Is third-person limited POV limiting?

Third-person limited is probably the most common point of view in contemporary genre fiction, yet as an editor, I have often worked with authors who struggle with this POV.

What is third-person limited POV?

In third-person limited POV, the story—or a part of it—is told from only one character’s perspective. It’s called a limited POV because you’re limited to accessing the mind of only one character at a time. You can tell your readers only what this character is feeling, thinking, and experiencing. If you reveal things that go on in the mind of another character, you are head hopping or violating POV.

Why do some writers dislike third-person limited POV?

Some writers seem to think that third-person limited POV is, well, limiting. After all, if you have to stay within only one point of view per scene (or even chapter) and can’t mention things the POV character doesn’t know, see, or hear.

However, to me, that’s not a limitation. Quite the opposite. It’s what makes a limited POV such a powerful tool.

What are the advantages of third-person limited POV?

Staying within one POV per scene has two big advantages:

  • Limited POV creates reader identification. If readers get into the skin of one character for a longer passage (a scene, a chapter), share her thoughts and feelings, they start to identify and empathize with the character. Being thrown into the mind of two or more characters within a scene distances readers from both characters.
  • Limited POV creates suspense. By staying within one POV per scene (or per chapter), you control what your readers know. Limited POV allows you to keep secrets without cheating and to raise questions in the reader’s mind. When the reader has to guess along with the POV character what the non-POV character is thinking and feeling, you add suspense. Readers will ask themselves questions such as: Is it love at first sight for the non-POV character too? Why is she acting like such a jerk? Is she really as unreliable as the POV character thinks? And we know that readers who ask questions continue to turn the pages to find out the answers. That’s a good thing.

What if you want to reveal what the other characters are thinking or feeling?

So what if, for some reason, you don’t want to withhold information from the reader? What if you need readers to know what the non-POV character is thinking or feeling?

Well, you can do that without violating POV and resorting to head hopping. The non-POV character could share her thoughts through dialogue, for example. Or the POV character could interpret the non-POV character’s facial expressions and body language.

At times, the non-POV character will lie or the POV character will misinterpret the other character’s feelings or motivations — and that leads to more suspense.

So don’t waste potential by head hopping. If used correctly, third-person limited POV is not limiting at all.

Happy writing!

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