This is my second post of three on the subject. Here’s the link to the first post in this series in case you missed it:
In Third Person Limited, the pronoun used for the character is “he” or “she”. That’s why it’s called Third Person. It’s called Limited because, unlike in Omniscient, we don’t have access to all of the characters’ thoughts at any one time. It’s limited to just the thoughts of the viewpoint character.
So that’s what it is. This is what I feel about it.
Third Limited is the perspective that I would choose if I could only ever write in one of them ever again. Good use of Third Limited is the reason that I write and edit today.
Why do I love it so much?
It’s incredibly versatile. It has many of the advantages of both First Person and Third Omniscient, with few of the drawbacks of either.
It is almost as intimate as First Person, and allows the writer to develop a voice for each PoV character in a way that Omniscient doesn’t. However, unlike in First, Third Limited doesn’t make the writer a slave to that voice. There is a separate, uniform quality to a novel’s prose that allows you to, for instance, describe the city as the character sees it, in greater depth or with more poetry than that character might do themselves.
What it gets from Omniscient is that uniform voice, but it’s also the ability to be in more than one character’s head (without jumping through hoops to do so). However, it allows the reader to really sink into the character in a way that Omniscient can’t easily do. It allows for a more character-driven experience.
This leads me to the thing that Limited can do better than First or Omniscient, and the reason that it’s so important to me. Third Person Limited allows you to write a scene from one character’s perspective, and then switch to a different character for the next scene. It allows you to more easily juggle multiple viewpoints.
The ability to juggle multiple viewpoints allows the writer to tackle large-scale conflicts from multiple sides, each with nearly the same depth and personality as First person would be able to do with one perspective. This changed the face of Fantasy forever.
There are inherent weaknesses to Limited, dangers that a writer has to be aware of.
The first, most common danger is omniscient slips. This is where the writer slips in knowledge that the PoV character couldn’t possibly have. For instance, character A can’t know what character B is thinking or feeling. A could see B’s expression, and make an educated guess. You’re still bound to the rule of First—unless a viewpoint character receives information, the reader can’t have it.
The second danger is infodump. Unlike in First Person, where the character’s voice can often carry infodump well, there is very little leeway for this in Limited. The writer has to be careful to keep information either directly relevant, or at least give the character a good reason to think about the information. It’s much more of a magic trick than in First, because the writer needs to get the information across without having it seem like the purpose for the words is to get the information across.
And the last danger is, Limited can enable a writer to make their story too big. It makes it very easy to scale up the story, but it makes it hard to know when to stop scaling up. If the writer isn’t careful, it can grow difficult for either they or their readers to remember who is where, when, and why—and even harder to remember who knows what.
If you plan to write in Third Person Limited, I’d highly recommend The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. This is the series that made me want to write. It does things with Limited that I’d never seen before, and have rarely seen since. While it gets some largely deserved criticism for slowing down and growing too bloated with PoV characters—there’s that danger I was talking about—it remains one of the greatest achievements of the viewpoint, in my opinion.
As promised, here’s a passage I’ve written using this perspective. It’s…a bit longer.
Leaning against the ancient stone wall, Jerin sucked in a breath, and winced at the stitch in his side. The fields in the distance and the untended tall grasses, and the forest beyond, were vibrant, verdant, dancing with wind. He could imagine, in hours to come, the farmers out in the fields. For now, despite the dawn, the town and the fields were still eerily silent.
Jerin slowly reeled in his breathing, and tried to quiet his mind. Would he hear them, before they were upon him?
He pushed the thought down, down into the quiet depths where the Masters had taught him to leave anything that weakened him. There was no time for weakness. No time for fear. He sidled to the corner of the wall and peeked around the corner, down the streets he had run before.
The world was bright enough to sting his eyes, orange from a sky just on the other side of dawn, green from weed-mottled grass, yellow from thatched roofs that poked up over tall white wooden fences. All of it was so deep, so full of color that he could almost reach out and touch it from where he stood.
The fences kept the people safe in their houses, separate from The Road and whatever might travel on it—especially from those that could Pull. The houses were set at odd angles and with odd spaces between, so that he could only see little ways down the street. He might not see them, if they were following, until it was too late.
The Gluttons wouldn’t care if he was afraid. Wouldn’t care if he begged. They wouldn’t care that the Masters had never asked if he wanted to join them. They would only care that he could Pull. That made him dangerous, made him less than an animal, but more, to the Gluttons, it made him food.
Jerin tucked his head back behind cover, trying to push the name down into the dark. It resurfaced, too buoyant to drown.
Srialleine’s scream breached the surface of his thoughts; her scream, and the sharp, sudden end to it, like the breaking of a branch over a knee. She’d been beside him, laughing, leaf-green eyes sparkling in the campfire’s light, and then she was screaming, and they were on her, all claws and teeth. They had been focused only on her—she had been stronger than he, many times stronger, and years more practiced—and he had run.
