Nathan Bransford, Author

Friday, November 2, 2012

Third Person Omniscient vs. Third Person Limited

So you've already decided that you want to write in third person instead of first person. Good work! That's half the battle.

Did you know there's another battle ahead? That is when you decide whether you're going to write in third person omniscient or third person limited.

This decision comes down to whether you want to head-jump.

Third person limited is, well, limited. The perspective is exclusively grounded to one character, unless you cheat a little. This means that you have all of the constraints of first person (all the reader sees is what the protagonist sees), but with just a tad more freedom. The reader will wonder a bit more precisely what that character is thinking and there's a bit more of an objective sensibility.

One of the classic third person limited narratives is the Harry Potter series, and Rowling strays from Harry's perspective in only a tiny few rare instances. She therefore had to bend over backwards to filter everything the reader needed to know about that world through Harry's view. If Harry can't see it? It doesn't happen for the reader.

I would wager my sorting hat that things like the invisibility cloak and the pensieve were extremely inventive ways around the narrative challenges posed by third person limited. There is no "offstage" for the reader to witness something that Harry can't see, so instead he has to be present to see he shouldn't  (invisibility cloak) and witnessing historical events for himself (pensieve).

Third person omniscient is, ostensibly, a bit more freeing, because you aren't limited to a single character's perspective. However, it's also very difficult because for a reader it's very disorienting to head-jump. If you're inside one character's head and then jump to the next character's head and then another, it's very difficult for the reader to place themselves in a scene. They just have whiplash.

There are two main approaches to third person omniscient to get around this. (I'm sure they have names, but I don't know them. Learned ignorance!)

The first approach is to have the narrator be a fully developed character or character-esque presence of their own. This is the From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler approach. There is a defined character who is narrating the action. And while the narrative may show a bit of what the characters are feeling, the narrative never truly jumps to far insider character's heads to show precisely what they're feeling.

The other third person omniscient approach is a limited head jump. This is what I did with Jacob Wonderbar. For the most part the narrative is told from Jacob's perspective, but when the kids are split up there are also scenes that are told from Sarah's and Dexter's perspectives.

There are even a few very (I hope) limited and seamless head jumps within scenes. In order to pull these off without the reader growing annoyed, I think of it kind of like a camera staying in place. There's a moment when Jacob goes inside to warm up some corndogs (natch), and the narrative stays with the kids outside. Since the perspective stays in place and the reader feels like they just didn't go inside with Jacob, hopefully it feels relatively seamless.

That's the key: Whatever perspective you choose, it has to be grounded. The reader has to know where they are in relation to the action so they can get their bearings and lose themselves in the story.

(Thanks to Brian Wood for the question that inspired this post.)

Art: Six Tuscan Poets by Giorgio Vasari


Josin L. McQuein said...

I disagree that HP is limited. It's straight up Omni, only with a tight focus on Harry.

The giveaways are things like the intro chapter when Harry's a baby and the narrator directly addresses the reader, or tell-tale phrases like "reveals" of what's behind a door ("They had no idea" kinds of situations.) It's not Harry's voice telling the story - it's a narrator.

Omni also isn't a head-hop. It's a single narrative voice telling the story from an outside perspective. Look at something like Lemony Snicket (not true Omni, but close, as it's a telling after-the-fact). No matter whose thoughts or actions are being detailed, it's always in Lemony's voice. He just happens to know what's going on inside everyone's head.

It's head-hopping that's jarring. As in, switching between voices so that the narrative is interrupted. If you pick Omni and stick with your narrator, that won't happen.

Nathan Bransford said...

Those are exceptions though - for the rest of it stays very tightly with Harry and happens mainly from Harry's perspective. I would argue that Lemony Snicket is the outside character-esque narrative that I talk about in the second half of the post.

Anonymous said...

I have never actually used third person omniscient and I've had a few books published over the years. The reason being is that I like getting into that one "head" with TPL. I feel that character more.

I have used TPL and switched from chapter to chapter using about three differnt POVs. But I always keep the chapter pure, with one POV, without head-hopping...just with a different character.

I'm curious about Omni, though. I'd like to try it. I agree with Josin's comment.

K. C. Blake said...

I never thought about that, how Rowling used a few magical items to help Harry see things he otherwise wouldn't. Very cool.

I used the limited POV in my book Vampires Rule, but I did cheat a bit. Jack gets the ability to touch a person and see a memory through their eyes. I only use it a few times, only when I absolutely had to, but readers have told me (for the most part) that they think it works.

