What is third-person omniscient point of view?
We will discuss what a third-person omniscient point of view is in practice. Still, to understand this POV technique, you need to know what the word omniscient means. With these fancy-sounding words, we find the roots of omniscient in two Latin words. The first is omni, meaning ‘all’ or ‘universal,’ and the second Latin word is scire, meaning ‘to know.
With a third-person omniscient point of view, the author uses a narrator who knows everything about the story. The narrator has a ‘god’s eye view’ of the narrative. In third-person omniscient, the narrator can get into any character’s head and describe their thoughts and feelings. This kind of narrator also knows the events of the plot. The narrator can foreshadow, to the reader, events yet to come.
The narrator is the author, which means they have complete knowledge of the story and its characters. For this reason, these narrators will usually not be a character in the story and remain unnamed figure who retells the story from a distance. In most people’s minds, they will assume the narrator is the author.
Third-person omniscient point of view definition:
A form of narration, in fiction, where the narrator speaks with the author’s voice. The narrator has an all-knowing perspective and can relate details of every characters’ thoughts and feelings. The narrator may also hint at future events of the plot.
How to identify third person omniscient
- Identify the narrator
The first way to know that you’re reading a story told in third person omniscient is that the story is told in third person. A third-person perspective is when a narrator is a person retelling the events from outside the story. In other words, the narrator is not a character within the story. If the story was told through the eyes of a character, we call that first-person perspective.
- Determine how much the narrator knows
When identifying whether a story is told in third person omniscient, we have to ask ourselves, “how much does this narrator know?” Remember that omniscient means’ all-knowing,’ so your narrator knows everything about the story as the author does, but they may not tell you everything.
Omniscient narrators know what every character is thinking, feeling, and doing. These narrators also know what events happened before the story. The narrator may foreshadow events that have yet to occur in the story.
Another fact to note is that an omniscient narrator is usually an unnamed person and not a character in the story. This fact isn’t always, but it usually is the case when dealing with an omniscient narrator.
Characteristics of third-person omniscient
Let’s list a few of the characteristics of a third-person omniscient narrator.
- The narrator speaks in the voice of the author
- The speaker is not a character in the novel or story
- They are aware of all events- past, present, and future
- The narrator knows the thoughts, feelings, and actions of every character
- The speaker will also know secret events or things that are hidden from the characters
Third-person omniscient pronouns
It’s nice to have a list of clues when determining a story’s point of view, like the features we discussed above. However, one of the easiest ways to uncover a narrative point of view is to pay close attention to the speaker’s pronouns.
With that said, here is a list of pronouns used with a third-person point of view:
How to write third person omniscient
Here are a few tips to keep in mind if you’re writing your story in the third person omniscient point of view.
Give a perspective on multiple characters’ viewpoints.
This may go without saying, but one of the most powerful aspects of an omniscient point of view is that the author can explore the viewpoints of every character in the narrative. Whereas, in the first-person point of view, the writer is limited to the protagonist’s perspective.
Use this wide range of perspectives to give your reader a clearer view of the narrative. Often, authors writing in the third person will dedicate entire chapters to a single character’s point of view. Take, for instance, the Fire and Ice series.
An interesting trick is to visit the same plot event multiple times but through different characters’ eyes. Author’s use this technique to create conflict as other characters see an event from a different point of view, literally and figuratively.
Sometimes characters can see an event differently, especially if the author employs the Rashomon Effect. Don’t know what that is? Read more about the Rashomon Effect here.
Head-hopping is the other side of the coin when dealing with multiple points of view. Head-hopping is a mistake a writer can make that creates confusion for readers. Head-hopping is when a writer shifts from one character’s perspective to another’s without signaling to the reader that a switch has happened. One way to avoid this is only to switch character perspectives at a scene break. A new scene will signal to the reader that we could be with a new character.
If you really want to avoid head-hopping, you can wait until chapter breaks to switch character perspectives (provided you’re writing a novel). This technique is how many authors break up chapters, like in the earlier example, A Song of Ice and Fire. In the first novel, A Game of Thrones, author George R.R. Martin switches perspectives between each chapter. He names the chapters with the name of the point of view character.
