Writing in Third Person Omniscient vs Third Person Limited
Last updated: 11/06/2018
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 point of view. Is your story best served by writing in first person, third person, or — if you’re feeling adventurous — the second person?
In this post, we’ll be looking at the options available to authors writing in the third person: omniscient and limited. In former, 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 the latter, 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!
Part 1: Third Person Omniscient
In Third Person Omniscient, the narrator takes a "God's Eye View," freely relating the thoughts of any character and any part of the backstory. 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.
This viewpoint has recently fallen out of favor with agents and publishers, as it creates less intimacy with the reader than limited third or first-person POVs, and often leads to “head hopping.”
To see 50+ examples of this POV and others, go here.
What are the benefits?
- 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 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 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 nonfiction — 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 with an omniscient narrator 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:
Killing 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 is not unreliable and 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':
Tongues 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:
The 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.
- 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. Need some inspiration? Check out this list of 70+ plot twist ideas.
- Show, don’t tell. In the wrong hands, an omniscient narration will feature a lot more telling than showing.
When should you not use an omniscient narrator?
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. Omniscience 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 a 'closer' POV, 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:
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.
In 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 perspective and 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?
Third person limited gives your readers access to a character’s inner thoughts and emotions, much the same way that first-person narration does. The difference is that there's a critical sliver of distance between the protagonist and narrator, which will change the way the main character is portrayed. 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 can bring more emotional immediacy than other narrative modes, it also limits what the reader knows to what the protagonist knows — for better or for worse.
For a deeper look at creating an empathy between readers and your protagonists, check out this guide to writing dynamic characters in fiction.
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.
Head-hopping is bad when it happens with omniscient narrators — but positively disastrous with a limited POV. While modern editing programs will detect when you're shifting between passive and active tense, they won't be able to warn you when you've accidentally swapped your point of view character! So be on the lookout when you do come to revising your manuscript.
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 backstory 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 the omniscient narrator? Let's take another look at that story but from a limited perspective this time.
Multiple third person limited POV
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.
This is what's commonly called "third multiple": a point of view in which the narrator sees into the minds of some but not all of the characters.
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…
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!