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.
Here 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.
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 requires “a quite different imaginative energy” that first person.
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.