Third person omniscient point of view (POV) gives the writer a lot of freedom within the story. It's a godlike viewpoint that can relay information to the reader in more ways than any other commonly used POV.
For many writers, this POV is attractive, especially if they're writing a book with lots of major characters. It has been used to great effect by many bestselling authors. And although it seems to be falling slightly out of favor these days, it's still a POV you should learn about. So let's dive into third person omniscient POV!
- What 3rd person omniscient POV is
- Examples of 3rd person omniscient
- Benefits and drawbacks of using 3rd person omniscient
- Tips for writing in 3rd person omniscient
Table of contents
- What is Third Person Omniscient?
- Examples of Third Person Omniscient Point of View
- Pros and Cons of Using Third Person Omniscient POV in Fiction
- Tips for Writing in Third Person Omniscient POV
What is Third Person Omniscient?
In third person omniscient, the narrator acts as an all-seeing eye. It's not limited to one character's POV, which opens up a lot of possibilities, but can also limit intimacy between the reader and characters.
The omniscient narrator can start a scene by describing the weather and landscape, then shift to a character in a windowless room, describing them and telling the reader what they're thinking about. Third person POV is characterized by the use of names and “he,” “she,” “they,” and “them.”
The omniscient narrator isn't hampered by time or distance, either. It knows all. So it can hint at things to come, even though there's no way any of the characters could know what lies ahead.
You can often tell an omniscient narrator by the use of lines like: “He had no way of knowing that things were about to get much worse.” Or: “Waiting for her around the corner was the killer, looking for his tenth victim.” This is known as dramatic irony, and it’s used in many third person omniscient stories.
Any time the narrator shares some information that the characters couldn't know, it's a good bet you're dealing with a third person omniscient POV. Even if these little asides don't happen very often in the book.
But to understand third person omniscient, we have to understand other third person points of view, as well.
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Third Person Limited
Third person limited point of view is one in which the narrator is limited to one single character at a time. The narrator still refers to the viewpoint character using their name and “he,” or “she,” as opposed to the first person “I.” But the third person limited narrator can't know or share anything that the viewpoint character doesn't know or see.
(Tip: This POV is often called third person limited omniscient or simply limited omniscient.)
Some authors stick with the same viewpoint character throughout the book, while others have more than one viewpoint character. They may switch between the characters using scene breaks or in different chapters. Writing third person limited with multiple viewpoint characters is often called third person multiple.
Third Person Objective
Third person objective is another point of view that can help distinguish third omniscient. In objective, the narrator can only share things in the physical space. It can't see into any character's mind. It's helpful to think of this POV as that of a camera, recording the scene. The camera can only show the characters' inner thoughts through their actions and spoken words.
Examples of Third Person Omniscient Point of View
Let's explore some well-known examples of third person omniscient narration. Chances are, you've read several books written in this POV. But it's important to keep in mind the small differences between other third person POVs, given it can sometimes take multiple chapters to determine the true POV of a story.
“Just because it's a mild night doesn't mean that dark forces aren't abroad. They're abroad all the time. They're everywhere.
They always are. That's the whole point.
Two of them lurked in the ruined graveyard. Two shadowy figures, one hunched and squat, the other lean and menacing, both of them Olympic-grade lurkers. If Bruce Springsteen had ever recorded ‘Born to Lurk,' these two would have been on the album cover. They had been lurking in the fog for an hour now, but they had been pacing themselves and could lurk for the rest of the night if necessary, with still enough sullen menace left for a final burst of lurking around dawn.”–Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Third person omniscient is often used in comedy stories, and there's no better example than Good Omens. The narrator has a strong, sarcastic voice and is able to comment freely on things, adding flair and humor to the story. Plus, it gives the reader access to the thoughts of every main character at some point in the book.
“The tires gave a slight bump. They were on the bridge, the boy knew. He cut his speed slightly as the bridge's concrete sides narrowed, and swerved to avoid a hubcap that must have fallen off one of the cars that had just raced to the Inferno side. The thing that both he and the girl had just seen still clawed at their minds, and the girl looked back with tears in her eyes and her brother's name on her lips.
Almost across, the boy thought. We're gonna make it! We're gonna-
Something rose up from the smoke directly in front of them.”–Stinger, by Robert McCammon
One of the hallmarks of third person omniscient is the ability to know multiple characters' thoughts, even in the same scene. And in Stinger, we get an excellent example of this. If the POV character was only the boy, we wouldn't know that terror clawed at the girl's mind, or that she had her brother's name on her lips. At least not in the same scene. But in omniscient, we get these glimpses into both their heads.
“They sat on the Terrace and many of the fishermen made fun of the old man and he was not angry. Others, of the older fishermen, looked at him and were sad. But they did not show it and they spoke politely about the current and the depths they had drifted their lines at and the steady good weather and of what they had seen.”–The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
In the first couple of pages of Hemingway's masterpiece, the narrator brings the reader not just inside the minds of the boy and the old man, but also other fishermen, as well. If the book wasn't written in this particular third person perspective, we wouldn't be able to see how the other minor characters saw the man. At least, not in quick little bits of information. Hemingway would’ve had to find another, more roundabout way to share the same info with the reader.