This technique wasn’t invented by Martin and is relatively common, so feel free to use it yourself. It’s beneficial to break up chapters by character POV if you’re writing a story with a large cast of characters, like what you find in epic fantasy.
Add background information (that the characters don’t know)
Remember that an omniscient narrator knows everything there is to know about a story. Use this to add context to your story that a typical character wouldn’t know. The narrator can step into the story to provide a reader with the history of the world your characters inhabit or the unwritten rules of a fictional culture. The reader never has to stop and ask, “how does this person know this?” because the narrator is the author.
Omniscient narrators know what is coming in a story, so use this to your advantage. Clue your reader into coming plot points, like a disastrous event for your hero. You don’t have to tell your reader what is going to happen, just that something will happen. This foreshadowing will create a narrative conflict.
Create dramatic irony
Dramatic irony is when your readers know something the characters do not. In visual storytelling, like a film or tv show, this form of irony is easy to accomplish. The camera will show the audience something the characters can see, like the gun strapped to the underside of a desktop or the killer on the other side of the door.
However, dramatic irony can be a bit harder to accomplish in writing, and you’ll need to use the third-person omniscient narrator for it. You need a narrator who can tell the reader when a character’s hand moves toward that hidden firearm. And it goes without saying that dramatic irony creates tension for your reader.
Find your voice
When it comes to third-person omniscient narration, the author is the narrator. That means you get to develop your unique voice as an author. If you plan on writing a series of books, your voice will be one of the throughlines for your reader. This narration is a way for your readers to grow familiar with you, and it’s an opportunity for you to build a relationship with readers. This relationship may be one-sided, but it won’t feel that way for your reader.
Third-person omniscient vs. third person limited
So, the third-person point of view is a little more complicated for the first and second-person points of view. There are three versions of this perspective with the third-person- omniscient, limited, and objective. Since we’re talking about third-person omniscient, we’ll describe how it’s different from the other two forms of third-person POV.
The difference between third-person omniscient and third-person limited is that the latter is limited to a single character. Omniscient POV has access to the thoughts and feelings of all characters, as we’ve already discussed. But, with a limited POV, the narrator is (you guessed it) limited to the perspective of a single character, or maybe one or two characters.
Third-person limited perspective has more in common with first-person perspective since the two are both limited to the viewpoint of a single character. The difference is with third person limited; we have a narrator who is not a character but describes a single character’s perspective.
Third-person omniscient vs. third-person objective
Now we get to the strangest, maybe least used POV- third person objective. This POV is the opposite of third-person omniscient. The narrator does not have access to the thoughts and feelings of any character.
The narrator is like a journalist’s account of real-world events in a third-person objective perspective. The audience is only told about the action of a story, and the effect is that you get a pretty bare-bones account. The exciting thing about this POV is that it asks the reader to do a lot of work when it comes to determining motivations and the characters’ inner lives. That fact may be why we don’t see this perspective very often.
When to use third-person omniscient
As a writer, you can use the third person omniscient for pretty much any story. Still, it’s especially well-suited for narratives of grand scale. You’ll notice that many fantasy stories, like A Game of Thrones, use a third-person omniscient perspective. These stories have extensive casts of characters, and each character impacts the plot.
So, use third-person omniscient narration whenever you like, especially if you’re writing a story with a large cast of characters and many character arcs.
Third-person omniscient examples
Now that we’ve learned all the ins and outs of the third-person omniscient point of view let’s take a look at this perspective in action.
Let’s start with a quote from Jane Austen, an author known for her use of third-person POV. Here’s an example from the opening lines of Austen’s novel Pride & Prejudice:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice
Notice that we don’t begin the story with the minds of any of the main characters. Instead, the reader is treated to an insight from Austen in the guise of the novel’s ever-present narrator.
And here is another example from Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”Douglas Adams, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
In this example, not only does the narrator feel us in on the general beliefs of humanity, but he is keenly aware of the opinions of dolphins as well.
That’s all I have to say about third-person omniscient POV, but if you have any questions, leave those in the comments, and I’ll get back to you! Or, if you want to continue reading about point of view, check out this article I wrote about the most daring point of view a fiction author can use:
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