battle cinematically, or include too much information about what is happening to many other characters. You can only describe what happens to the protagonist, and what they might catch a glimpse of while they are fighting.
If you include too much information about other characters – what is the protagonist doing in the meantime? Standing still in the middle of battle and just observing? They would be killed by the enemy pretty quickly if that’s the case.
3. Use a consistent tense
Generally, you can write in two different tenses: present and past simple. Past simple is the tense most commonly used in stories and novels. For example:
“Cassie turned on the tap and leaned over, allowing the cold water to wash over her face, dampening some of the blonde hair on top of her head. She didn’t mind; appreciating the rush, the chill of the water chasing away the hot memory of the dream.”
Present tense, on the other hand, reads a lot differently:
“Cassie turns on the tap and leans over, allowing the cold water to wash over her face, dampening some of the blonde hair on top of her head. She doesn’t mind; appreciating the rush, the chill of the water chasing away the hot memory of the dream.”
Present tense is a lot more immediate. Everything that is happening to the protagonist is happening right now.
When it comes to which tense to choose, there is no correct answer. Primarily, you should choose a tense that you’re more comfortable writing in. This will enable you to tell the story from start to finish without struggling or switching between tenses.
The one thing you can do wrong is switch between tenses – start in past tense then switch to the present, or start in the present tense then switch to past. If you’re writing in the present tense, the only acceptable moment to switch to past tense is when you’re telling something that has happened in the past. For example:
“Lexie’s charm bracelet glitters in the sunlight as she reaches forward to flip the first Tarot card. Growing up, her mother taught her and her sisters how to read the cards. She claimed that there was no knowledge in the world that wasn’t useful, and insisted her interest in the Tarot and the occult arts was purely philosophical. Lexie was the only one among her daughters to take to the Tarot herself, and when she got a job at the crystals store right after college, she immersed herself fully into it, reading palms and Tarot cards for customers.”
The first sentence in the example above is in the present tense, but the rest of the paragraph, since it conveys what happened in the protagonist’s (Lexie’s) past, is in past simple.
4. Characterize the protagonist in the narration
In third person limited, you are writing about what the protagonist thinks, feels, and what happens to them. This is easier to do in first person point of view, because in first person, it’s almost as if the protagonist is talking to the reader.
In third person, however, there is still that sense of detachment from the protagonist, i.e. we feel like we’re inside the headspace of the protagonist, but at the same time, like there is a certain gap. This is a result of using ‘he’ or ‘she’ instead of ‘I,’ in the narration.
You should bridge that gap by allowing the thoughts, beliefs, and assumptions of the protagonist to come through in the narration. For example:
“Minnie had almost never said it, but she was damn proud of her seventeen-year-old sister for picking up dance last year. Minnie had seen the changes in her. Last week, they had gone to the supermarket to get groceries. Usually, Cassie would push the cart and keep her head down, avoiding eye contact with any other shoppers. But, on that morning, Cassie had responded to a couple who’d stopped her to ask for directions, and she even smiled as she told them where they could find a restaurant that was a hidden gem.”
In the above example, the protagonist, Minnie, describes the changes she had noticed in her sister, Cassie, after she started taking dance lessons, firmly believing that they were helping her sister overcome her fear of talking with strangers, which doesn’t necessarily have to be true.
What you should not do is allow your own voice to come through in the narration. It can be considered slipping into omnipresent narration, which can detract the reader from the story (by confusing them as to whose perspective they are reading about). But, the effect can often be worse than that and affect characterization as well.
For example, in the novel “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” by Laini Taylor, which is by and large written in third person limited point of view, we have:
“Karou was, simply, lovely. Creamy and leggy, with long azure hair and the eyes of a silent-movie star, she moved like a poem and smiled like a sphinx.”
This is not how Karou, the protagonist sees herself. That becomes clear later on in the novel. The above is how the author sees her, but in the writing, it comes across as if that is how Karou sees her own self, which makes her come across as vain and with a high opinion of herself.
