Writing in Third Person Omniscient vs Third Person Limited

third person omniscient vs third person limited

You may have a clear vision for what or who your book is about — but do you know how to tell your story? One of the first major decisions you’ll face as an author is determining the style of narration in your book. Is your story best served by writing in first person, third person, or — if you’re feeling adventurous — second person?

In this post, we’ll be looking at the options available to authors writing in the third person: omniscient and limited. In third person omniscient narration, the narrator has a god’s eye view of the story and is privy to all characters’ thoughts, as well as knowledge of the past and future. Then there’s third person limited, where the narrator’s scope of knowledge is intimately tied to a particular character — very often the protagonist.

For those of you who understand images better than words, we have included a fun graphic mystery that illustrates the power of both viewpoints. If you’re ready to start, just scroll on down!

Contents

Part 1: Third Person Omniscient

What are the benefits of third person omniscient?
When is it best to use third person omniscient?
Tips for writing in third person omniscient
Why you shouldn’t write in third person omniscient
GRAPHIC: ‘Murder at Reedsy Manor’: A Tale Told in Third Person Omniscient

Part 2: Third Person Limited

What are the benefits?
Why choose third person limited over first person narration?
Tips for writing from limited viewpoints
GRAPHIC: ‘Murder at Reedsy Manor’: A Mystery Revisited
Multiple POVs

Part 1: Third Person Omniscient

third person omniscient narrator firesideIn Third Person Omniscient, the narrator takes a “God’s Eye View,” freely relating the thoughts of any character and any part of the backstory. Omniscient narration has recently fallen out of favor with agents and publishers, as it creates less intimacy with the reader than limited third or first person viewpoints, and often leads to “head hopping.”

Despite this “God’s Eye View” analogy, your narrator doesn’t necessarily deliver divine judgment on your characters or plot. When you break down the word, omniscience just means “all-knowing.”

Third person omniscient is probably the oldest narrative form of recorded storytelling. Tales of Odin, Heracles, and Amun-Ra would have been told by bards around the fire, with what we’d consider an omniscient narrator. There are no limits to what the narrator may tell the reader — though, compared to more intimate perspectives, you may need to work harder to ensure that your book remains enjoyable to modern readers.

What are the benefits of third person omniscient?

  • Use of dramatic irony. The writer can exploit the tension that comes when the reader knows something that the character does not.
  • Your narrator can have a distinct voice that isn’t tied to a character in the story. For instance, your narrator might be wry and funny where your characters take themselves too seriously.
  • Relay backstory and history without filtering through a character’s perspective.
  • Quicker transitions in action. If you need your action to move between locations and timeframes, an omniscient narrator may be your easiest option.

When is it best to use third person omniscient?

In recent decades, third person omniscient point of view (POV) has somewhat gone out of fashion. Readers are looking for more emotional connectivity with the books they read, and the wide scope of omniscient narration isn’t entirely conducive to that. The best example of third person omniscient narration in modern literature is Hilary Mantel’s “Thomas Cromwell” series, including Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies. It’s worth noting that historical texts — both fiction and non — seem to benefit most from third person omniscient narration.

Certain techniques and devices are easier to employ with an omniscient narrator. Here are three of them:

1. A distinct Narrator Voice

Writing in third person omniscient allows the author to create a persona of sorts, who sits outside the world of the story. These narrators aren’t technically characters, but their narration will be distinctive from the voices of characters inside the story.

Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams both wrote using omniscient narrators. The tone they adopted in the Discworld and Hitchhiker’s Guide novels could be likened to that of a historian, relating details of their worlds using narrative asides. Pratchett’s narrator even uses footnotes like you would see in a non-fiction book, often to sneak in extra jokes.

In this passage from a Discworld novel, Pratchett goes on a tangent about the Bursar of the wizard university:

Reaper Man Terry PratchettKilling off a wizard of a higher grade was a recognised way of getting advancement in the orders. However, the only person likely to want to kill the Bursar was someone else who derived a quiet pleasure from columns of numbers, all neatly arranged, and people like that don’t often go in for murder*.

*At least, until the day they suddenly pick up a paperknife and carve their way out through Cost Accounting and into forensic history.

— Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man

These details are completely incidental, and would almost certainly never make it into the final draft of a book written from limited or first person POVs. Pratchett’s omniscient narrator can comment heavily on the events and characters of his books.