He had run.
Pain lanced through memory, jerking him back to the present. He swallowed the acrid taste of blood. The Masters had trained him relentlessly, more so even than they had the others. The throb at his lip didn’t matter beside the renewed focus it brought.
The Nine Edicts demanded that houses outside the cities were staggered, demanded the fences, so as not to aid those who could Pull. The Gluttons couldn’t see through houses any better than Jerin could, but they didn’t use their eyes much during a hunt. It was all smell with them, smell and taste, instinct and hunger. Jerin took a deep breath, careful, quiet, and peered around the corner again.
The breath in his lungs seemed to freeze solid.
Green grasses, blue sky, yellow thatch behind white fences. The grey paved Road, and crawling on it a half-dozen sickly, ashen silhouettes. Smallish, man-shaped but for spiny tails, they scurried with a lithe, predatory grace. Eerily human. And too close for the silence. He should have been able to hear their claws clack on the pavement. Even watching them now, he heard nothing.
Nostrils, flush against their faces, sat between long slits for eyes. Layered, curving fangs kept callous lips in a perpetual rictus, and forked tongues flicked out to taste the air. To taste for him.
His lungs felt swollen in his chest, straining. Carefully, he let the breath out in a slow stream from his nose, mouth tightly shut. As close as they were, they may not smell sweat enough to track him. But could they smell the blood? His eyes stung, but he couldn’t make them look away long enough to blink.
Watching them made his stomach clench. Naked, hairless, skin almost rough enough for scales, all of them that queasy shade of grey. They lacked any ears beyond holes in the sides of their heads. Grotesqueries of humanity, primal and sinuous, always hungry. Male. They were all male. He didn’t know where their females were, but the males were put on the hunt.
Gluttons. These vile things had a name. As feared as they were, they still had a place in the world. Jerim swam in the terror, unmoving against the ancient wall, and weathered a sudden wave of hatred. These things were almost pets to them, to the Veritiers. Cats hunting mice, hunting vermin.
Worse than all of that was the horror of memory. Muscle tearing under serrated teeth, bones snapping from the pressure their jaws could bring to bear. And all the time, there was silence. He had been close enough to smell their unwashed fetor, the stench of rotten meat in their mouths. But he hadn’t heard them. Hadn’t heard her screaming, once they were on her. Sria had watched him, green eyes dripping with terror and pain. All he could do was watch them. All he could do was run.
He watched them now, hand clenched around the edge of the wall. Trembling.
Saliva dripped form gaping maws, trailed in viscous lines to pavement. Long, swaying tails scraped silent against the road, claws making minute scratches. Why didn’t the things make noise?
Blood pulsed in Jerin’s ears, throbbed almost painfully. The colors of grass and sky and thatched roofs pressed in on him in waves. He could make them make noise. Make them scream. In the moments before he finished ripping them apart.
Putting his feet beneath him, he pushed off the wall, back toward the fields and the tall grass and the forest. Yes. He could attack. And die. With another of those breaths through his nose, he checked his belt, the pouch and the half-haft ax hanging from the loop. Hadn’t he been afraid, only a moment ago? Maybe it was still there, buried beneath shame, loathing, and rage. Sria deserved better. She deserved to be avenged. The Gluttons deserved pain for eating her. And Jerin deserved death for leaving her to die.
He managed another step backward, and another, and turned to start toward the tall grass. This wasn’t about what they deserved. This was about the Masters, what he knew, what they needed to hear.
The Hundred Swords had been drawn, and the Defilers were awake.
The price to see them imprisoned had been the end of the world. The crumbling of kingdoms, a devouring chaos that had left the people with a fear of those who could Pull but no memory of why. He refused to think what the price would be now, if the Masters were caught unaware.
The smell warned him. Rancid skin and old carrion. Without thought he fell forward, twisting as he did, pulling the ax free and throwing it in one practiced motion. The ax whistled through the air in a shining arc, and stopped silent in the creature’s skull. The beast didn’t make a sound as it hooked almost upright with the force of the ax’s impact, blood spraying noiselessly against the stones behind it, and then fell limply onto its stomach. The ground shook beneath Jerin’s boots when it landed, but he still heard nothing.
As blood pooled beneath the creature’s ruined head, another of them paced around its fallen comrade. Its head turned to the dead at its side, tongue flicking out, before it turned back to Jerin with a silent snarl, and pounced. Sucking in a breath, Jerin Pulled.
The orange of the morning sky sang in his skin, the green of the grass seeping through his pores. The white fence stood cold and impassive, and the grey pavement lay beneath him, uncaring. Seconds slid by, slow enough to feel them prickling on the hairs along his skin.
