Points of View: Third Person Omniscient

There are three major POVs used in fiction. Last time, I talked about first person. Today it's third person omniscient.

Whereas a first person story is narrated by one of the characters, third person omniscient is narrated by someone outside the story -- specifically someone who knows what everyone is doing or thinking at any given time.

The most obvious benefit of this is tremendous freedom. You can present anything that anyone's thinking in any place. This allows you to tell a tale with fewer words and to reveal information however you see fit. And for some reason, third person feels more immediate, like it's happening right now (yes, even though it's written in the past tense).

But like first person, these advantages are omniscient's disadvantages as well. The freedom to be anywhere, in anyone's head, doesn't mean you should be. You can drain a lot of tension and do a lot of telling (as opposed to showing) if you're not careful.

The other disadvantage is that third person omniscient puts a barrier between the reader and the story: namely, the narrator. In first person, the narrator is part of the story. There's no barrier because the story is being told by it's owner. In third person omniscient, the reader is constantly -- sometimes annoyingly -- aware that they are being told the story by someone who wasn't there.

This can be a good thing. Mark Twain's voice was eminently obvious in his novels, but we liked it (well I did). His commentary on 19th-century southern America could not have been made in first person. With third person omniscient, Twain got to tell us what he thought about (for example) the schoolmaster's pomp and what Tom thought, not to mention what the schoolmaster thought when his "prize student" Tom couldn't recite a single verse.*

So, some tips:
  • Find the narrator's voice. This is usually your voice, but not necessarily.
  • Don't hide things from the reader just to be tricky. This really goes for any POV, but it's easier to hide information with omniscient so it needs to be said.
  • Know why you're using third person omniscient. Again, this goes for any POV, but I think it's easiest to slip into omniscient without realizing it. Use omniscient for its advantages above, not because you don't know what else to do.
If you're not sure about the voice, or you're not sure why you want to use an omniscient narrator anyway, you might consider third person limited. I'll talk about that one next week.

* Don't worry if you don't know/remember what I'm talking about. I wouldn't either if I hadn't just gone through Tom Sawyer with my niece.


Matthew Delman said...

In my experience, third person omniscient is damn hard to do well; partly because of the issues you mentioned above and partly because it's sometimes hard to track who's thinking what and at what time.

It all ends up a headache for the reader. Except in the cases of 19th Century writers who, for some reason, mastered it better than contemporary ones do.

Adam Heine said...

Yeah, I personally never use it. I like the limitations of 1st person and 3rd limited.

I've seen it done well, though. Most recently in Master and Commander.

Sara Raasch said...

I'm not a fan of writing in 3rd-omniscient. Personal preference, though; I'm more of a 1st-past kind of girl. If authors can make it work, more power to them!

Natalie Whipple said...

I also don't feel comfortable in 3rd omniscient, but I have seen is done well. Gaiman's The Graveyard Book for one, and most recently Laini Taylor's Lips Touch.

When done right, you really get that "storyteller" feel, I think. Like you're sitting around a campfire listening to a master. It's cool, but takes so much skill.

Anne Lang Bundy said...

Third person omniscient is a hard sell (at least in CBA, evidently). But since I write biblical fiction, and the Bible is 3rd person omniscient ...

I've been very careful with what's disdainfully called "head-hopping." I've been told I pull it off well. I'm waiting for the ultimate stamp of approval, from a publisher.

I'll be watching for that post on third person limited.

Adam Heine said...

I can imagine that Gaiman does a great storyteller feel. Oo! And I get to find out. The Graveyard Book is one of my birthday books coming next week :-)

AM said...


I've had no time to respond lately, but I wanted to drop a quick note and say that I have been enjoying your posts for this last week or so.


Adam Heine said...

Thanks, AM! I really appreciate that :-)