There are few techniques that I (as a fiction writer) think about more often than third person limited point of view (POV). And while not every reader cares about this sort of thing, most readers do care about the results when writers employ techniques like third person limited, which is the real focus of this article.
I spend plenty of space across my blog talking about fantasy and science fiction books I love, including some reasons why I love them. With this article, however, I’m kicking off a new series that explores the same topic from a writing craft perspective, digging deeper into some individual examples that really stand out. My hope is that readers and writers alike will better appreciate and enjoy what they’re reading (or writing) as they give it some craft thought.
First up: Brent Weeks, author of the Lightbringer Series, the Night Angel Trilogy and a new connected novel Night Angel Nemesis. Weeks is well known and regarded among epic fantasy readers, but some of his strongest skills (in my opinion) often go unsung. This article specifically explores how Weeks handles third person limited POV in his Lightbringer books.
Ground rules: What is third person limited point of view?
Third person limited POV takes the narration into the experience, thoughts, and knowledge of a character—or set of characters—without giving the reader access to everyone’s experience, thoughts, and knowledge. Where an omniscient POV could dip into anyone’s mind when convenient, third person limited comes with some restrictions on whose information is available when.
This most often means the narrative sticks with just one character at a time. While authors are typically strict about managing whose thoughts they follow, it’s much less common to find any set rules about how deeply in or out of those thoughts the narration might go. And that’s where things get really interesting.
Wetting his lips, Kip got moving. He had the distinct sensation of being followed. Stalked. He looked over his shoulder. There was nothing there. Of course. His mother always said he had too much imagination. Just walk, Kip. Places to be. Animals are more scared of you and all that.The Black Prism by Brent Weeks
When we get to this “Just walk, Kip” part, most fantasy authors (and most third person limited narratives) would use italics to demarcate character thought. Weeks foregoes the italics and just keeps the words coming. Is it Kip thinking this now, or his mother speaking in the past? Probably one and the same, with no need to distinguish between either voice in this instance.
I’ve heard several writers and a few editors criticize Weeks for the way he handles third person limited—specifically in this choice not to italicize character thoughts when they appear within the narrative. I first want to note that readers aren’t typically complaining about this. I also want to heap praise for how effective Weeks’s technique really is.
Here are three main strengths to consider, from a writing craft perspective, about Weeks’s approach to third person limited.
1. This direct approach to third person limited elides between character thought and overall narration
Use of italics for character thought creates a sort of false dichotomy. We’re either getting the narrator’s thoughts or the characters’.
As such, there’s an often artificial distinction in the source of whatever information we’re reading. Use of italics separates the parts of the narrative coming from a narrator (not the character) from the character’s own time-bound, in-story, limited point of view. There’s nothing wrong with having this distinction, in my opinion. The elimination of such a distinction, however, makes the narrative more interesting and immediate.
For a story like the Lightbringer Series, this take on third person limited plants a seed of bias and fallibility. To avoid spoilers for the series, let me just say that things are not always as they seem—including to the characters whose voices we probably trust. Part of each volume’s emotional power comes from Weeks’s candid exploration of the view point characters’ blind spots.
And, because there’s not much formal distinction between the narrator’s view of things and the characters’, the story organically works these character blind spots into the wider narrative.
Weeks could have told the same story using italics to stencil out his characters’ thoughts paragraph by paragraph. This would, however, hint at where the narrative gives us a partial truth or a misperception. As such, it would undermine many many compelling moments to come.
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2. Skipping italics in third person limited removes the false binary of being in/out of character thought
There’s another manufactured dichotomy at work when authors use italics to show character thought. The italics introduce a sort of on/off switch. Italics=character thought. No italics=no character thought. But what about when you want to be 50% in the character’s head, like free indirect voice? Or 100% in their head, like stream of consciousness? Or just 75% in their head, like italics usually convey?
Take a look at the passage below to see a few different ticks on this POV spectrum.
Kip saw something in the mist. His heart leapt into his throat. The curve of a mail cowl. A glint of eyes searching in the darkness.
Then it was swallowed up in the roiling mists.
A ghost. Dear Orholam. Some spirit keeping watch at its grave.
Look on the bright side. Maybe wolves are scared of ghosts.The Black Prism by Brent Weeks
The first two sentences are probably fully removed from Kip’s head. Then, with “the curve of a mail cowl” and beyond, the storytelling camera zooms closer. Before we know it, we’re getting direct expressions of thought from the character (“Look on the bright side” for instance).
Weeks doesn’t have to worry about how deep or how direct his POV is—or when to switch the italics on—which gives much greater flexibility to dip partially into the character’s perceptions, to move deeper still, or to withdraw. He seamlessly blends many distinct levels of connection to the characters’ thoughts. His approach to third person limited also avoids the thought/no thought binary that italics often implies.
3. Weeks’s approach to POV moves readers closer to the characters
Ultimately, Weeks’s use of third person limited gives readers a closer, more personal look at the characters about whom he’s writing. It feels, after all, as if they are writing the story with him. He tends to be more generous with character thought than many of his peer authors (much more generous, actually), which empowers his view point characters to come to life in a way more often reserved to first person narratives.
It was too much information to soak up at once—broken the halo?—but it was a straight answer. Kip walked over to the dead man. His skin was pallid in the rising light. Pull it together, Kip. Ask whatever you need to ask.The Black Prism by Brent Weeks
The ability to get into the character’s head is the single most unique narrative benefit of fiction. Much as film, TV, theatre and other storytelling media try to do this, there’s no stronger way to transport the audience into the character’s psyche than through a strong use of written POV.
Conclusion: Italics are fine too
Weeks is by no means alone in his use of deep character immersion without italics. Writers have done this for decades if not centuries now. Ursula K. Le Guin, Patricia McKillip and Orson Scott Card have all employed similar techniques to great effect—just as many many skilled writers use third person limited with italics to delineate character thought.
It might be worth stating that I’m not at all against using italics. Some writers might do this just because they’ve seen it done (and not for any distinctly craft-oriented reasons), but there are cases in which it’s extremely helpful.
For instance, fantasy is full of characters who communicate telepathically or who have voices reach their minds through other magical means. Imagine if Christopher Paolini’s Eragon and Saphira were trying to have a conversation without the guidance of italics (it would be hard to follow). Or imagine if Robert Jordan’s Rand al’Thor and Lews Therin Telamon were trying to outshout each other without italics to help steer the reader along. It would most likely convince the readers that Rand was going mad. But it might not convince them to keep reading.
Italics can also be useful for omniscient third person narratives or narratives that, while not omniscient, head hop without clear patterns or distinctions to reveal when the head hopping happens. Even if you just want to use them for a single character’s thoughts, italics create a clean line of separation between the character’s perceptions and the rest of the narrative.
It just comes down to whether you want such separation or not—and I tend to favor something else.
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About the Author
Stephen Taylor is the author of The Witherclaw Trilogy as well as short fiction appearing in The Future Fire, MYTHIC Magazine, The Centropic Oracle, and other publications. His short story “Only an Ocean” won a Silver Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. When he’s not writing, he’s often playing my violin or wandering in the woods.