Third-Person Point of View: Omniscient or Limited
If you are a writer, you know that every story is told from a certain perspective. And whereas this can be seen all over the written content, it’s especially clear when it comes to works of fiction.
Fiction writers always have to get the question of point of view right because it determines a lot. The point of view, or POV, determines not only the pronouns used in the story but also the amount of detail the narrator can give.
More than that, and especially when it comes to the reader, the story’s POV will largely determine how much connection the reader is able to build with the characters in the story.
Although writers can choose any of the three points of view, the most common in today’s world is the third person point of view.
For a quick basic definition, here are the three different points of view:
- First person point of view – this is where the writer or a fictional narrator tells a story or shares information from their own perspective. They’ll often be telling a story of their past or even present situation. They can also share their opinion about a given topic. You’ll know that your reading a story told in first person point of view when you see “I” being used as the main pronoun.
- Second person point of view – in this point of view, the writer addresses the reader directly using the pronoun “you.” The second person point of view is used to draw the reader closer to the story by transforming him into the main character of the story.
- Third person point of view – in the third person point of view, the story is told to the reader about someone else. As such, the pronouns used are “he,” “she” and “it.” The plural form here is “They.”
The third person point of view can usually provide a wider scope of the story since the observer (narrator) is able to see many things which some characters in the story may not see.
Knowing what the third person point of view is, you’ll do well to know that there are different types of the perspective. Basically, there are two distinct types of POV in this and it’s important that you understand them.
In this post, we’re going to look at the third person point of view in reference to the two sub-categories it has. These are the third person limited and the third person omniscient points of view.
We’ll tell you how exactly they differ from one another and share some advantages and disadvantages of both.
As a writer, it ultimately comes down to what exactly you want to do and how you intend to tell the story. This is what determines which POV to use.
For the biggest part, we have used the terms third person limited and third person omniscient for simplicity.
THIRD PERSON LIMITED POINT OF VIEW
The third person limited is the point of view which focuses on only one single character—often the protagonist.
This does not mean that as a writer, you cannot talk about other characters. You certainly can, and in fact, it would be weird if you didn’t. There’s no way you’ll have a good story if everything is centered 100% on one character.
All the same, the main character is clearly displayed as the center of attention. Everything revolves around him and he’s the only person that the reader is going to connect with or identify with a lot because of this.
The third person limited will tell the story from this character’s POV, reveal his thoughts and feelings and attitudes to the reader. As such, the story is really about this character.
Advantages of using the third person limited POV
There are certain cases in which the third person limited is most suitable for use. In such cases, the flexibility that this point of view provides become evident, especially for the writer.
For the reader,. It really helps in building a connection. This and other advantages are discussed below.
1. Creates intimacy between reader and POV character
The third person limited point of view is great for creating intimacy between the reader and the story. If done well, the intimacy created can bring the reader so close to the character, with very little distance when compared to what happens with the first person point of view.
This intimacy is greatly helped by the fact that there are fewer characters to build and focus on compared to third person omniscient (as you’ll see below). As such, considerable level of detail can be given by the narrator and the reader can get to know the character well enough to share their perspective.
Moreover, when you consider that this is a third person POV, you get the additional advantage of not getting stuck in the protagonist’s head.
2. Uncertainty about other characters helps build tension
The “limited” nature of this point of view is quite helpful in building tension.
Third person POV is generally thought of as being “all-knowing” though this is only to the degree you allow as a writer. When you therefore fail to disclose details about the secondary characters, the reader is left with the option of learning more about them through their reactions and responses.
This creates some level of uncertainty since the reader doesn’t really know what kind of response to expect from another character.
The writer can however share some bits of details through various ways.
For example, the writer can describe emotions of secondary characters. He can also tell a bit of their history to help the reader understand the context of their actions. Some secrets can also be revealed. But even then, not much details are given.
If used well, this can provide a significant boost to the tension buildup.
When for instance the main character is shown as being unopposed in all his actions, the reader can’t help but wonder what will happen when another little known character shows up and opposes him.
Watch the below video on how to create tension in a story.
3. Allows zooming in and out from the main character
Another occasion where third person limited would be great is where as a writer, you’re expecting to shift from the main character and to other things like the bigger picture. You can also shift the focus to other characters to show how the story is going on outside the immediate environment of the character himself.
This can provide big benefits when building the plot. When you show the reader the other side of the story, you help him understand it better.