Peter Dudley said...

I'm going to try second person omniscient. Head-hopping through various readers' thoughts sounds fun.

Julie Luek said...

This was a timely post. As I'm going through my MS the most common error I'm seeing is in POV. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience.

Hart Johnson said...

I agree Potter is 3rd person limited. She has a few chapters that are intentionally something else... and the Voldemort mind-meld thing... But that's all.

I think the decision depends on genre. I almost exclusively write books with some mystery to resolve, so limiting the viewpoint is important. I don't mind either an active narrator nor perspective changes at the scene break, but knowing what everybody in the room is thinking really bugs me.

D.G. Hudson said...

I like third person omniscient in my scifi, because of interwoven details.

I'll be using limited omniscient in another novel.

Sarah said...

I enjoy a true third person omniscient narration, but agree that it can be jarring when poorly done. Many older works have this type of narration, such as Little Women, for example, but it doesn't seem to be as popular today.

I think George R. R. Martin pulled it off brilliantly in the Game of Thrones books, especially the first few, by simply heading each chapter with the POV character's name. A newer author we does a good job with 3rd person omni is Anne Elisabeth Stengl, who uses it in her fairy tale series, The Tales of Goldstone Wood.

Interesting commentary about Rowling's inventions being used to supplement the limited narration.

JeffO said...

My current work is supposed to be 3 limited, with several different viewpoint characters. There are places where I find myself sliding from one head to another, which I don't want to do. I personally think omni is difficult to write well.

Naja Tau said...

Hmmm! I am determined to read all your books one of these days, Mr. Bransford... and then I will read for myself when you switch perspectives between the kids.

I remember years ago when my novel was a screenplay, some people who read it said they really wished they had a break from the main character all the time. So I decided to do a little bit of head jumping (which is not in creative writing vogue, but I did it anyway). So when I read J.K. Rowling head jumping and cloak-cheating in Harry Potter, I stopped feeling so insecure about it! :)

Bryan Russell said...

There's also the traditional omniscient narrator, the God's-eye view; it's a removed narrative voice, but one that knows everything about everyone. This narrator is very much a "tell" narrator, one that informs the reader of what the characters think and dream about. You aren't inside the character's head, but the narrator will relate the pertinent facts about what is happening in there.

Susie said...

Great post! It's interesting because one of the critiques of Harry Potter is how in the final book ("corrected" in the film), Hermione takes down a horcrux..but this important moment occurs "off-stage" because it was outside of Harry's perspective. I thought it was very consistent of Rowling, even if Hermione didn't really get her due. (You know when you bring up a HP example everyone will get sidetracked).

Peter Bernhardt said...

I find this to be an inaccurate description of third person limited vs. third person omniscient points of view. Head hopping is an entirely different issue.

You are not limited to one person's view when you use third person limited POV. All you do is write different chapters and/or scenes in different POVs. Witness the many thrillers (including my own) that do that.

Peter Bernhardt, Author: "The Stasi File," Quarter Finalist 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award; Amazon Kindle,; Sequel: "Kiss of the Shaman's Daughter."

Caleb said...

What if you have four main characters and each character has at least a few chapters written in his/her perspective? And they have different ways of seeing the same events, different voices, etc.? I've seen this done and I'm writing a book like this now. What's the term for it?

Nathan Bransford said...

I'm not sure what it's called, but that's basically what I did with Jacob Wonderbar.

Shelley Souza said...

The pensieve is clearly a mechanism for telling a large amount of backsory Rowling felt was important to the reader.

I don't think of omniscient third as head hopping or jumping, at all. As someone said at the beginning, it's when that happens that it's jarring. Omniscient doesn't mean jumping around from head to head, it means having a wide lens in which to take in everything and give the reader a full sense of the world and the characters in it.

I am undecided as to whether Harry Potter is written in limited third or omniscient. Just because he appears to be the main character from which most events are seen, that doesn't necessarily mean the point of view is limited.

My guess, being British and familiar with Rowling's style from British children's classics we both grew up with, would be to venture that Harry Potter leans more towards omniscient overall than adhering strictly to limited third.

The invisibility cloak does serve as a useful device for Harry to overhear conversations he would not otherwise be privy to but I don't think that's the reason Rowling came up with it. It's directly tied to the Three Hallows, which is the much bigger theme in the overall moral arc of the story.

