The other type of third-person narrative is the third-person-limited consciousness (some call it third-person central intelligence, or third-person central consciousness). This point of view, which we'll call third-person-limited, has a somewhat omniscient feel, but breaks from omniscience in that it works from inside the character. The story must follow the point-of-view character's version of events.
Omniscience works from the outside in; even if the omniscient narrator concerns himself with only one character, he is still free to rove around and observe things that the character can't see. In third-person-limited, however, the readers are not allowed to perceive or observe anything that the main character cannot perceive or observe, which somewhat limits the kinds of description you may use.
Look again at this example from the section on omniscient point of view:
Randall Gardner was a shrewd, unfeeling man with a flair for the dramatic. The morning shadows slatted across his back as he bent languorously over the writing table. He sealed the envelope with a theatrical flick of the fingers, aware of the dark glow of his siblings' glittering eyes. That he had no idea what they were thinking was his first failure of the day.
In order to convert this passage from omniscient to third-person-limited point of view, we must alter it considerably:
Randall liked to use his flair for the dramatic. He bent languorously over the writing table and sealed the envelope with a theatrical flick of the fingers, aware of the dark glow of his siblings' glittering eyes. That he had no idea what they were thinking was his first failure of the day.
The third-person-limited narrator inhabits the character's body. Randall has no way of seeing slats of light on his own back, so we cannot put those slats of light into the description. Ralph does not think of himself as shrewd and unfeeling, so we must find other ways to suggest these character flaws. These limitations can be pesky, but they're well worth the trouble if your goal is to give readers an intimate bond with the character.
Because the third-person-limited narrative confines itself to the consciousness of only one character, its style has certain limits. The description—the similes and adjectives and metaphors—must contain imagery that exists in the realm of the character whose story is being told. Remember, in omniscience you're working from the outside in—"Emily's rain-soaked hair stuck to her bare back in gummy, webbed tendrils"—and in third-person-limited you're working from the inside out—"Emily's rain-soaked hair felt like cold snakes on her back."
In third-person-limited point of view, the readers are not looking at a character, they are inhabiting a character. For this reason, it's a good choice for short fiction, bringing the readers immediately into a character's world and holding them there until the last word. Take a look at a recent issue of fiction magazines like Story or Glimmer Train; chances are you'll find a preponderance of third-person-limited point of view.
Degree of Intimacy in Third-Person-Limited The omniscient point of view comes with choices: God's eye view, camera eye view, and focused omniscience. Third-person-limited also contains choices, though fewer of them. There is only one category of choice, really: degree of intimacy (John Gardner called it "psychic distance"). For example, you may choose a very intimate third-person-limited point of view, in which the descriptions match the character's vocabulary, ethnicity, socio-economic status, prejudices, and world view. The third-person-limited narrative voice sounds almost as confiding as a first-person narrator, as if you were merely repeating what the point-of-view character would have said herself. The degree of intimacy with the character, in this case, is great. In a less intimate third-person-limited point of view, you still remain inside that character's experience, taking care that the readers see or hear nothing that the character can't see or hear, but the language you use to convey that experience is more sophisticated or lyrical. In this case, the degree of intimacy is distant.
Let's experiment with varying degrees of intimacy in the following passage about an undereducated Oklahoma teenager who is witness to her father's arrest for car theft:
First person:I couldn't believe they was coming for Daddy. I set to hollering my head off and banging my feet so hard on the porch you could see sparks flying off the heels of my shoes. I thought maybe I could scare them police away, but it didn't work, they come for him anyway; when Daddy held out those poor bony wrists I had to shut my eyes against the sunlight screeching off those big steel cuffs.
Third-person-limited (intimate):Emmy couldn't believe they were coming for Daddy. She set to hollering her head off and banging her feet so hard on the porch you could see sparks flying off the heels of her shoes. She thought maybe she could scare the police away, but it didn't work, they came for him anyway; when Daddy held out those poor bony wrists she had to shut her eyes against the sunlight screeching off those big steel cuffs.
[Notice that the grammar is corrected, but the description is exactly the same and her father is still referred to as "Daddy. "]
Third-person-limited (less intimate):Emmy couldn't believe they were coming for her father. She began hollering her head off and banging her feet so hard on the porch you could see sparks flying off the heels of her shoes. She thought maybe she could scare the police away, but it didn't work, they came for him anyway; when her father held out those poor bony wrists she had to shut her eyes against the sunlight screeching off those big steel cuffs.
[Notice that the father is now "her father" instead of "Daddy," and "set to" is changed to "began." The character's actual voice is beginning to disappear, though the readers are still experiencing the story from inside the character.]
Third-person-limited (distanced):Emmy couldn't believe they were coming for her father. She began to shout and holler, stamping her feet so hard that sparks appeared between her shoes and the floorboards. She was hoping she could scare the police away, but they came for him anyway; when her father held out his poor bony wrists she had to shut her eyes against the sunlight glancing off the officer's cruel-looking handcuffs.
[Notice how the language has gone more formal, though we are still inside Emmy's experience. One more step away and we'd be looking at her from the outside, that is, with an omniscient narrator.] The above examples show you the restrictions of language in third-person-limited. You can work close in or far away, but the perspective must be the character's and not the narrator's. If you wanted to make the above passage a little more descriptive by adding a simile, be careful how you choose. You might end up making a mistake like this:
. . . the light glanced off the steel cuffs with the unbearable brightness of an African desert.