In some cases, this deviation from the primary character and showing of more details helps the reader anticipate what is to come later.
If the bigger picture shows that things are headed in a certain direction, the reader can start expecting certain outcomes.
But since there aren’t much details given for 100% assurance, there still remains some suspense and the story gets sweeter.
4. Enables control of distance between character and reader
This is a great benefit of using the third person limited POV. You’re well able to shift from who the character is, to what he’s doing or what’s going on around him.
Of course the main focus is still on him but when you start talking about the activities surrounding him, then you create some distance between the character and the reader.
This proximity is used to change the focus of the story during scenes where you want the reader to see another aspect of the character.
Take for instance, an action scene in a novel.
All along, you may have put in considerable effort to build your main character and the reader identifies with him. You’ve described his thoughts and emotional responses, thus creating a clear picture of his gentleness. Maybe somewhere you made a mention of him being courageous.
So, one evening while on his way home, the protagonist is attacked by a thief seeking to rob him of his bag which contains work documents and money.
How do you describe what happens?
You can choose to show only a struggle that is characterized by resistance to the robber. This will be more on the side of an emotional response and will keep the reader close to the character.
On the other hand, you can choose to describe a courageous fight which ends up with the robber fleeing. This will have to detach from the emotions and focus on the fighting action.
Here you’ll mention the exchange of blows, kicks etc and provide for a fast-paced narrative which takes the reader aback—and probably the robber too—as he didn’t expect the courageous fight.
Disadvantages of using the third person limited POV
As much as there are good things which can come from using the third person limited point of view, it’s not all gold. It has its limitations too.
Here are some disadvantages of using the third person limited.
1. Weakens the character’s voice
The third person limited is great at focusing the attention on a single character and building the character significantly. All the same, the story is still told in the voice and tone of the narrator; not the character himself.
This can be clearly seen when the writer shows the possibility of a future event yet the reader was expecting a different outcome. Or, according to the story, it seems more normal for the character to think or feel differently from what the narrator says.
For example, the character could be coming back home from a long and tiring journey. His wife and kids are all eager to welcome him and listen to him describe his journey and the adventure it provided.
The family is therefore shocked when the character gets home and after greeting his family, heads for the bedroom. From the narrator’s point of view, you could say that the man was not very eager to be back home.
But from the description of the journey and the challenges it came with, it could be possible that the character was simply too tired and opted to sleep a bit to regain some strength.
With the narrator’s voice being above the character’s, the character ends up being described in a way that may not have made much sense to the reader.
2. Limits the reader’s knowledge of other characters
The third person limited does a good job in making any one character known to the reader. However, what it doesn’t do well at all is making more than the POV character known to the reader.
Any reader of a story written in third person limited will be less knowledgeable about the other aspects of the story. They may not have a big problem with that if the story is well told, but generally speaking, they won’t relate much with other characters, events which weren’t major to the POV character or other parts of the world in which the story is set.
This in itself doesn’t mean that the story would be boring or that writing in this POV will prevent you from being a successful author. Your skills will go a long way in determining the kind of material you write and that’s what ultimately counts.
As for the point of view you choose, ensuring that you don’t get things mixed up will be enough.
3. Can be clumsy when describing an active scene
If you write in the third person limited and get to an active scene, e.g. one where several people are discussing something, you might lose the reader on who is saying what. This is because the writing is mostly done using pronouns, as long as you’ve introduced the character who’s the main point of view.
Now imagine a situation where you have six characters, three male and three female, discussing a topic. As you move between one character to another, using the pronouns “he” and “she” could make it difficult to know who exactly is speaking at the moment.
The reader will be required to pay very close attention as he reads the many “he”s and “she”s to avoid getting lost in the pronouns.
THIRD PERSON OMNISCIENT POINT OF VIEW
The third person omniscient point of view is quite the opposite of the third person limited. This is because the narrator knows, literally, everything about every character. This is the essence of being omniscient.
The word omniscient means “all-knowing.” The third person omniscient therefore can relate the story from the perspective of any character. The narrator knows the thoughts, feelings and even the past of all characters. He even knows things the characters themselves might not know about themselves.
This is why it’s called “God’s eye view.”
Just like in the case of the third person limited, there are instances where this POV is best to use and others where it doesn’t really shine. To be able to choose when to use this, it’s important to know its advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages of using the third person omniscient POV
The third person omniscient has some real strengths which can come in handy when you have the situations requiring them. The aspect of knowing everything can make the story very rich.