5. Be unreliable in the narration
We’ve already mentioned how everything you write in third person limited point of view will be restricted to what happens to the protagonist, what they know, and what they assume. What they know and what they assume are two different things, and what they assume – this is where unreliable narration comes in.
It is highly advisable to use a certain dose of unreliability in the writing. The protagonist might assume something happened (to a character), and that does not necessarily have to be true. In the previous example above, we had the protagonist Minnie assume that the dance lessons were having a positive effect on her sister. But, she had been profoundly wrong.
Later on in the story, they might have the following exchange:
““Dancing for myself, yes, I like that,” Cassie said. “But I don’t feel comfortable doing it in front of crowds,” she said.
Minnie raised her head and looked at her. Then she sighed. “I should have figured it out,” she said. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have pressured you into taking the class.””
Please note, there is a difference between using unreliability in the narration – when the protagonist assumes something is wrong – and having an unreliable narrator. An unreliable narrator (be it in first or third person) is one who cannot be trusted to even perceive what is happening to them in the correct manner. That is a very specific type of character that belongs in certain types of stories, and is usually a sign of a certain psychological condition.
Unreliability in the narration always has a certain payoff by the end of the story where the protagonist does realize that they have been wrong, and even apologizes if necessary (as in the example above).
6. Use a consistent writing style
When it comes to third person narration, the writing style you will use will depend entirely on you as the writer. You can write in a lyrical style if you want, create sentences that have similes, metaphors, alliterations, and the like.
On the other hand, you can use a more conversational tone in the writing, or drier prose, as some would put it. Whichever way you decide to go about the writing, you do not have to worry too much about it being a reflection of the protagonist, because as mentioned previously, there is always a certain gap between the reader and the protagonist in third person limited narration.
But, when you are sharing the protagonist’s inner thoughts, you must firmly use the voice of the protagonist. There should be no difference between the voice of the protagonist when they are speaking (in dialogue), and their inner thoughts. You should also format these inner thoughts differently. Usually, the italic font is used to distinguish between the narration and the protagonist. For example:
“Cassie had had the fire dream seven times now. Don’t think about it. She leaned over and touched the bedsheets.”
7. Carefully mix other perspectives
When you’re writing in a third person limited perspective, it does not mean that you cannot use other perspectives in the story – you absolutely can, and you absolutely should if there are parts of the story that the readers should get to read. This will enable you to reveal more about the story than what the protagonist is aware of, which will help to add suspense to the whole reading experience.
But, you should not switch these perspectives in a single chapter. Usually, when you are mixing other perspectives, but not writing a novel with multiple protagonists, you can add other perspectives in short chapters that only show as much as the reader needs to know.
For example, perhaps there is a serial killer on the loose, and the protagonist and her sister are being targeted and stalked by the killer, who is sending them odd gifts and messages. They decide to go to bed, safe in their home, and the protagonist falls asleep. But, their dog whines at the door in the middle of the night, wanting to be let out. The sister wakes up, but she is afraid of letting the dog out alone, in case the killer is nearby and decides to kill it to torture them. So, she dons on a coat over her pajamas and goes out to walk it.
Since the protagonist is asleep at this point, if you do not include the sister’s point of view, the readers will not know that something might have happened. This will make for a (very unpleasant) surprise for both the readers and the protagonist when she is contacted by the police to tell her that something has happened. However, in this case, you would be missing out on allowing the readers to feel the fear the sister felt when going on that walk.
Moreover, you do not need to reveal that something happened to the sister in the short chapter from her perspective. We can follow the sister as she is woken by the whining dog, we can understand her thoughts and reasoning behind going out with him instead of letting him out alone, and we can feel her fear that she experiences during the walk. Maybe something scares her, but it turns out to be a cat digging in a trash can. And then, instead of letting the readers see that something happened to the sister, you can end the chapter on her finally turning to walk home, urging the dog to walk faster.
This way, you can misdirect the readers to think that in the end, nothing happened to the sister, only to understand the opposite when the police wake the protagonist up early in the morning.