Oh, really? And where might Emmy, a farm kid from Oklahoma, have seen this African desert? Okay, on TV maybe, but your readers might stop to wonder. What you have done here is announce your presence as the author by violating the readers' intimate connection to Emmy's mind and heart. An image so foreign to Emmy's experience forces us to suddenly look at Emmy from the outside in. Emmy might compare the glare of the handcuffs to sunlight on waves of grain, or a shimmer of heat lightning, or the morning sun glancing off the silo. But African deserts are too far out of her realm to be plausible; it violates our belief that we are moving through Emmy's world.
Each character, no matter what her circumstances, has a store of imagery at her disposal. It's up to you to root it out. The third-person-limited narrator must remain invisible; the character is the only presence. You may take liberties with grammar and style, but the way the character sees the world is the way you must see the world, for now. (Save your own visions for an omniscient narrator.) Far from enriching the story, description that is foreign to the character's life merely calls attention to itself.
Physical Description in Third-Person-Limited The problems of physical description in third-person-limited are almost identical to those in first person. Remember, in third-person-limited you must keep the readers inside the body of the character; therefore, you cannot allow a description like this:
Patty watched the elevator doors groan open. Alan was standing inside, smirking, the manuscript he'd stolen from her tucked into a leather binder. She watched with disbelief as he lifted one manicured finger to beckon her inside. She felt her breath escape in small stutters through her closing throat. "You," she said, but the word dried on her tongue. Blood swirled in her head and her pulse banged against her temples. "Going up?" he asked. Her brown eyes blackened with rage.
Up until the last line, "Her brown eyes blackened with rage," you have your readers firmly planted inside Patty's consciousness. Then, suddenly, you ask them to jump outside Patty's perspective for just long enough to look at her brown eyes. The readers may not be able to identify just why, but they will feel momentarily distanced from the story. Do you see how the description falters with that one line? You've moved us from the inside to the outside. If you must provide a physical description of Patty, then go back to the beginning of this chapter and try some of the physical-description techniques for first-person narrators. Some of those techniques work beautifully in third-person-limited. For instance, in this scene you have access to an observant second party: The elevator doors opened. "Hello, Brown Eyes," Alan said.
Or, you could use description by association: She studied him carefully. His hair was a vague no-color, his skin dull and cold. Prison pallor, they'd laughingly called it when she worked here. Too many fluorescent lights. She liked to think she no longer looked like that. She liked to think her skin had recovered its Italian glow, that the blue highlights had returned to the dark of her hair.
Or, you could use your plot They got off at the fifteenth floor, where a platoon of blonde secretaries marched in and out of glass-fronted offices. Patty sighed. How had she ever fit into this place, where being a brunette was considered a handicap?
When writing in third-person-limited point of view, remember, always, to work from the inside out, not the outside in. Third-Person-Limited and Child Characters The old theater maxim "Never work with children or animals" could also be applied to writing fiction. Children and animals register on the melodrama meter almost before you've written a word. They turn out too cute or too smart or too forlorn or too mischievous or too something. In the section on first-person point of view, we explored ways to allow child narrators to tell their own stories convincingly. In the section on omniscient point of view, we saw that omniscient narrators can more fully tell a child's story, but the downside is the readers' loss of intimacy with the child. Third-person-limited gives you the best of both: you allow your readers to experience the child's world without having to shackle yourself to the child's language.
Let's look again at Freddy, the first-person narrator we heard from in the section on first-person point of view. Freddy is ten years old, looking in on his dying grandmother:
For a second I wasn't sure it was really Grandma in that bed. At first I thought maybe she was a ghost, but the hissing turned out to be her trying to breathe. There was something wrong with her skin, little cracks all over, like somebody dipped a spider's feet in red paint and let him walk on her. . . .
First-person narration works quite well for this character, but a third-person-limited narration would grant you more leeway with language:
Freddy stole up the steps, his heart thump-thumping against his ears. The door before him seemed achingly large, thick with paint. Grandma's sick, they had told him, but what did they mean? He held out one palm—the fingers still stained with blueberry juice—and pushed. The door groaned open and there she was, white and weightless as a feather. The skin over her temple was webbed and pulsing, nearly translucent. "Hey, Grandma," he whispered. "It's me, Freddy." She turned to look at him. Freddy nearly cried out with relief to see those familiar Grandma eyes, blue as ice. She moved her lips but he couldn't hear her over the sound of his hammering heart.
In the above passage the language is sophisticated and lyrical, not language Freddy himself would use, and yet the description is true to Freddy's experience and vision. The similes—using feathers and ice—are taken from objects in Freddy's world. The readers see nothing that Freddy does not see, hear nothing that Freddy does not hear; the passage is filtered through Freddy's consciousness and his alone. And yet the storyteller is someone other than Freddy, a nearly invisible vehicle that presents Freddy's story to the readers. You as the author have preserved Freddy's childness without sacrificing your natural descriptive style. This freedom of language is what makes the third-person-limited point of view so satisfying.
Of course, you may decide to limit your description to a more intimate third-person-limited view, and come up with something like this:
Freddy looked into the bed but he wasn't sure it was Grandma. She sounded just like a big, scary ghost because it was hard for her to breathe. He was so scared! Grandma's face was marked all over with little red lines that looked just like spider legs. . . .
However, why use Freddy's language when you don't have to? If you're going to restrict the language of the story to a ten-year-old's abilities, then you might as well leave the story in the first person.