Eight Points of View -- First Person and Limited Third22 Jun 2018
This is part 2 in my series on point of view. If you want to know more about what POV is, you can read part 1 here.
In my last post, I observed how first person and limited third are the most commonly used POVs. Because of this, I’m not going to spend too long on either of them. Yet I still want to talk about them – for the sake of completion and to establish a basis of comparison.
Ursula K. Le Guin gives a very concise definition of first person in her book Steering the Craft.
“In first-person narration, the viewpoint character is ‘I.’ ‘I’ tells the story and is centrally involved in it. Only what ‘I’ knows, feels, perceives, thinks, guesses, hopes, remembers, etc., can be told. The reader can infer what other people feel and who they are only from what ‘I’ sees, hears, and says of them.”
Essentially, the writer takes on the role of a character in the story, more or less like how an actor would. The writer tells the story just from that one perspective and in that character’s voice. As a result, both the writer and the reader get to know this one character very well. You can even think of this as a first-hand account of that character’s experience through the plot.
Below is an example scene written in first person. I’ll give an example for every POV in this series. Each time, it will be the same scene, the same events, the same characters. The only thing that changes is the POV.
First Person – Dora Marcel
We made it to the heart of the warehouse. The room felt different from the rest of the building. As soon as I saw that white pentagram drawn on the floor, I knew why. This was the source of the evil that radiated from this place. The arcane symbols surrounding the huge sigil. A portal to hell? Blood dripping down the drain. Candles flickering. Hundreds of skulls stacked against the walls. A red curtain hung at the far end of room. Something unnatural writhing beneath it.
No. The blood and the candles were just in my head. That curtain was perfectly still – for now.
I heard Garrett’s voice. “Dora?”
“Are you alright, Ms. Marcel?” Professor Ellar asked.
I must have looked terrified. They must have worried that I was having another attack. But I couldn’t lose my grip now. “We have to find Dr. Allen,” I told them. “We have to get her out of here now.” For her sake, I had to endure.
I remember looking up at the ceiling and the constellation of lightbulbs while I caught my breath. It was just enough light to appreciate the latent horror that surrounded us. Enough to witness what would inevitably follow?
“You!” Garrett shouted.
There, standing in front of the curtain, was Niles Vasco – the kidnapper, the mastermind. His shirt was splattered with dark stains. Dried blood? Chemicals? Something unspeakable? Vasco casually unrolled his sleeves as he told the professor how he wasn’t surprised we were here, how we were too late. Of course Vasco was calm. He made this.
“Where’s Dr. Allen?” I demanded. “What did you do to her, you monster?!”
Garrett and the professor stepped in front of me. Were they protecting me? Keeping me from lashing out at Vasco? If I had been able to move, I would have.
Vasco answered questions that I didn’t hear. He mentioned a ritual. That’s what the pentagram was for. He said that his victims have “an important role to play.” Was he going to sacrifice them? Spill their fresh blood to summon evil incarnate?
The door behind us slammed shut. A metal grate fell to seal it. I ran for it. There was a loud zap and fire rushed through me. Then I blacked out. Garrett told me later that I was out for some time.
Limited third is a type of third person that is limited to one specific character. Le Guin observes,
“Tactically, limited third is identical to first person. It has exactly the same essential limitation: that nothing can be seen, known, or told except what the narrator sees, knows, and tells… This limitation to the perceptions of one person may be consistent throughout a whole book, or the narrative may shift from one viewpoint character to another. Such shifts are usually signalled in some way, and usually don’t happen at very short intervals.”
Just because limited third is similar to first person doesn’t mean writers can take the same approach. It’s a fundamentally different POV. As Le Guin noted, the writer isn’t stuck to one character. They can switch narrators as the story progresses – from chapter to chapter in a novel, or scene to scene in a short story.
What truly distinguishes limited third from first person is (as you may have guessed) the role the writer adopts while writing. Le Guin describes it like this:
“First person is a different voice from limited third. The reader’s relationship to that voice is different – because the author’s relationship to it is different. Being ‘I’ is not the same as being ‘he’ or ‘she.’ In the long run, it takes a quite different imaginative energy, both for the writer and the reader.”
So how are these energies different? Le Guin doesn’t elaborate, so here’s what I think it means.
Remember how I described first person as creating a first-hand account? Limited third creates a second-hand account. The writer doesn’t take on the role of the character like how an actor does. Instead, the writer takes on the persona of someone close to the character whose perspective the story is being told from. The writer acts as an intermediary, standing between the character and the reader.