For clear examples in contemporary literature, Philip Pullman is the master of omniscient.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I've become very aware of POV issues ever since realizing that my first novel frequently head-hopped between the two main characters within a scene. Since there were only two of them, I don't think it got too confusing, but it became much cleaner once I limited things to one POV per scene, and usually per chapter as well. My most recent book was a limited first-person, but the one before that (which I am currently revising) was a limited third where I made the frequent mistake of having one character project the other's emotions, rather than showing them well enough through that character's actions. In other words, she'd blink and he would interpret what that means in a manner that required way too much psychic ability. Don't do this! If you can't read your friends' minds, your protagonist probably can't either!

(Thankfully, I wrote that book ages ago, my beta held on to it forever, and I think I've grown enough as a writer to avoid that mistake now. It's pretty embarrassing to read.)

@Peter Dudley: I would love to see that pulled off!

@D.G. Hudson: Isn't "limited omniscient" a contradiction in terms? Maybe I just don't understand what you mean by it.

@Caleb: Assuming you only see the events from one perspective at a time, I think it'd still be third-person limited. It'd just be multiple TPL perspectives.

Caleb said...

Wow, I have something in common with Nathan Bransford. This is a sure sign that success is ahead! :o)

NovembersGuest said...

I've always been told it's very tricky to pull off omniscient view successfully and so I shy away--but, I also find that is the view I tend to lean toward naturally. I want to share the different thoughts in everyone's head.

I'm very curious about using a changing a point of view when someone leaves them room. I need something like that now but worry I'm not able to pull it off right.

D.G. Hudson said...

@Kristin - Make that third person omniscient. That will do.

brianw said...

Thanks for the post Nathan. By the way, there seems to be some arguments, but I totally agree that HP is 99% TPL. Rowling's use of the Pensieve, the invisibility cloak, and Harry's general disregard for rules were all great tools for world-building.

Another thing to consider if you are doing TPL and handling different characters for different chapters(like George R.R. Martin) is choosing the correct character for each scene. Some good advice I got was to choose the character that has the most at stake in a scene. Usually this is fairly cut and dry. If it isn't, then you probably can't choose wrong, or you could do the scene twice (like the middle grade novel Flipped).

Chemist Ken said...

HP was most definitely not limited third person. They were way too many times when we were in the narrator's head, hearing about things that Harry couldn't know or see, or being given hints about the future that no one in the story could know yet, or in a few instances, being given the opinion of the narrator. Certainly, Rowling tried to show us the world from Harry's view as much as she could (with notable exceptions), but she used the word "seemed" extensively to reveal information that Harry would have had to have been a mind reader to know.

In the case of HP, the argument about POV usually revolves around whether Rowling used third-person omniscient or universal omniscient. At best, HP could be considered third person limited with lots of POV mistakes.

M.R. Jordan said...

I think omniscient is very hard to do well. I personally have yet to succeed writing such story. Some authors deal with head jumping by limiting the POV to one character in each chapter.

Debra Feldman said...

With my MG novel, I started a draft first person. I just revised the ms to third person limited. For some reason the switch is proving difficult. Though, when I read third person LPV, it seems like the switch shouldn't be. I think ultimately third person omni might be great for my concept, but I am not sure it would be as acceptable for MG.

Jana McBurney-Lin said...

I love your line about "you just get whiplash." So true. Thanks for this post.

Renee DeAngelo said...

So glad you posted this. I'm doing third person omniscient for my NaNoWriMo story this year. Thanks for the helpful information.

Lia Keyes said...

I agree with Shelley Souza that for a text-book perfect example of omniscient POV, study Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series.

furrykef said...

I'm personally a believer in something called "free indirect speech". It's when you write in the third person, but you often express a person's thoughts directly, as if it were first person.

I know this makes no sense, so here's a random (if artificial and melodramatic) example:

Erica threw down her luggage. How dare Alex talk to her that way! Does he have even an inkling of what she's been going through?

So you can see that the POV is firmly Erica's even though it's third-person, making it a particular form of third-person limited.

I wonder if this style of writing might seem unprofessional. Normally I'm willing to compromise, but not on this. It's just the way I naturally write, and I've realized that trying to fight it would only lead to tears.

furrykef said...

To expand, the reason I've decided to embrace free indirect speech is because I found I was doing it without realizing in my novel, along with the more conventional method of expressing a character's thoughts through italics. I realized I was using two different methods of doing the same thing, which felt needlessly inconsistent. So I decided to pick the one that seems to liven up my writing more. I like the immediacy it provides; it helps convey the heat of the moment.

