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Thursday, March 08, 2018

Fixing Problems With Third-Person Limited POV

When it's my turn on The Muffin to blog, sometimes, I like to share recent conversations I've had with my novel writing students because I think we can all learn from them. In this most recent one, I think I learned just as much as my student. Here's what happened.

My student is writing an excellent novel with four points of view. In each section, she is writing in third-person limited, so the narration is supposed to be coming from the point of view character of that section. I noticed in this student's chapter last week that this point of view character was sounding more like an omniscient narrator. When I was reading, I felt like I was reading the novel's events like someone was telling me the story while sitting on a cloud and looking down on the earth. In actuality, the events in this section were very upsetting for the POV character. But I couldn't feel it. The writer was too involved in trying to get the plot down correctly, and she lost the voice and the character's feelings in the story during this section.

This happens to us/writers/me all the time. I mean, come on, writing a novel is not easy! And this student of mine has a very complex, interesting, and unique story. Plus, she is writing in four different points of view! So it's no wonder that some of her narration is a little off.

I told her that she needed to really pretend that she was that POV character and put herself in those events and write what this character would see if he was actually there. That's the key. Instead of worrying about making sure the plot is correct or you filled in the backstory or you remembered to have the character open the car door before he started driving the car, you have to get the events down through that point of view character's eyes and even more importantly, his or her heart! What is her body experiencing while these events are unfolding?

It's usually easier to write with emotion with first person. I don't notice this omniscient/loss of voice problem as much with first person narration as I do with third-person limited. So another thing writers can do if they are having this issue is write a section in first person, in the voice of the POV character just to get the events down and the emotions on the page, and then write the section in third-person limited for the novel.

If you are writing a novel in third person or using multiple viewpoints, are there some challenges you've come across that we can all learn from?

Margo L. Dill is a writing coach, editor, children's author, and instructor, living in St. Louis, MO. Her next novel writing class starts on Friday, April 6. To find out more information about Writing a Novel with a Writing Coach, please click here

photo by Robert Meeks on


  1. Some stories demand third-person, even if it is not to achieve multiple perspectives like your student's piece. There are times when the reader needs to know much more (or much less) than the protagonist does, so third-person is the most natural solution to this.

    Having said that, I normally prefer first-person, because I find that I begin to write much too formally when channelling a third-person narrator. It just doesn't 'make sense' to me for a 3PN to have much of a personality. How do you solve that?

  2. I think the difference is third-person limited and third-person omniscient. Third-person limited is basically first-person, just using he or she. You can only really report what the POV character is seeing or feeling and assumes someone else is based on actions. Omniscient is what you are talking about--when the "narrator" can give facts that the POV character does not know.

  3. This is really helpful, Margo. I often struggle with POV and tense consistency. I know it's off topic, but when I'm writing about a past event but writing it in first person present tense (which is my preferred way to write), I tend to go back AND forward into the future because I already know what happened. Kind of like an omniscient narrator but only for myself, not other people. I don't know if that makes any sense. Maybe you can cover tense consistency in a post sometime. I think I need a refresher on the rules. ;)

    I wonder if your student switched to a sort of distant "in the clouds" perspective because the subject matter was upsetting, as sort of a way to distance herself from the event? I've done that unintentionally before.

    Anyway, great discussion! Lots to think about. :)

  4. Margo--I'm with KAlan. I write better--at least I think I do--when I'm writing in first person. I guess that's because I got stuck in creative nonfiction to begin with, so when I had the chance with the most recent WIP that I'm polishing up, I chose to tell it in first person. I think it was a wise choice... but what do I know? ;)

    However, I'm also with Angela. I screw up tenses all the time. Perhaps you could touch upon that in a future post?

    As always, you gave me some things to think about...

  5. 3PL and 3PO are different, it's true; but it still doesn't make sense to me for a character's personality to leak into the narrative, except in 1P. That's not a rule, of course; just my bias. Perhaps your student is struggling with something similar.

    With regard to tense, I confess that I am not often a fan of using present tense, due to the uncertainty it introduces with regard to how quickly time is lapsing. There are times when it supports a story, but when written in 1P, present tense makes little sense to me at all. It is popular though, so my students do it, and this is where they make 90% of their unintentional switches of tense.

  6. I know I am over-commenting about this. I apologize, but I find it fascinating.

    To clarify my views above: I feel that if an author chooses a 3PN (whether limited or omniscient) over a 1PN, that author has identified an implied need for the character and the narrator to be two separate participants in the story. Perhaps the narrator knows more than the character, or knows less, or perhaps the narrator needs to be more sarcastic or critical about the character than people would realistically be about themselves.

    (Of course, it's important to acknowledge that even a 1PN still doesn't participate identically to the character; they may have learned more since the story unfolded, like Jean Louise Finch so clearly had).

    If this were my student, I would be asking pointed questions: What is it that you want a different persona from your character's to achieve by narrating? If there is nothing, then why not use four different first-person narrators? If there is something, then how can the different 3PL narrators reflect the personalities of the different characters, without being those characters?

    Which leads us to the issue of tense. If a 1PL is narrating in present tense (especially without a clear reason) then, to me, this just leads to confusion and errors. Think of how we tell a story to friends or family about "something that happened last week." That is what a 1PN is doing, and we most instinctively use past tense. When we do use present tense (e.g. 'So I'm walking along, and this guy taps my shoulder...') we most often lapse into past tense ('I jumped a mile'). When writing, this change is probably an error (though I know nothing is an error when done for effect).

    Of course, there's also the issue of narrating something that happened over a minute in one paragraph, then something that happened over a week in the next: again, this seems unnatural to me for a 1PN in PrT.

  7. I haven’t meant to be quiet but I have been busy! And now I’m reading this at halftime of a basketball game but I will try to comment soon! Great discussion

  8. I always have trouble with POV and changing perspectives, so I appreciate your post, thanks for sharing and providing some tips for doing it right!


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