Fequently, I have writing students who think they are writing omniscient point of view or think they want to write omniscient point of view. Most often, the point of view they have is really a kind of messed up third person limited or even the much-dreaded head-hopping. So how are you supposed to know when considering omniscient vs. third person point of view, which is which and what you can do? And whichever you choose, how do you do it in a way that works for your story and your reader? (Which is really all that matters, not some rule explained to you by some random blogger…)
First, let’s decide if you really want to write an omniscient narrator.
Omniscient vs. Third Person: Questions to help you choose.
- Why do you think you want an omniscient narrator?
- Is it that you want to show what multiple characters are thinking and doing?
- Is it that you want your narrator and story to free flow across time and space?
- Is it that you want to write in one voice and not have to tweak your narrator voice when changing to a different point of view character?
- Is it that you have a viewpoint that you want to relay no matter who the main character on the page/in that scene is?
- Is it that your theme or story is better told through the story of a group (town, country, movement, etc.) than the arc of a few individual characters?
- Is it for style? That you want the feel of a story being told to a reader rather than lived by the reader?
- Is it that you don’t really know what omniscient is, but thought it was just the thing to do?
- Have you checked other books in your genre? What point of view is most prevalent in your genre?
- Are you an experienced writer who has a firm grip on point of view — all types of point of view?
Omniscient vs. Third Person? Let’s look at your answers.
It’s true, you can show what multiple characters are thinking and doing with an omniscient narrator. You can also do this with a multiple person third person point of view. So, omniscient vs. third person? Either one works here.
It’s true that you can free flow across time and space with an omniscient narrator. An omniscient narrator can be anywhere and everywhere. But… do you really want to do that? It may sound like a good idea that would relieve a lot of barriers for you as the writer, but it is very difficult to pull off in a way that isn’t confusing to a reader. It is the rare novel, written by someone with significant skill that will pull this off. Omniscient vs. third person? Omniscient would win this one, but again… REALLY? Do you REALLY want to do this?
One voice? I think this throws writers off a lot. Often, writers don’t think of an omniscient narrator as being a real narrator. They just think they are writing and telling a story. But for omniscient point of view to be done well, the voice has to be consistent throughout. This means if you are writing a scene mainly about the little old lady who thinks she is still young and vital, the narrator can say she sees herself that way, but the narrator might see her completely differently. The narrator might describe her as old and pathetic, clinging to her youth. You have to make sure you do not slip into what a character thinks without letting us know we are hearing his thoughts. Any other descriptions, etc. will not come from him, they will come from the omniscient narrator. This sounds simple enough, but for most writers, it isn’t. They slip and start to become the character they are talking about instead of being the narrator who is talking about that character. It’s subtle but important to maintain this distinction.
The one voice means it has to always feel like the same (one) person is telling the story. If you want this and have the skill to do this, on the omniscient vs. third person decision, omniscient would win. (But again… is this what you want? And do you have the skill?)
The one viewpoint ties to one voice, but is subtly different. By one viewpoint I mean writing the story with one set of biases/opinions. You might choose an omniscient narrator who feels global warming is a fraud. This view wouldn’t change, even when this narrator was telling us about something that was happening in a scene that featured someone fighting against global warming. This global-warming-is-a-fraud lens would hold.
Think of this scene…. one where someone is protesting global warming.
Write one version from the point of view of someone in the protest, a believer in the cause.
Now, write the scene as someone watching this protest, observing what this protester is doing, but who does not believe in the cause.
See the difference?
So, omniscient vs. third person when wanting one consistent lens? I would just give this one to omniscient.
Is your story better told through the story of a group? Let’s say your story is really a story of finding your tribe to stand up against a big evil. You could tell this story through the story of one person or you could tell it more through the story of many individuals in a town who discovered their water was poisoned and joined together to take down the polluter. Which would be better for your story? If you don’t really want readers to connect with any one character and instead want them to connect more with the movement, theme, message, etc. then an omniscient narrator may be the better choice. Omniscient vs. third person? I think readers connect more with stories told through individual character arcs, but if that isn’t your story… then, okay… go with the omniscient.
What about style? Omniscient is a more telling style. It is a storyteller telling a story. Is that the feel you want? Of someone telling your reader a story instead of your reader living the story? Omniscient vs. third person? Uh, do I have to mention the old “show don’t tell” cliche? Still, want that feel and think it is right for your story? Then… yes, omniscient.
Did you just not know what omniscient point of view is? I hope this post is clearing that up some, but also check out these other posts here and here. After that… you tell me… omniscient or third person?
Okay… what about your readers? Omniscient is not as popular as it was 100 years ago. Will your readers appreciate it? Maybe they will… check to see how other books in your genre are written. Know your readers’ expectations… Omniscient vs. third person? You may still decide to give omniscient a try, but at least you will go in informed.
And finally… are you experienced enough to do this? Omniscient is, in my opinion, the hardest point of view to do well and the point of view with the most risks, even if you do it well. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try for an omniscient narrator if it fits your story, but make sure you practice by writing a few scenes from a variety of points of view so you really have each of them down before diving into a huge novel in omniscient point of view.
So, omniscient vs. third person point of view. Which do you choose and why?
Oh, and need more clarification? Post a question!
Lori Devoti is the author of paranormal romance, urban fantasy and young adult fiction. Under the name Rae Davies, she writes the USA Today Bestselling Dusty Deals Mystery series. Check out her books at www.LoriDevoti.com and RaeDavies.com. Looking for help with your writing? Lori also does developmental editing and critiques for other authors and publishers. See our Editorial Services page for contact information and pricing. Or check out Lori’s classes at the Continuing Studies Department of the University of Wisconsin.
I never recommend omniscient to my students because readers today want vicarious experience. They want to be dead center in a character’s head feeling what he is feeling, not watching a documentary with a droning narrator explaining things. And, as you said, it’s hard to do, and newer writers tend to explain too much and take the tension and mystery of what’s happening and why from the reader.
Exactly, and I’m not sure why so many think they want to use it. A holdover from all the classics we read in high school?
Although I have to admit, I have come to appreciate its purpose more as I work through the pros and cons with students. It’s still darn hard to do well though!