Pros and Cons of Using Third Person Omniscient POV in Fiction
The things that make a third person omniscient narrator so attractive are the same things that can be drawbacks. It takes skill and balance to make this POV work. And it's always good to consider the following pros and cons as you decide if this POV is right for your story.
Pro: It Allows the Writer Plenty of Freedom
Artistic freedom is a wonderful thing. And if you want to write a sprawling epic with a dozen main characters, third person omniscient could be the way to go. This POV gives you the freedom to roam with your narrative, expanding or contracting the scenes as you see fit. It can allow you to develop multiple characters instead of being limited to one or two main characters in the book.
Pro: The Narrator Can be a Big Part of the Story
All well-written third person omniscient books have one thing in common: a strong narrative voice. While the narrator isn't a character within the story, the strong voice allows the narrator to be a big part of the story, nonetheless. This can be a lot of fun, allowing you to create a unique personality for the third person omniscient narrator. A strong narrative voice is also important for avoiding head-hopping. (More on that later).
Pro: It Can Help Create Tension and Intrigue
When the narrator knows more than the characters, it can provide ample opportunity for creating tension and intrigue. By hinting at things to come, or drawing out tense scenes by showing the reader the danger lurking around the corner, you can bring the tension to a crescendo to keep the reader turning the pages.
Con: It Can Lead to Telling Over Showing
One of the oft-quoted “rules” for writing is: “Show, don't tell.” And if you're not careful, you can do a lot more telling than showing with a third person omniscient narrator. Since you can simply tell the reader how a character is feeling, it's easy to get into the habit of doing just that. But to create a textured and enthralling story, you'll need to do more showing. This means conveying emotions and desires through actions and dialogue instead of a line about what the character wants or feels.
Con: It Can Be Easy to “Head Hop”
“Head-hopping” is one of those literary sins that editors seem to go on and on about. If you're not familiar, head-hopping is when you switch POV characters in the same scene. This can mean telling how each character is feeling within the same scene. But, as you've no doubt already noticed, the examples above do this very thing.
Unfortunately, there's no satisfactory answer on why many authors do this successfully while others avoid it like the plague. Essentially, if you're going to be hopping around between characters in one scene, make sure it's not confusing to the reader. One way to do this is by having a strong narrative voice that seems like a character in itself. This way, the reader sees everything through the narrator's eyes (so to speak), instead of being whipped back and forth between POV characters without a buffer in between.
Con: Limits Can Breed Creativity
While unfettered freedom in your writing can work well for some stories, it's not great for every tale. Working within strict limits can actually help you be more creative with your writing. So while it may be fun to experiment with third person omniscient POV, third person limited or objective may work just as well or better by creating firm guidelines for your story.
Tips for Writing in Third Person Omniscient POV
These tips can help you stay on track if you decide to write your story with a third person omniscient narrator.
Familiarize Yourself With Other POVs
Before deciding on this third person POV, make sure you know all about the other viable points of view out there:
- First Person – Writing from the POV of one character, using 1st person pronouns like “I” and “me.”
- Second Person Point of View – The most common second person pronoun is “you.”
- Other Third Person POVs – Limited, Multiple, and Objective, as discussed above.
- Fourth Person Point of View – Told from the perspective of two or more people, using words like “us,” “we,” and “our.”
Unless you have a really good reason to write your story in second person or fourth person, stick to first or one of the third person POVs. Still, it’s good to know the mechanics of each of these points of view.
Check out our article on POVs for a closer look at these narrative perspectives.
Read Third Person Omniscient Books
Writing in third person omniscient POV can be a little difficult. It's a fine line to walk when you're trying to avoid head-hopping and over-telling. Luckily, some amazing authors have done this POV well. The following 3rd person omniscient books are worth studying:
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
- Dune by Frank Herbert
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Write Your Chapters Using Different POVs
The best way to determine the ideal POV for your story is to try more than one. Write a chapter using third person omniscient, then write a different version with third person limited omniscient or third person objective. Experiment with them, and see which one will work best for your story!
Limit Flashbacks and Digressions
It can be easy to go on a tangent in this POV. And it can definitely be entertaining for the reader. But try to limit flashbacks and digressions. Too many of them can slow the pace and cause readers to drift out of the story. Just like a story written in any other POV, keep things interesting and keep the story moving forward.
Remember What the Characters Know
Since the narrator is all-seeing in this POV, it's easy to forget that the characters aren't. Remember that the characters can't know each other's thoughts, even if the readers already do. Keeping this consistent can be difficult, but it's something an editing pass can easily handle!
This perspective is a lot of fun to write. And depending on who you talk to, it's a lot of fun to read. While third person omniscient seems to be falling out of favor with modern editors, there are still highly successful authors writing books with omniscient narrators.
Let your story dictate your POV. If this kind of third person POV will work best for your book, then don't be afraid to write it that way. Just keep in mind the tips above. And when in doubt, crack open one of the third person omniscient books from this article and see how it has been done successfully before.