Writing Basics

Point of view basics: Third person and omniscient POV in fiction

the front cover of Valley of the Bees
My first novel, Valley of the Bees, is written in third person point of view. The entire story is filtered closely through the perspective of the protagonist, Valley Bickerstaff.

So, we’ve discussed first and second person points of view in this series. Today, let’s talk third person and omniscient. In third person POV, a narrator tells a story about characters who are outside himself. From a logistical perspective, both the third person narrator and the omniscient narrator tell the story using, “he,” “she,” and “they.” The difference between these two POVs lies fully in the amount of narrative distance created by the writer.

Third person point of view can be as intimate or distant as you like. You can make it intimate – like first person – by picking one main character and filtering the entire story through his or her POV, using language that character would use and only showing what that character knows.

Using language that your POV character would not use creates distance. For example, a close personal third person point of view might tell the story of a distraught teenager through the teenager’s eyes, using language the teenager would use. To create distance, the writer of this story might instead use the language of a psychotherapist to describe what the teenager is going through. The psychotherapist would likely use less slang and more technical jargon to describe the teenager’s emotions and actions.

However, when you create so much distance that the narrator knows everything and speaks in a distinct and separate voice – there is an obvious narrator telling the story from the outside – it becomes omniscient.

With omniscient point of view, an all-knowing narrator sees everything and knows every character’s thoughts. Omniscient POV can be difficult to maintain without slipping into close third person. In fact, omniscient can be so difficult to decipher from third person, that some scholars differ on their opinions as to whether there is even a real difference between the two.

Omniscient POV is a 19th century technique that we don’t see a lot in contemporary literature. However, sometimes you need that all-knowing voice to explain things to the reader that the characters in the story can’t know. It’s important to understand point of view so you can choose the right POV for your particular story and maintain consistency throughout.

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