“Don’t write third person omniscient.” That’s a piece of advice often echoed by editors, publishers and agents alike. But being the rebellious creatures they are, as soon as authors hear someone tell them what they must do, they get an itch to do the exact opposite.
But before you “stick it to the man” and start drafting your magnum opus in third person omniscient, let’s look at some examples of when that perspective is best used and discover why the industry often favors “closer” points of view.
Third person omniscient literally means to write with an “all-knowing” narrator: one who is aware of the thoughts of any character at any time, and has insight into the complete history of the story’s world.
Third person omniscient is incredibly useful if you need:
More flexibility with your narration
Because your narrator sits outside the story, they can tell the reader anything to help progress the story. You can also play with the narrator’s tone. His or her persona can be used to reinforce the world of the book—such as in historical fiction, where the narrator’s tone is often like that of a historian, which in turns lends the illusion of authenticity to the fictional plot.
Conversely, the narrator’s tone can contrast that of the story, perhaps adding a wry, satirical spin to an otherwise dry and serious plot.
Third person omniscience allows the author to communicate something that’s unknown to the main characters. With closer perspectives, it’s harder to create that wonderful tension you get when you know that your point-of-view character is walking into a trap or making an obvious mistake.
Quicker transitions in action
Say you’re writing a political thriller that involves many moving parts and important characters in different locations. To tell this story from a limited perspective like first person or third person limited, you would either have to jump between the points of view of multiple characters (which can get messy) or have your characters explain the goings-on through dialogue (which can fall into the trap of “telling not showing”). An omniscient narrator can easily bounce between places and timelines, giving the author enough flexibility to tell an expansive story.
Technically, there are no limits to how you can tell your story with an omniscient narrator. You will, however, often have to work harder to create intimacy between your reader and your characters. That is just one of the reasons why new authors are often encouraged to take a “closer” point of view.
Third Person Limited
Readers are hardwired to empathize with protagonists. Experienced authors know this, and even when they have an omniscient narrator, they will be careful not to strain this empathy by head-hopping and going on too many narrative tangents. One reason for the popularity of third person limited is that it helps prevent those classic errors by having one simple rule: the narrator knows nothing but what the main character perceives and remembers.
Third person limited will help you:
Create greater intimacy between main characters and readers
In third person limited, the reader has access to the inner thoughts and feelings of the main character. But unlike first person narratives, there is a critical sliver of distance between the protagonist and the narrator—allowing for a slightly more subjective perspective. Details that a first person narrator would omit, for fear of coming across as petty or flawed, can be revealed in third person limited.
Maintain greater uncertainty of secondary character
Because your narrator can only perceive what the protagonist does, there can be an ambiguity as to the motivations and emotions of other characters. If your protagonist notices someone in a flop sweat, the reader is challenged to decipher what this means. Is he nervous? Does he have a cold? Has he just been playing basketball?
This uncertainty often encourages a more satisfying narrative style, in which the author doesn’t spoon-feed the characters’ emotions and intentions to the reader.
Tell a story in which your reader’s perspective evolves alongside that of a character
Many great stories hinge on changing relationships and perspectives. Think of a paranoid thriller where a man discovers that he works for lizard people. Or take a look at Pride and Prejudice where Lizzie Bennett learns that Mr. Darcy isn’t an insensitive jerk after all.
Third person limited allows the reader to experience the joy, intrigue, or horror of your revelations. That’s why it’s so rare to find a mystery novel written with an omniscient narrator.
Practice Both Points of View
As always, there’s no easy way to determine which narrative perspective is right for your book. It’s only through practice and experimentation that you will get a better understanding of how limited and omniscient narrators can bring the best your stories to life.
And with that in mind, head to the practice section below.
Do you write fiction with an omniscient narrator? If so, what does it add to your stories that you wouldn’t get with first person or third person limited? Let us know in the comments.
Take fifteen minutes to practice using the third person omniscient point of view. Write a scene in which one character proposes something to another character. It may be a marriage proposal, a business deal, a hit job, or even a dinner invitation.
Write the scene from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. This narrator must: a) have a voice that’s distinct from either character; and b) reveal something of which neither character is aware.
When you’re done, share your writing in the comments below. And if you share, be sure to leave feedback for at least three other writers.