2. The ‘Cinematic Approach’

Of course, what we’re talking about here will predate the language of cinema, but for the sake of simplicity, imagine an omniscient narrator working like a film director. Both of them may start a scene with a wide establishing shot that shows the environment, before tracking in and focusing on specific characters. This is from the opening chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’:

The Fellowship of The Ring J.R.R. TolkienTongues began to wag in Hobbiton and Bywater; and rumour of the coming event travelled all over the Shire. The history and character of Mr. Bilbo Baggins became once again the chief topic of conversation; and the older folk suddenly found their reminisces in welcome demand.

No one had a more attentive audience than old Ham Gamgee, commonly known as the Gaffer. He held forth at The Ivy Bush, a small inn on the Bywater road.

— J.R.R Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Tolkien starts this passage with his ‘wide shot,’ establishing the hubbub rippling through the Shire. He then zooms into a pub, and in particular, to an old Hobbit about to recount his personal tales of Bilbo. This ability to move swiftly between the small and big picture is harder to pull off with a limited POV. It’s also easier to quickly switch between various story strands — bearing in mind that doing this too often will make it harder for readers to latch onto any one of the plots or characters.

3. An objective point of view

A lot of new writers are led to believe that third person omniscient is an inherently ‘objective’ point of view. It’s not. The way a narrator frames the story and describes characters and their actions will almost always suggest some form of subjectivity. But that’s not to say that an author can’t use ‘objectivity’ as a device in their writing.

In this opening passage from Shirley Jackson’s most famous short story, her narrator takes a fly-on-the-wall approach:

Shirley Jackson the lotteryThe people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 25th. But in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.

— Shirley Jackson, The Lottery

There’s a matter-of-fact tone that weaves its way through Jackson’s narration. This section almost entirely focuses on the logistics of running this mysterious lottery — which itself is introduced in an almost incidental way. We have taken the narrator’s viewpoint, observing these events from a distance. In the final passages of the story, when we (spoiler alert) discover that the ‘winners’ of these lotteries get stoned to death, the brutality of this ritual is made even more harrowing by the narrator’s emotional detachment.

Tips for writing in Third Person Omniscient

  • Don’t go crazy for flashbacks, asides, and lectures. Critics of Tolkien often point to his tendency to break away from the action of his main story to deliver lectures on the history of Middle Earth. Doing this allows him to expand the scope of the world he’s built, but the danger of doing this is that it can break up the momentum of the book, slow down the action, and turn your readers off.
  • Don’t head hop. Within a given scene, avoid filtering the action through more than one character. Readers will find this disorienting, and it signals the sort of narrative laziness which often plagues books with omniscient narrators.
  • Don’t tip your hand too early. Because your narrator knows what’s going to happen, you may feel the need to foreshadow plot twists. Don’t underestimate your readers’ ability to see what will happen next.
  • Show, don’t tell. In the wrong hands, an omniscient narration will feature a lot more telling than showing.

Why you shouldn’t write in third person omniscient

Most publishers and successful indie authors will tell you that you need to write to the market. And currently, the market heavily leans away from third person omniscient. But why?

Conventional wisdom suggests that modern readers enjoy connecting with characters, whether they’re heroic, villainous, or something more complex. Omniscient narrators can often get in the way of that connection. Third person limited narratives are, simply put, more effective at creating character-focused stories. Publishers will encourage authors not to use third person omniscient, for reasons you will discover in the next section.

‘Murder at Reedsy Manor’: A Tale Told in Third Person Omniscient

Want to see an omniscient narrator in action? Take a look at this illustrated example:

third person omniscient mystery

 

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Part 2: Third Person Limited

In Third Person Limited, the author narrates the story from the close perspective of one character (at a time) to create the immediacy and intimacy of a first-person narrative, without being “trapped inside” a protagonist’s head.

image03In Steering the Craft, Ursula Le Guin’s invaluable writing manual, she provides a succinct definition of limited viewpoints:

Only what the viewpoint character knows, feels, perceives, thinks, guesses, hopes, remembers, etc., can be told. The reader can infer what other people feel and think only from what the viewpoint character observes of their behaviour.

In this section, we’ll try and break down what it means to write from a limited perspectiveand give you a few pointers to get the most out of it.

What are the benefits?

