Friday, August 22, 2014

Third Person Omniscient : The Joys of Multi-Vision

All Seeing Eye in the Monastery of the Holy Cross, Jerusalem
Photo by Ze'ev Barkan, via Flickr
I’ve always loved adventure fiction. As a child, I read and re-read novels like Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, the works of Raphael Sabatini, and C. S. Forrester’s Hornblower chronicles. Adventure novels like these feature (a) multiple point-of-view characters; (b) parallel events taking place in multiple locations; and (c) complex action set-pieces: hair-breadth escapes, elaborate ruses, natural disasters, and fight sequences—everything from a one-on-one street brawl to a full-scale clash between rival armies.

When I started writing (at the age of 10), I instinctively followed my favorite models, not only in terms of content and structure, but also in terms of writing technique. It wasn’t until I got to high school that I discovered I was using Third Person Omniscient narration.

The term “omniscient” comes to us from the Latin omnis (all) + scire (to know). In Third Person Omniscient narration, the “omniscient” agent is the author who has a God’s eye view of his/her sub-creation in all its aspects. From this pinnacle of knowledge, he/she selectively distributes the narrative amongst a range of different characters.

There are a number of advantages to using this technique. For one thing, it enables the author to expand the narrative framework to include a widely-diversified—sometimes far-flung—set of locations. This tactic lends scope to the story, giving the reader the sense that he/she has stepped into a larger world.

A second advantage has to do with stage-management. Shifting the angle of vision around enables the writer to juggle several parallel plot lines with relative ease. It also enables him/her to play around with competing thematics: what one character perceives as good may be anathema to another. (To cite a topical example: with the Scottish independence referendum pending, it’s a matter of perspective whether you regard Robert the Bruce as a national hero or a filthy traitor.)

A third advantage has to do with keeping a sinister and provocative distance between your principle villain and the rest of the cast. It enhances his/her mystique if readers only ever get to see him/her through the eye of his/her henchmen, lackeys, prisoners, and discarded lovers. There’s delicious scope to crank up the suspense by making information available to your reader which is not shared by your protagonists. Having watched the villain set a Cunning Trap, we’re powerless to warn the hero against blundering into it.

Best of all, using multiple point-of-view characters allows the writer to imitate aspects of cinematic technique. This is especially effective when you’re orchestrating complex action sequences. If your novel climaxes with a naval battle, using Third Person Omniscient enables the reader to follow the action from several angles at once. One minute, we’re surveying the field of combat through the eyes of the admiral in charge of the fleet. The next minute, we’re at one with a member of an individual gun crew awaiting the order to open fire on the enemy.

All of which explains why Third Person Omniscient remains my favorite narrative mode.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


  1. Fascinating post, and all the reasons why omniscient is my least favorite POV. Bouncing around pulls me out of the story, and as a mystery purist, I don't want to know anything the protagonist doesn't know.

    I'm not against multiple points of view, but I like them deep.

    Something for everyone, which is a good thing.

    1. That's exactly how I feel, Terry. I love reading and writing books from a single point of view, because it feels very intense to me - I can get totally immersed if it's done well.

  2. I admit I've gotten so used to first person and third person close up that reading omniscient takes me a while to get in the groove. I enjoy it if done well. But, head hopping and choppy POV switches is one of the top reasons I'll quit reading.

  3. It's remarkably telling that the books you mention are almost or over a hundred years old.

    Narrative methods have changed over the years, and readers' expectations have, too. They want immediacy and deep immersion into character viewpoint, and omniscient offers neither of those things.

    One of the few genres where omniscient is found is some epic fantasy which has a tone of a great story retold although even that is disappearing.

    I can't think of a faster way to bore and alienate modern readers than to use omniscient.

    And,for what is worth, one of my academic interests is the history of narrative techniques, and I write and teach professionally.

    1. I agree, Marilynn. Although I've seen omniscient make a (probably unintentional) come-back due to film and TV, where the camera observes all characters but doesn't portray much in terms of viewpoint or thought process unless the actor can convey that skillfully. Untrained writers sometimes write without awareness of POV, because they are writing "cinematically" - a movie is unfolding in their minds and they write it down. Readers often don't know the difference - but I do think that readers engage more with deep POV; they just don't always know why they prefer one author over another.

  4. Third person multiple POV characters work for me. Like Terry, I prefer them to be deep, and omniscient seems more like an outsider looking in--what you see is what you get, but it's only skin deep. Perhaps I am misunderstanding the meaning of omniscient.

  5. I'm also a third person close with multiple POVs. I'm not sure I recall reading anything in omniscient. I'm a comparatively new writer. I found what works for me and have stuck to it. Now I'm curious. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  6. I think it's just too hard to write omniscient "properly" without being accused of head-hopping. Point-of-view switches mid-scene pull me out of a story immediately, and I'm very likely to stop reading and choose a different book.

  7. debby turner harrisAugust 27, 2014 at 2:31 AM

    What fun! I had no idea the subject of using Third Person Omniscient narrative technique would prove to be so controversial. (Apologies for the belated response: my house has been full of plumbers and carpenters since the day this post was released.)


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