In 3rd person limited, when the protagonist is present in a scene, can the narrator describe something in a scene that the protagonist cannot see?

  • 1
    Might your protag be aware of it? Perhaps walking past it?
    – Rasdashan
    Apr 10, 2019 at 1:22
  • 1
    @ Rasdashan Its not my protagonist, I am critiquing for a friend. The protagonist is walking behind a secondary character, whose jaw muscles are described as clenched tight. It is impractical to think the protagonist could see the secondary character's face.
    – Bob516
    Apr 10, 2019 at 1:27
  • 1
    Is there a reflective surface nearby? A window, perhaps? Otherwise, I see your problem
    – Rasdashan
    Apr 10, 2019 at 1:35
  • 1
    This is all taking place in the Roman Empire. The secondary character's nose is pressed up against a stone wall. No indication of a reflective surface.
    – Bob516
    Apr 10, 2019 at 2:11
  • 1
    @Bob516: the feeling (anger?) can probably be seen in the shoulders? fists? neck? other parts of the body? With 3rd person limited POV you're trying to make the reader feel like they are the POV character so any "jump" out of it will... end suspension of disbelief, so to say...
    – Erk
    Apr 11, 2019 at 0:35

2 Answers 2


No. In third person limited the narrator can only see what the POV sees. There may be things outside his line of vision that he could hear or smell, which the narrator could describe.

However, in the scenario described in this questions comments, (character clenching his jaw while facing away) could possibly be tweaked to allow description. Your jaw and jaw muscles extend beyond the front of your face. The character could turn his head just enough for his jaw muscles to be seen.

  • 2
    The character could also hear the sound of teeth grinding, which is a rather unique sound.
    – Summer
    Apr 10, 2019 at 3:41
  • 3
    If there's any dialogue from the clenchee then it would also be noticeable that his jaw is clenched. Apr 10, 2019 at 14:07
  • 2
    Other muscles may clench, like shoulders elevating -- that could be seen, indicating the jaw-clench, especially if the two characters know each other well. Apr 10, 2019 at 14:09
  • 2
    All of these suggestions also create better imagery than just clenched jaw muscles. Apr 10, 2019 at 14:19

One method to address this is to treat your narrator as a "character", and define the limits and abilities of that character.

From here you can work out ways to define the scope of knowledge of the narrator, what they can comment on, and what they may highlight to the reader.

So you have established that the narrator is not the Focus Character by defining it as a third person, but "How not" the Focus Character are they?

  • Is your narrator character exploring the world from within the Focus's own head, looking through their eyes, hearing with Focus's ears, feeling through Focus's skin, etc? [Does the narrator reliably 'read the deepest mind' of the Focus, or can they only see more surface emotions?]
  • Is your narrator character "sitting on Focus's shoulder", can they look in another direction and see what the Focus character wouldn't have?
  • Are they pulled back even further, following the Focus Character, but able to peek around corners, eavesdrop on conversations [or even thoughts], soar over the scene and give commentary on the Focus Character's situation from a vantage point the FC couldn't possibly be in themselves?
  • Is the narrator even Less Limited than that? [At which point you'll be straying away from the 'limited' aspect, but technically a trivial limit is still a limit, and technicality matters... Right?]

You can also use this "Character Designed Narrator" concept to help guide what the narrator knows with regards to time:

  • Does the narrator have memory? Did it exist before it began following the Focus Character, and can it make historical references?
  • Is your narrator aware of the future? If so, how? How much does it know.

By treating your narrator as a character, with traits, abilities, biases, and whatnot, you can help establish a consistent voice and tone. You could also allow the narrator itself to grow as a character, and change some of its traits over the progression of the story.

Is your narrator something which exist across time with knowledge of the future, a sarcastic jerk who dislikes your Focus Character, and takes pleasure from pointing out how badly things will go?

  • You'll end up with a narrator who provides lots of foreshadowing, and highlighting flaws and mistakes.

Is your narrator a kind and hopeful creature trapped in the Focus character's head? - You'll end up with a narrator looking on the bright side of things, and possibly focusing deeper inward to the main character.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.