Third Person Limited Omniscient (TPLO): a narrative mode in which the reader experiences the story through the senses and thoughts of just one character.
Even without doing the research to back this up, I still feel comfortable saying that a good portion of literature written after the beginning of the 1900s uses this point of view. Probably not a true majority, but a statistically significant percentage. The popularity of TPLO is completely justifiable, though–you get the close-up feel of first person with the flexibility and god-like window of third. So, what are the basics of this perspective?
- You can read the mind of only one character, usually the protagonist.
- You refer to all characters, including the “storyteller” byt their name or as he/she/they. Never I or we unless it is used in dialogue
- You can offer explanations and insights via the narrator’s voice as long as it’s done consistently (for examples, see Harry Potter or Princess Bride, just for the narrator’s voice, though, not the point of view )
- While you can only read the mind of one character, that doesn’t mean you can’t watch things she/he can’t see. When used well, you can jump to other areas and give readers knowledge that the protagonist doesn’t have. The opening chapters of books 1, 6 and 7 of Harry Potter. They are essentially written in TPO.
From my own library of unpublished work, here is a short story I wrote in college using TPO:
The boy stuck his head out the car window, but a hand yanked him back in.
“Don’t do that.”
Those three words were pretty much all his father ever said to him: “Don’t do that.” Didn’t ever tell him what he could do, but made damn sure he knew what not to do.
The boy leaned back against the seat and moved his fingers closer to the window. Inch by inch he moved them, his eyes never leaving his father’s profile. Finally, his whole hand was sticking out the window, but no reprimand came.
Apparently, he could do this.
They’d been driving for six hours, but the boy had no notion of where they were headed. They were in Nevada. Somewhere. Desert stretched before and behind them, as if that was all there was in the world: a never-ending horizon of sagebrush and waves of heat.
It had been a long, quiet ride; the boy had never tried talking to his father, not without his father saying something first. His mom had been the one who brought joy and meaning into their home, but even with her to soften his father’s edges, he had been an imposing figure in the little boy’s eyes.
When she’d died two years ago, father and son had lapsed into an enduring silence.
His father would only break that silence for one story, one memory—
“I ever tell you about when your mom and I first met?” His voice was deep and had a scratchiness that usually came after decades of chain-smoking, but he’d never as much as held a cigarette.
The man glanced at his son, waiting for some kind of response. They both knew the answer—of course he had—but that didn’t matter. The boy shook his head no and waited.
“She was studyin’ art up at the University, but she’d made a friend who worked at the government unemployment office. They got her a job so she could work her way through school.”
All the other times, he’d told this story to the boy at night before they went to bed, after his father had turned the lights out. Now, though, the sun was beating through the window, illuminating the world so much it made it hard to look at anything head on. Now, the boy could actually see his father tell the story. The unforgiving light outlined each hair in the stubble covering the man’s chin and the lines around his eyes that made him seem so sad and so much older than thirty-eight. The boy stared, wide-eyed, afraid that, if he blinked, he might miss some twitch of the mouth or shift of the eye that would reassure the boy that the answers to the silent questions he asked his father were right: Do you really miss her? Did you love her as much as she loved you? Do you love me?
“That was a hard year. People’d be lined up outside that office for hours ‘cause there wasn’t enough jobs to go round, see? You’d think, a time like that, anybody workin’ in the unemployment office’d be as pursed as a pickle. But not your mom.”
The man’s eyes focused solely on the road ahead. He never glanced over at his son to be sure he was listening, that the boy was getting all this and remembering it like he was supposed to. But the boy saw how his father clenched his jaw when he wasn’t speaking, and how he wrinkled his nose more often than usual, like he had to sneeze or like he was about to—
“She smiled at me, and damn if my whole day didn’t get better right there. She told me that she was gonna do the best she could to find me a job that fit my particular qualifications. Promised to call me herself when she found somethin’, and she blushed like anything when I shook her hand goodbye. She was as sweet as a cereus flower and prettier than a bluebird, she was. And she kept her promise, too.”
His was steady and calm. He never sounded as if he was doing anything other than reciting something he’d memorized for the benefit of the kid, but he sniffed a couple of times, his nose twitching like a dog that’d caught a scent.
“She got me my job with Davis Construction. Damn if I didn’t fit there so well they made me a site manager after only a few months. And I’d never have found that place if not for your mom.”
The corner of his lip quivered, and the boy tensed in his seat, watching for any other movement, any sign of the thoughts behind his father’s unreadable blue eyes—nothing came. But the dry wind rushing through the open windows made the boy blink, and his eyes refocused past his father to the road rushing by on the opposite side of the car. He was surprised to recognize the town they were driving through; the corner store where they sold candy for cheap and the diner that made the world’s best flapjacks. Bunkerville; his mother’s sister lived here. She’d offered to adopt the boy when his mother died, but his father had just shaken his head, no. No. The boy blinked again and quickly refocused on his father.
“I was so grateful; I went back to that office and stood in line for another three hours just to see your mom. I brought her daisies and told her that, if she didn’t object none, I’d be more than happy to take her out to dinner.”
The man sniffed again, but, this time, the tears he had been fighting to hold back welled up and, one by one, slid down his cheek.
“She said yes.”
The tears came faster, then, one following the next so quickly that the boy couldn’t tell them apart. But his father never gave any indication that he knew he was crying. Never moved to wipe his eyes. His voice never shook, never faltered.
The man turned off the main road and into a residential section of the town. Everything was getting more familiar: the park his aunt would take him to play with the swing set the boy loved climbing on, the house with the old lady who smelled like mold, the street where the boy who loved to race lived. He glanced at the bags and boxes in the backseat and wondered how long he and his father would be staying—his father sure had packed a lot. He looked back out the window and remembered his mother teaching him to ride a big kid’s bike here. He wished, now that he’d finally learned to ride it without help, that she was here to see how hard he’d practiced. The boy daydreamed what it would be like to have his mother back, for his father to be happy again; he wasn’t expecting his father to say anything else; the story usually ended there.
But, after a minute, his father kept talking.
“You used to remind me of her, but you been alone with me too long already. You’re too much like me now.” His father sighed and shook his head; the boy wasn’t sure if he was talking to himself or not. “I’m not right to be a father on my own. Ain’t got it in me. I tried, but, sometimes, you just gotta know when it ain’t about you no more. Sometimes you gotta do what’s best for someone else.”
The man finally glanced at his son, the tears still running down his face. This time, the boy didn’t look away. He thought about how his father used to smile when his mother danced with him in their living room. He remembered all the times his father’s eyes got wide and scared when the boy had hurt himself bad. He realized that, not once in ten years had his father ever yelled at him in anger.
The boy smiled and said, “I think you done all right, Pa. I’m still here, ain’t I?”
His father pushed the brake, slowly bringing the car to a stop. He stared at his son as if seeing him for the first time, and the boy stared right back. He glanced up the road, in the direction of his late wife’s sister’s house, and back at his boy, then, he nodded.
He pulled into the next driveway, reversed, and they headed home together.
There’s a lot of possibility inherent in this perspective. You can get almost as close as first person or almost as distant as TPO. The integration of thoughts in my example is subtle, but it’s there in the little things that someone watching through a window would not have known. Could not have known. How you use that knowledge, though, is the important part.
Added note: Depending on the source, this perspective is sometimes simply called third person limited. I feel as though this is a misnomer. Dropping the mention of the narrator’s omniscience makes the point of view seem far less appealing than it is. But that’s just my opinion.