Of course, this style of writing is more common in first-person narratives, but then you can't head-jump, or at least not very often. I think the reader will get confused if he has to remember who "I" is at the moment. So free indirect speech seems to combine the benefits of the first and third persons.

Hersh Bhardwaj said...

Nathan- this is a really good post for all authors.
The very first comment raised the doubt I have in my mind-- HP's third-person omni Vs limited. I hope you are not trying to draw a definitive line between omni and limited and that's evident in HP's example. I would say it's more of HP's POV and the technique is 'focalization'. Here is the perfect example from that first comment--" Look at something like Lemony Snicket (not true Omni, but close, as it's a telling after-the-fact). No matter whose thoughts or actions are being detailed, it's always in Lemony's voice. He just happens to know what's going on inside everyone's head."

Anonymous said...

When you wrote Jacob, did you write that easily and freely? Did it just write naturally that way? Or did you have to think about it and intentionally write? (I guess this also is a 'did you outline, thoroughly plan thigns out etc.)

Kenneth Z said...

I've never really given it much consideration, but these days I mostly write a sort of third person omniscient. However, I also love writing first person stuff.

Anonymous said...

I think I'm getting confused :)
Have you ever read The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman? I'm thinking that is TPO...even though Dorfman is the main....but...can you tell me? Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

Also, I recently read this post:

Wondering your thoughts? It makes me wary of sharing any WIP ideas on any public site or with others.

Nathan Bransford said...


My thoughts are basically the same as they were in this post. I don't really think someone having a similar idea is necessarily an impediment to publication. It's all about the execution.

Aylin Alvarez said...

Okay, in class we have to relate everything to the overall meaning of the work. So I've been trying to figure it out, but how would the POV affect the overall meaning? I mean other than bringing the reader closer to the action, or distancing them, how does it affect what the author is trying to get through?

Anonymous said...

Not sure how most of you can consider HP third person has been said there are a few exceptions where the narrator tells a story other than Harry's. Not only are there more examples of this than I think you are realizing, but also if there is even one example then I believe it must be considered omniscient. I agree with Josin that it is Omni with a tight focus on Harry. This is a more accurate take in my opinion. Consider Maupassant's "The Necklace". Though the short story focuses virtually exclusively on the wife as the story's protagonist, the narrator does go into the thoughts of her husband for a brief instance. One tiny example, but an example all the same of the narrator's ability to speak for the thoughts of MORE THAN ONE character. I would argue that this is a small example of omni, not an exception of limited. It just makes more sense when you think about it...for me anyway.

Juan Rader Bas said...

My last novel, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, I wrote in first person. I'm currently working on my next book, the first in a 5 book series. It's YA, Asian-American fantasy. For the first book, of which I've written the first draft, I've used omni as a tool to introduce the main characters, plot lines, etc. For the following books, I am toying with switching to first person as the "hero" or "heroine" is slowly revealed and/or writing each book from a specific character's POV. If I stay with omni throughout, I am toying with the idea of revealing whose POV it is at the end of the last book.

Any suggestions, tips? Thanks all and happy writing.

Anonymous said...

I'm at the beginning stages of writing my first novel, and I really want to get the POV right. Mostly, I would like to be in the head of my MC, but there are some events that would have to push me into the heads of her husband & a security guard. I'm thinking TPO, would I be correct? Also, I thought if it was TPO, could I 'jump' at the beginning of a chapter, instead of going back & forth in one chapter? Again, I'm a baby when it comes to putting together a book so please be kind.

Actually, I would like to be in their heads, but I would mainly like to have that 'camera' feel.

The Pagan Den Ma said...

Thank you for this helpful article! I was trying to decide which way to go on my next story and I think it's going to need to be 3rd person omniscient. I think that choice will work better only because my two main characters are both telepathic. Keeping information from each other would be very difficult in some cases. Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

thanks geeky kid.

Nevaeh Gibson said...


Anonymous said...

Thanks for pointing out that objects provide for omniscience in a limited perspective. That's cool and I hadn't thought about it. With the invisibility cloak and pensieve.

Amelia said...

I'm nearly finished with my first novel, and this has been so helpful, thank you!

I've been writing in TPL, but now, at the end, my character has been knocked out cold, and the show must go on! Rather than have her wake up and get all the back story, I'm taking the reader into the present story using OPOV.

I can see I need to be careful with this by using grounding techniques so I don't head jump and give the reader whiplash. (The image conjured here is of a little monkey jumping around on the tops of all my characters' heads, from noggin to noggin--and yes, there is a little monkey in my book, his name is Zimi, but that is beside the point.)