Some writers try to mimic the character’s voice in their limited third narration – a technique that’s sometimes called “deep POV” which deserves its own post in the future. Others make their limited third narration noticeably different from the character’s voice. Perhaps the character speaks in a dialect whereas the narration sticks to normal English.
Yet the use of third person always creates distance between the teller and the character and, consequently, the reader and the character. This distance creates the indirectness that’s inherent to second-hand accounts. I believe it’s this distance that Le Guin is referencing when she says that limited third requires “a quite different imaginative energy” than first person.
Limited Third – Professor Matthew Ellar
At last, Professor Ellar, Garrett and Dora reached the heart of the facility. As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, Ellar found himself in one of the most confusing places he’d ever seen. Hundreds of human skulls lined three walls. It reminded him of the catacombs beneath Paris. Then there was that unavoidable pentagram drawn on the floor, presumably with chalk, judging by the smell.
“Dora?” Garrett asked.
Ellar noticed that Dora was shivering, staring wide-eyed at nothing. She looked terrified. Ellar feared that Dora might be having another panic attack. “Are you alright, Ms. Marcel?” he asked.
“We have to find Dr. Allen,” Dora replied. “We have to get her out of here now.” There was determination in her voice. She was being brave for her friend. So Ellar decided to leave her be.
He turned his attention back onto the chalk pentagram. All he knew was that it was an important occult symbol. He noted smaller ones written around the pentagram’s outer circle – astrological symbols and others that he vaguely remembered from the more esoteric artifacts and documents he encountered in his research. What it all meant, though, he couldn’t begin to guess.
A familiar voice said, “Don’t touch those. Old bones are awfully fragile.” Standing in front of the red curtain at the far end of the room was Niles Vasco – their primary suspect. “Professor Ellar, I’m not surprised you’re here,” he continued as he approached the group, unrolling the sleeves of his stained, over-sized shirt. “Unfortunately, you’re too late.”
“Where’s Dr. Allen?” Dora demanded. “What have you done to her, you monster?!”
Ellar stepped between Dora and Vasco. The poor woman was stressed enough. “I know you are behind the kidnappings, Mr. Vasco,” Ellar began. “What I don’t understand is why. What is this place? Why did you bring your victims here?”
Garrett added a few questions of his own. “Why are we too late? And what about these?” He pointed at the skulls. “Are they your victims too? Do you keep their bones as some kind of sick trophy?” The boy was angry, so angry that his voice cracked.
Vasco chuckled. Whether at the question or how it was asked, Ellar couldn’t tell. “Those people are long dead, kid. I simply gathered them here to witness tonight’s ritual.” Grave robbery is still a crime. “My victims, as you call them, have an important role to play.”
“What kind of ritual?” Garrett asked. Ellar wondered the same thing.
“You’ve seen how divided this town is.” True. The newer residents had welcomed Ellar and Garrett with gratitude, while those born in the village wanted nothing to do with them. “How it hides its rotten soul.” The townsfolk had spread some unsavory rumors about the professor and his protégé. Ellar wanted to think they were born out of ignorance not malice. “That ends tonight.”
Vasco must have triggered some device that Ellar couldn’t see, because the door behind them slammed shut, and a metal grate fell down in front of it. Dora panicked and ran toward it. Blue electricity converged on her as soon as she touched the grate. The shock knocked her backwards.
Ellar’s heart skipped a beat. Was Dora dead? Garrett ran to her. He called her name and shook her, but she didn’t answer.
“What is the meaning of this?” Ellar demanded of Vasco. “Why are you locking us in?”
Vasco smiled. “I can’t have you calling the police. You know too much.” Vasco looked at his watch, and his smiled faded. “Excuse me. I have a lot of work to do.” He quickly left the room through a different door.
As much as he was concerned about Dora, Ellar needed answers that only Vasco could give him. Why did he leave so quickly? Where had he gone?
“Professor?” Garrett asked.
“Stay with Ms. Marcel,” Ellar instructed. “I’ll come back.”
Ellar gave his protégé a reassuring nod. Then, he followed Vasco.
To close out this post, I challenge you to try your hand at both POVs. Create a scene (1000 words max) with 3-4 characters. For best results, keep dialogue to a minimum. Need inspiration? Check out my writing prompts or Ideas to Steal.
Write the scene from a single character’s POV. Use first person. Then, write the same scene again from a different character’s POV. Use limited third.
Share your scenes, or links to them, in the comments below. General thoughts are welcome too. And stay tuned as we start our in-depth look at the less common POVs.