Each touch was different. Red was always strongest, a searing pressure, demanding use; that was why the Nine Edicts forbid red. White exuded nothing.
Jerin drank it in, sang with its sweetness. Training had made the next step almost beneath thought. He reached into a blade of grass between himself and the monster. Time snapped back as power flooded the blade, lighting it with the colors of the world.
The blade of grass swelled and shot tall, twisting so that its edge turned to the Glutton. The thing had just enough time for its eyes to focus on the blade before they collided. The blade’s keen edge sliced clean through the monster’s shoulder and into its chest. Fallen, twitching, to the ground, its mouth opened in a whine, but no sound escaped.
The blade stood tall, solid and crystalline, a milky, translucent white beneath the blackness of blood.
Jerin pushed himself to his feet, regaining his breath. Five heartbeats had passed since the first had fallen. Maybe ten. He had to hurry. They wouldn’t have heard his Pulling—it was silent as the Gluttons themselves—but they would smell the blood of their kindred and come running.
Giving the second, still-writhing creature a wide berth, he put a boot on the first monster’s back, pulling the ax free with a sharp jerk. He kept his ax in hand as he hopped down away from the Road, away from town. Tall grasses brushed at his thighs as he sped his pace, almost running.
They would smell the thing’s blood, be able to track it. His breath caught for a moment at the thought, but he made it steady, made himself move. Yes, they would smell their own death on him. It would drive them forward, in fear and rage. It would consume them almost as it had Jerin.
Leaving the Road was a dangerous gamble. There were things in the wilderness, things nearly as dangerous as the Gluttons, and far more numerous. But this way was the Masters. Closer than by the Road. And the Gluttons would be prey in the wild no less than he was.
The sky was brightening, the orange fading to blue, but he soaked up that orange while he could. At dawn he was strong, fueled by the traces of red in the morning sky, the bleeding of the sun.
The wind brought the sweetness of the dark forests ahead, and the grass grew all the way to his waist. It slowed him, but he was glad for it. It would slow the Gluttons even more, would make them almost equal. He was careful of his footing; one stumble, and they would be on him. He didn’t look back, but he could feel them there, in the prickling along his neck.
Moments passed, bringing him closer to the forest’s edge. The tension between his shoulders melted as the trees loomed overhead before him. He let his pace slow a little, to a step he could hold for hours. He would have to, as long as the scent on him drove the Gluttons beyond caution, beyond conditioning.
Conditioning. He’d never taken to the Master’s training as well as the rest. Had never truly learned to bury weakening thoughts. Even now he thought of Sria.
Sria, without a doubt, would have welcomed death, if it got the message to the Masters. But it was wrong. He should have been the one to die for it. She had always been the strongest of them, second in power only to the Masters themselves, had saved more young than anyone from the purges. She was a hero. He was an upstart, brash, foolish. Stubborn. If he hadn’t insisted on stopping, if he hadn’t insisted on the fire—if he hadn’t run—then maybe Sria—
Fire tore through his shoulder, knocking him forward. Instinct rolled him back to his feet, and hurled the ax at the landing creature before him. Even as he watched the thing go down with the ax in its side, he knew he was dead. Cursing himself for a fool, he spun to face the creatures stalking him, and Pulled.
The last traces of orange in the sky bled into his soul. Time drained like honey through a sieve. Jerin threw his hands up, pushing into the grass ahead, and they were radiant, twisting as they shot upward into a fence taller than those surrounding the houses. The creature in the lead tried to jump over the sprouting, crystalline barrier, and took a point in the chest, dangling from it as it grew overhead.
The fence bought him seconds, not nearly enough time to worry about the ax. Jerin glanced at his shoulder as he ran, and grimaced. Long scores along his skin, almost hidden by pooling blood. Not as bad as he’d feared—the needle and thread in his small pack would close the wounds cleanly—but they might be fatal, nonetheless. He drank in the calm blue of the sky, pushing hard.
The wounds from the Gluttons were were a poison, leeching the body’s strength. If he didn’t get away from the pack hunting him in the next few moments, he wouldn’t have the strength to fight them.
Now he looked back often as he trudged toward the forest. He had to reach the Bastion. It was worth his life, was even worth Sria’s. If he died before he reached the Darkroads, her death would be meaningless.
Beyond the tall grasses was a clearing of scrub and dirt, moss and mushrooms, where the trees blocked the sun. He was close.
He could trace the Gluttons in the wavering of the grass around the new wall’s edge. The silence of that movement was eerie, repeated on either side, reconverging behind him. Reaching into the pockets of his bag’s shoulder strap, he retrieved rounded vials, full of bright red dye. If only he could Pull through glass. He pushed forward through the grass, keeping the vials in hand.
Jerim counted breaths. How many did he have before he reached the edge of the grass? How many breaths before they were upon him? How many breaths away from dying? He counted them. Six. Four. Two.