  • Create greater intimacy between your reader and point-of-view characters
  • Maintain a level of uncertainty about your secondary characters: their emotions, secrets, and pasts can remain ambiguous.
  • Tell a story in which your reader’s perspective on characters and situations evolves.

Why choose third person limited over first person narration?

Third person limited gives your readers access to a character’s inner thoughts and emotions the way first person narration does, but unlike first person, where the narrator and protagonist are one entity, a limited third person viewpoint puts a critical sliver of distance between protagonist and narrator. Maybe the protagonist has a nasty habit she wouldn’t readily reveal if the narration were left entirely to her. Maybe the narrator can “see” something happening behind the protagonist’s back that the character himself might miss. While first person narration tends to have more emotional immediacy than other narrative modes, it also limits what the reader knows to what the protagonist knows — for better or for worse.

While first person narration tends to have more emotional immediacy than other narrative modes, it also limits what the reader knows to what the protagonist knows — for better or for worse.

Writing tips for limited viewpoints

1. Don’t filter the action

Your narrator is extremely close to your main character (or POV characters plural, since you can use more than one). This means you may find yourself contextualizing all observations and actions through the consciousness of the POV character. In John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction, he calls this ‘filtering’ — something he strongly recommends writers remove from their prose.

The amateur writes: “Turning, she noticed two snakes fighting in among the rocks.”

Compare: “She turned. In among the rocks, two snakes were fighting …”

Generally speaking — though no laws are absolute in fiction — vividness urges that almost every occurrence of such phrases as “she noticed” and “she saw” be suppressed in favor of direct presentation.

2. Beware the dreaded head-hop

When you limit your narrator’s POV by focusing on a particular character’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences, you might find yourself tempted to reveal another character’s thoughts or feelings. Resist this urge! “Head-hopping” is a big problem in third person narration.

Here’s an example:

If your POV character is speaking to her priest in a scene, you shouldn’t write, “Father Walsh was reluctant to tell her the truth,” because there’s no way for your main character to know that — unless she is a mind reader, in which case, all bets are off.

You can demonstrate Father Walsh’s reluctance without hopping into his head. Your main character can observe him avoiding eye contact, stopping and starting sentences, or fidgeting with his cuffs — all evasive gestures that suggest reluctance.

3. Careful with your flashbacks

Personal memories or historical events that take place in your character’s world can be relevant, and limited narration is a great way to reveal some of that back story to your readers. But remain conscious that these flashback moments arrest the forward-moving action of the plot, and can sometimes adversely affect the pacing of your book. Sometimes, a few short lines of dialogue is all you need to convey a character’s backstory.

Ask yourself whether backstory helps move the present story forward. If it doesn’t, keep the flashback out of your narration.

Murder at Reedsy Manor: A Mystery Revisited

Remember our illustrated example of third person omniscient? Let’s take another look at that story but from a limited perspective this time.

limited third person infographic

 

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Multiple POVs

That’s right! You can have more than one POV character. In fact, it’s pretty common. Take the Song of Ice and Fire series (aka ‘Game of Thrones’) for example, in which each chapter centers on a different character, but those same point-of-view characters take over the narration again and again.

Consider what multiple characters’ perspectives bring to the story: If you’re writing a true-crime-style procedural, you might utilize the POVs of a cop investigating the crime, a victim’s family member, and even the criminal himself. It would be pointless to give the perspectives of three investigating officers since their perspectives will be too similar. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t switch focal characters mid-chapter or mid-scene, since this toes the line of “head hopping” (see tip #2 above).

Finally, keeping up with multiple POV characters requires great discipline and consistency in your writing. Each character needs to have its own specific qualities, tone, and arc. This partly explains why we’re having to wait so long for George R.R. Martin’s The Winds of Winter


Many thanks to Reedsy editors Kristen Stieffel and Rebecca Heyman for their contributions to this post.

Now, we want to hear from you! How do you decide which point of view to use when starting a book? Which one is your favorite? And if you do mainly use an omniscient narrator, we’d love to hear your thoughts on why!

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  • Incredible summary of omniscient versus limited 3rd person limited view. Even though I already knew about the concepts, I did learn new things, such as preferring direct presentation (two snakes turned) versus indirect (she saw two snakes turning.)

    The illustrations clarify the ideas as well. Going to share this on social media.