Is this allowable, or does it just mark me as the amateur I am? (The POV switching, not the use of a monkey.)

Laura said...

I find it interesting you say at the start that deciding to write in 3rd person is half the battle - for me it was the opposite! I started writing in 3rd person and only recently became confident/comfortable enough to try 1st person.

Brilliant post though, it really helped clear up what I'm actually writing - I've written many a weird combo of 1st and 3rd person from various POV's and tenses without really knowing what they meant.

Sophie Dawson said...

I've read good and bad omni. I hope I've written good. It's my preferred POV.

Care needs to be taken to set up whose POV you are in and to have some sort of conflict within that scene. If there's no conflict specifically related to that character there's no reason to switch the POV.

Anonymous said...

interesting conversation. I found this article a good point as well.

Marva said...

Very interesting post. I'm part of a critique group and the topic came up with regards to a chapter submission for my novel. As a kid I grew up exposed to mostly British literature and writing Third person onmi. come naturally to me .. but sometimes I switch to specific POV's. Thanks for all the info here though it helps

faye lynn said...

When writing in the limited third person, I get confused on when I can say "her" verses "she".

I'm sure it is fine to say, "She took a deep breath as she stepped onto the curb."

But what about those involuntary movements. Can I say, "Her eyebrows pulled together," since she cannot see it but may feel it? Or would it be, "She felt her eyebrows pull together."

Could you please explain ad give examples of writing that goes out of the limited third person.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great post/blog. I am doing an MFA and my prof directed me to stay in LTP but could not clearly explain what it was or what options existed. As I have "hit a wall" in my storytelling, as someone here described it, I have had to create scenes to show the reader events that occur outside the protagonist's knowledge. Thus, when all the scenes tie in later in the work, the reader, even though they are "in the know" about certain things, experiences the protagonist's realization of what has occurred.
I don't know if this will be enough to drive the novel (it's my first), but I hope that, if I can keep my alternate scenes from going inside anyone's thoughts--if I use only action and dialog to paint the scene--I hope to maintain the connection between the reader and the protagonists as the stronger one.
Boy, who knew it could get so confusing?

K. Wodke said...

Great post. I recently co-authored a book that absolutely required some head-hopping. Lots of characters. Hopefully we pulled it off. We tried to stay with one main character's POV in each scene. But, it's a challenge.

Anonymous said...

Can I ask a serious question? I say that because I don't want to cone of as snarky.

Why does it matter what it's called? I'm just curious because it seems I read (and sometimes write) many instances where a book is written in one way for the majority of a book and then has a different method during times it's needed. I understand this can be done well and it can be done poorly. However, often times I don't even notice it until I've read a book times.

I'm just curious as to why there's the argument?

And as far as the whole "If there's any scene that's omni, the whole book is omni" thing- that doesn't even make sense. Just because a book has a few jokes, that doesn't make it a humor book. I think it's fair to say a work is close third with passages of omni. But why does it even matter if it works?

Kylopod said...

Reading through this discussion, I see a strong misconception being perpetuated by a lot of people: the idea that third-person limited means having an entire story (or an entire book) strictly from one viewpoint only; therefore any story told from multiple points of view is automatically "omniscient."

In actual fact, third-person limited means sticking to one viewpoint within a single scene. That's all. If one scene is told strictly from one character's point of view, and the next is told from another character's, that's third-person limited; only if the story goes into multiple characters' minds in the same scene does it constitute omniscient.

Contrary to what a previous commenter said, George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones books clearly and unambiguously use third-person limited narration. Different chapters are told from different characters' point of view, but the books never change viewpoints within a single chapter.

I agree with one point, though: the difference between omniscient and limited can be subtle. The Harry Potter books are an excellent example. The first chapter of the first book is obviously omniscient, starting in Vernon Dursley's head before switching, around mid-chapter, to the point of view of a cat who turns out to be Professor McGonagall in disguise. Most of the rest of the series is seen through Harry's eyes, but there are still moments here and there that hint at omniscience, as when the book notes that Harry forgot the dream he had the previous night. (A limited third-person narrator couldn't make that observation, because it says something the viewpoint character isn't consciously aware of.)

One of the best explanations I've ever seen of the difference between third-person limited and third-person omniscient (as well as first person) comes in the final chapters of Orson Scott Card's manual Characters and Viewpoint. It clears up a lot of the confusion people have over these distinctions, and also discusses the advantages and drawbacks to each.

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