Here are some of the good things about this POV.
1. Enables the reader to know everything
Just as the name implies, using the third person omniscient POV can help in making the reader understand the bigger picture of the story. This is important especially when the plot is complex. All the same, it will require considerable skill to successfully pull it off.
Instead of the limitation of focusing a lot on the main character, the omniscient voice can switch between characters. This gives the reader some sort of panoramic view of the whole stage on which the story is being set.
This can help the reader appreciate the writer’s creativity as well as understand how one action leads to another. Or why one character’s action caused another character to respond in an unexpected manner.
2. Helps build tension when the reader knows something a character doesn’t
Any story that is well told will have tension. Without the suspense created by writers, novels would not be what they are today. And whereas there are authors skilled in building tension, the third person omniscient POV can help build it further.
With the reader knowing everything, it can be interesting to anticipate the reaction of the character who is about to face a situation he’s not aware of.
For example, a character may have been abducted and locked up in a room. He manages to untie his hands and since he overheard his captors say they’re going to the forest to get some firewood, he decides to escape. The reader might know that the house is always under guard but the character doesn’t. So in escaping, the character is shocked to find a guard at the front door.
You can also let the reader know something which the character doesn’t know about themselves. This can play out well if the character is trying to achieve something but the personal challenge which he’s yet to know about keeps holding him back. The frustration can be easily shared with the reader.
3. Provides for quick switching between different strands of the whole story
With an omniscient point of view, there will definitely be more than one perspective to the story. You cannot focus solely on one character, even though you may have a definite protagonist.
This flexibility can provide you with a lot of room to switch between different characters’ perspectives and build even more suspense.
Take for instance a murder investigation where three characters are all suspects. All of them act weirdly as they try not to look suspicious. The writer can take turns to reveal the thoughts of each character in great detail thus increasing the desire of the reader to see how the investigative officer will pin down the real suspect.
4. Doesn’t relay backstory through a character’s lens
With the third person omniscient POV, the backstory which is told can have some level of objectivity since it’s not filtered through any character’s lens. This is because the narrator is taking an observer’s role. He’s talking about something which doesn’t affect him and as such, he has no emotional ties to it.
In such a case, the backstory can be clean and unbiased. The reader can take this backstory and use it to view the scene currently unfolding in the story.
This ability is unique to the third person omniscient because only he can know everyone else’s backstory so as to be able to tell it in the first place.4.
Disadvantages of using the third person omniscient POV
And while there are benefits to using the third person omniscient POV, there are also some pitfalls. Using this point of view can lead to some undesirable results if the writer doesn’t skillfully navigate through some potential problems.
Here are some to be on the look out for:
1. Prone to too much head-hopping
As good as having knowledge about everything is, seeking to share that knowledge can lead to confusion. In the attempt to narrate from the perspectives of different characters, even if just briefly revealing their thoughts, you can end up “head-hopping.”
Head-hopping is a situation where the narrator “hops” between different characters’ points of view. This happens when different perspectives are being told or when the narrator shifts from one strand of the story to another.
Although the ability to speak from multiple perspectives is an advantage, when this happens too often it can put off the reader due to the confusion it brings.
2. Creates less intimacy with reader
When a story is narrated from the point of view of different characters, it becomes difficult for the reader to connect with any character as he could have done if only one main perspective was used.
Moreover, for the many perspectives to work, all the different characters have to be sufficiently built. Although this creates a more robust story, the kind of intimacy the reader would have appreciated if the main focus was on one character, cannot be achieved.
This means that the reader will be less emotionally connected to the characters—including the protagonist—thus making the story less memorable.
3. Needs a lot of work in building the characters
And on that same note, to write from an omniscient POV will demand a lot of effort in building your characters. There is no way you’ll be able to switch between characters and tell their stories if you haven’t build them to a good extent.
Of course you don’t have to do it before you focus on them—you can perfectly do it at the point of focus. However, depending on how much you’re willing to focus on them, you may have to do quite some work to show the relevance of their perspective.
As a writer, it’s important that you take time to think of your intentions with the story before you start writing. In today’s world of writing, the most priced of all things is the emotional connection.
This is what makes readers identify with an author since they feel the connection with the characters in the story.
Consider the above advantages and disadvantages then pick one of these for your story and maximize on the benefits.
Here are some tips to help you write better fiction stories.
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