    • Martin Cavannagh

      I’m glad you found the post useful! Thanks for the share 🙂

  • Anna Sayburn Lane

    I struggled with third person limited when writing my first novel, partly because I’d included way too many POVs. Thanks for a useful summary of the pitfalls, especially the reminder about direct presentation.

    • Martin Cavannagh

      Thanks, Anna — I’m glad you enjoyed it! I guess one of the reasons editors suggest taking closer POVs like third person limited is to guide writers to focus their storytelling. When you’re struggling to juggle your perspective characters, it could be a sign that a few of them might not be essential to your novel 🙂

      • Anna Sayburn Lane

        Definitely – my later drafts cut down the numbers of POV characters drastically. That was a useful lesson to learn and I’ll be careful about how many I introduce to my next novel.

  • I think I may be writing Third Person Limited with a new series I’m developing and I didn’t realize it until I read this. I definitely need to explore how to use that narration better because I think it is a great tool that I need to utilize better. This is great! Love the infographics

    • Glad you enjoyed the graphics! Third Person Limited is highly recommended nowadays, and can be pretty powerful if yielded well as it creates a strong emotional attachment between the characters and the reader.

      • Yep! So I need to read some books on it as well as books that use it successfully. I’ll definitely check out Ursula K LeGuin and john Gardner (any other books you can recommend on the subject would be great) and George RR Martin, whom I have been wanting to read anyway 😄

  • Bryan

    This article is great! I naturally write in TP Omniscient, but have forced myself to move to TP Limited. My first manuscript never left the MC’s head though and I don’t want to do that again. I like the idea of TP Limited with multiple POVs but I question your statement about switching focal characters mid-chapter or mid-scene. It seems to contradict itself. If I have multiple scenes in a chapter… it is OK to switch POV from scene to scene… right? Only if there is one scene in the chapter should I stay away from switching POV. Also, If it’s not OK, then is the proper way to handle it like the way Dan Brown often does? Should I make every scene switch be a new chapter?

  • Colin Smith

    There are several degrees of third person limited which are worth looking into.

    There are a couple of useful terms to look for regarding the degree of third person limited are “psychic distance” which considers the apparent ‘distance’ between the character’s perceptions, thoughts, etcetera, and the reader. The other is “close third person” which is a halfway stage between normal third person and free indirect speech/discourse, aka “stream of consciousness”.

    Free indirect discourse is a ten on the scale of third person limited. In it there is no narrator and no apparent guidance or censorship by the author. Instead we have the character’s perceptions and thoughts unfiltered and complete. It was most famously, and perhaps best, practised by Virginia Woolf in The Waves and James Joyce in the Leopold Bloom and Molly Bloom chapters of Ulysses.

    Curiously, the intensity of free indirect discourse does not preclude multiple viewpoint. Woolf proved that in a scene in Mrs Dalloway where the viewpoint shifts very rapidly (within a single paragraph!) through a number of people scattered across London without losing any of its intensity. Unfortunately, not everyone can write like Woolf.

    That said, in free indirect speech the intensity and sheer quantity of the character’s perceptions when delivered, apparently, in full on the page will overwhelm an action-based narrative. So if your book is about story and plot then a lower degree of third person is needed. But if your novel is about a character then it is worth investigating.

    It’s important to note that the degree of psychic distance or apparent closeness to the viewpoint character is not fixed. Just because you start at an ‘eight’ doesn’t mean you have to stay at ‘eight’ throughout. You can manipulate the psychic distance like a zoom lens, taking us closer to a viewpoint character or drawing back from the viewpoint character. A slow zoom in is especially useful for establishing context at the start of a chapter or scene and a zoom out can work well at the conclusion of a scene or chapter.

  • Katharine

    Wow. The multiple points of view will help me a lot! Never knew that was “permitted”.

    What I want to write is maybe not good. I certainly hope I can get by with it, but don’t want to break rules I never knew would break the story.

    I want to tell the MC’s story from his point of view when he is in the picture, but from a sort of “fly on the wall” pov when he’s not. I do not want to be inside the other characters’ heads; I only want to show their thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. I want to be able to write, “MC whistled and loped down the lane, smiling inside about his sister’s party and about the sparkling, fragrant morning. He did not see the curtain in the Antag’s window move ever-so-slightly once he passed the large bush in the front yard.”

    And this would be the page turning point of the chapter, with the next chapter turning to what is going on inside the house, told from the cinema pov, not inside their heads…only observing their speech, faces, and actions.

    Can we do that?