Ninja Writers Academy: Third Person Vs. Omniscient POV

Ninja Writer Academy is a weekly series. Every Saturday morning, I post a lesson here. You can do the work, then come share it on our Facebook group. I’ll be on Facebook on Sunday for Office Hours so we can discuss the lesson, or anything else writing related. If you’d like to join the Academy and get an email on Saturday with a link to the lesson, plus notification when Office Hours start, Click Here.

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Ninja Writers Academy

Someone on the Facebook group asked for an Academy post about the difference between third person and the omniscient point of view. Since I’m in the middle of a revision on my work-in-progress from third person to omniscient, this seemed like a great time to do it.

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.

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 shouldn’t have asked. She looked at him like he’d lost his mind. Like he was doing something wrong, questioning her.

“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.” He didn’t need to do this. He’d had enough. If she wasn’t going to give him a straight answer to a straight question, then he’d stop asking.

And here’s the same scene in omniscient:

“What are you doing?” He shouldn’t have asked. She looked at him like he’d losst his mind. Like he was doing something wrong, questioning her. She was so angry, she felt it vibrating in her bones.

“What do you think I’m doing?” She wasn’t going to answer to him. He could go to hell for all she cared. He felt like he was in hell, so he was halfway there. 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.” Enough. He’d had enough. If she wasn’t going to give him a straight answer to a straight question, then he’d stop asking. Her hands relaxed in shocked reaction to his withdrawal. No. He was bluffing. He cared.

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

“What are you doing?” He shouldn’t have asked. She looked at him like he’d lost his mind. Like he was doing something wrong, questioning her.

“What do you think I’m doing?” Her fists tightened at her sides and he felt his own nails digging into his palms. He’d never wanted to hurt a woman before, never once in his life, but he found himself holding back from putting this one over his knee. Jesus, she pissed him off.

“I think you’re doing something stupid. Again.” He didn’t need to do this. He’d had enough. If she wasn’t going to give him a straight answer to a straight question, then he’d stop asking.

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. While it’s less immediate, there’s lots of room for reflection in an omniscient point of view. If you want to try omniscient, but want to draw the reader closer to the story and increase the immediacy, you can try omniscient present tense.

Here’s how present tense omniscient third person looks:

“What are you doing?” He shouldn’t have asked. She looks at him like he’s lost his mind. Like he is doing something wrong, questioning her. She is so angry, she feels it vibrating in her bones.

“What do you think I’m doing?” She isn’t going to answer to him. He can go to hell for all she cares. He feels like he is in hell, so he’s halfway there. They both tighten their fists at their sides, each of them holding back from lashing out physically. She wants to kick him in the balls. He wants to put her over his knee.

“I think you’re doing something stupid. Again.” Enough. He’s had enough. If she isn’t going to give him a straight answer to a straight question, then he’ll stop asking. Her hands relax in shock reaction to his withdrawal. No. He’s bluffing. He cares.

Your Turn

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

Try writing or revising a scene from your work in progress in third limited and third omniscient to get a feel for both. Give third omniscient present tense a try, too.

Come by Facebook and share your scene, both ways. Office hours are at noon PST tomorrow (Sunday.) See you there!

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If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link.

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