Stumbling as he breached the field’s edge, he spun and threw. The vials shattered, spraying dye in all directions, thick and vibrant enough to sit on the scrub. Jerin let the glistening red fill him until he thought he’d burst.
Heartbeats bled by as he stepped backward, away from the dye and the ground it had stained. Not even breaths until they reached him now. Now he counted heartbeats. Three. Two.
On one he Pulled, sucking in the green and brown and blue, but more than anything sucking in the red. Jerin pushed the power into the dye, into the grass. Time flashed to normal as the dye exploded and the grass burst into flame all along the front line. A dark form broke the line of fire and bounded into the air, pinning him onto his back.
One had gotten by. The thought was frantic, a rat’s thought as a cat snapped it up in its jaw. The field was aflame. Impassible. But one had gotten through, and one was more than enough.
Instinct, beaten into him by the Masters’ training, brought his hands up, up to the leathery sag of the beast’s neck, pushing it to arm’s length. Claws cut long trails of agony in his side, in his arms, and sparked that terrible heaviness wherever they touched. Their claws were dangerous, feeding apathy and exhaustion, but their teeth were death.
The thing pushed down on him, jaws snapping silently, inching closer despite the desperate work of his arms. The stench was on him, making his stomach heave. Drool leaked in a thick line, and he jerked his face away, but it spattered on his cheek, stinging. A cry ripped from Jerin’s throat, but no sound escaped.
Jerin managed a single, powerful shove, and the thing was lifted onto its hind legs, its face far from Jerin’s neck. The Glutton’s claws ripped through leather and wool and skin, biting deep into muscle. Cold agony announced where they scraped ribs.
The heaviness infected his thoughts, made it hard to reason. Hard to care that he was dying. That, without warning, the Defilers would sweep the Masters into the abyss. That the rest of the world would fall without them.
Jerin’s hands faltered, falling at his sides; with a soundless growl, he pushed them back up aginst the creature’s chest. He was too weak. Barely an inconvenience for the thing anymore. The Glutton reared back, claws and teeth and hunger. Death.
Jerin looked down with a cold detachment, watched the blood gush dark and red from wide gashes in his chest. Lethal by themselves. The beast’s mouth opened wide, and started forward, down toward his neck. Jerin didn’t have the strength to fight it. He had no weapons, and nothing to Pull, not close enough to matter, not the right color to do what was needed.
Something inside Jerin shifted, like snapping into place. He couldn’t. It was impossible.
Blood could not be used to Pull. It was one of the first lessons ingrained in him, before he even truly knew what he was. They’d had him try, again and again over the years of training, as if to make sure that this inability felt as true as the inability to fly. Blood could not be used to Pull.
But power flowed into him now, stabbing hot, scorching away the cold of the wounds, the emptiness. Time stood solid, a thick line of drool drooped halfway to his face, the creature’s eyes open just wide enough to reflect a shadowy image of Jerin’s face. Shock twisted his features, but he felt it as he saw it in the Glutton’s eyes, like it belonged to someone else. It was impossible to Pull from blood, the same as it was impossible to do what he did next.
Without moving his hands from the cold roughness of the creature’s chest, Jerim pushed the power into the Glutton. Time leapt forward.
The explosion drove him into the dark earth hard enough to squeeze the air from his lungs, hard enough to crush his bones. His ears shattered with the enormity of the thunder, and the light seared his eyes shut. Pain grew beyond bearing, beyond knowing. His heart slammed in his chest, a handful of beats from ripping to pieces.
Seconds passed in false silence as the explosion tore through the world. Seconds passed, beyond what he thought he could endure. The fires continued to rage not far away, their color stabbing at him even while blind. The sky fell down on his skin, pressing, throbbing. With a breath that rattled in his chest, he Pulled.
It was impossible to Pull from blood. He knew that to be true. And it was impossible to push that power into thinking creatures—any being it was tried on developed a slow rotting disease, but nothing else. And yet he had done both.
Last, it was impossible to Pull power into himself and keep it. No matter what use he had for it, it would burn out the core of him and leave him smoldering but untouched on the surface. It was impossible to save himself.
As he pushed the power through crumpled veins, into torn muscle and pulverized bones, he cackled bloodily. Flesh knitted, bone set, muscle reattached. Languidly, he soaked up the blue, pouring it into himself, and laughed.
The sun was sinking violet on the horizon when he pushed himself, stumbling, to his feet. The fire had burned wild among the summer grass, still covered the area in seeping smoke. It had driven the Gluttons away or taken them with it. Shedding a leather jerkin and wool tunic too torn and burnt to cover him and finding smooth skin underneath, he smiled. Jerin abandoned his pack and turned to the forests, and the Darkroads beyond.
He had a message to deliver. And questions to ask. The Masters had a lot of explaining to do.