Inventing Reality: A Guide to Writing Science Fiction

Third-person limited

Stories don’t have to be told only from the main character’s perspective. Indeed, the story’s author often narrates a story about a character rather be that persona. When this occurs, authors are writing in third-person point of view.

One type of third-person point of view is third-person limited. This is when the narrator tells the story only from the perspective of what the main character can observe and think, but unlike first-person limited, we also observe the main character through the author’s eyes.

Consider this excerpt from Brian Aldiss’ science fiction short story “Not For an Age”:

A bedspring groaned and pinged, mists cleared, Rodney Furnell awoke. From the bathroom next door came the crisp sound of shaving; his son was up. The bed next to his was empty; Valerie, his second wife, was up. Guiltily, Rodney also rose, and performed several timid exercises to flex his backbone. Youth! When it was going it had to be husbanded. He touched his toes.

Notice how we see events unfolding through the eyes of Rodney Furnell, the main character: waking up, the sounds around him, exercising. We do not see the world through the perspective of his son or his second wife. Further, the word "I" never would appear in the piece unless spoken by someone; that's because Rodney isn't telling the story - the author is. The author even offers a small comment, describing Rodney’s exercises as “timid” (certainly Rodney would not describe them as “timid”!). 

Third-person limited offers several advantages, including:
n Giving the writer more flexibility than first-person point of view – If the story above were told only from Rodney’s point of view, the author could not offer his perspective on him. The audience no longer would be looking upon the stage that the main character acted but would be standing upon it in the main character’s body.
n Providing a less biased perspective - Stories told in first-person also carry the weight of the main character’s subjective views and perspectives. Sometimes this can make the protagonist less acceptable likeable to a reader who is more enlightened than that character. Third-person limited moves the reader to the usually more enlightened perspective of the author.
n Offering a clear sense of who the reader should identify with and invest in - Stories told only from the main character’s perspective sometimes don’t make that persona the hero but someone whose weaknesses cost him. The author’s insertions in third-person limited show readers how they should view the main character. Because of that, readers often like this point of view.

One danger of third-person limited, however, is that the reader loses a sense of intimacy with the main character. Rather than fully experience the universe with the main character, the reader can feel superior to him. If your goal is to have the reader relate to the main character, this may not be the best choice for your story’s point of view.

You Do It
Write a 250-word piece in third-person limited. How does selecting this point of view shape your approach to the main character? Would a first-person limited point of view work better for the story you wish to tell about this character?