The Difference Between Third Person and Omniscient POV

The Difference Between Third Person and Omniscient POV

And how to decide which to use.

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First some definitions.

Third person point of view is a story told using the pronouns he, she, they.

If a story is told from only one point of view at a time and uses the he, she, they pronouns, it?s called Third Person Limited. There can be more than one point of view in this type of story, but generally the switch happens at a scene or chapter break.

When the story is centered on one character?s point of view, the reader only gets to know what that particular character needs.

If you think of point of view as a lens, Third Person Limited is a relatively narrow view. Tightly focused.

Omniscient point of view is also third person, but it?s told from the point of view of a narrator who knows what?s going on in the heads of multiple characters.

Often this comes across as the story being told from the author?s point of view.

Sometimes there?s an actual character, such as in The Book Thief, where the narrator is death.

The main difference between limited and omniscient third person is how much the narrator knows.

If the story is being told in limited third person, you have to stay tightly in that character?s head. You can?t share what any other characters are thinking or feeling, outside what they share with the POV character or what that character observes.

If the story is told in omniscient third person, you can share what the narrator, who is not a character in the story, knows?which can be everything. So, if you have two characters in a scene, the reader can know what?s going on in both of their heads as they interact and how each of them responds to the other.

You want to be careful, when you?re writing in the omniscient POV that you aren?t actually writing in third limited and just head hopping.

Head hopping means switching from one limited POV to another in the same scene, telling the story from first one character?s POV and then another?s, instead of from the POV of an omniscient narrator.

Here?s what head hopping in third limited looks like:

?What are you doing?? He knew he shouldn?t have asked. She looked at him like he?d lost his mind. Anger vibrated in her bones.

?What do you think I?m doing?? She hated the way he acted like she was doing something wrong, all the damned time. She wanted to lash out, kick him in the balls, something to wipe that look off his face.

?I think you?re doing something stupid. Again.?

Big problems, right? There?s so much back and forth between their points of view that it?s impossible to know who?s saying what.

And here?s the same scene in omniscient:

?What are you doing??

He must have lost his mind. Anger vibrated in her bones. ?What do you think I?m doing??

They both tightened their fists at their sides, each of them holding back from lashing out physically. She wanted to kick him in the balls. He wanted to put her over his knee.

?I think you?re doing something stupid. Again.?

In this scene, we get some internal thought from both characters, from a third person narrator who knows what?s going on in both of their heads.

And, here?s the same scene in limited third person with no head hopping:

?What are you doing??

He must have lost his mind. Anger vibrated in her bones. ?What do you think I?m doing??

Her fists tightened at her sides and his nails dug into his palms. She wanted to kick him in the balls.

?I think you?re doing something stupid. Again.?

And in this scene, we stay tightly in the female characters head and don?t know what the man is thinking, except that through what she observes.

Making a Choice

So, third person limited is closer. It?s more intimate. But it also, as the name suggests, is limiting.

The reader doesn?t get to know more than the character whose head the author is writing from does.

Depending on how close you keep the lens, and from what time in the future you?re telling the story, the story will probably feel more immediate in a limited point of view.

Omniscient is wider and it?s less intimate.

It?s told from much further away, so it can come off as distant. The reader, though, gets the benefit of knowing what the narrator wants to share about any character, even in the same scene.

Here?s my secret weapon for sticking with whatever your thing is.

Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She?s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.

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