Handling third person narrative adroitly is the last post in our series on characters this year. And since we’re so close to the end of the year, we will wrap it up with a nice, neat little bow on top.
Who here likes to play God? Do you enjoy making your characters dance like a puppet on a string? Or do you agonize over every twist of the screw you make that ratchets the tension? If you answered yes to the puppeteer role, you probably like writing in the third-person omniscient point of view.
Third person: Omniscient vs. Limited
If you’ve been reading along with us this year, you’re likely at the end of Orson Scott Card’s seminal book Elements of Fiction Writing: Characters & Viewpoint. Card explains how omniscient third-person viewpoint is like seeing inside everyone’s heads. Your reader gets an insider’s view of everything that goes on inside your characters’ heads. As a writer using omniscient third person, you can show your readers every thought, memory, dream, and deep-seated desire, as well as any point in time, whether past or future.
Third-person limited viewpoint, however, gets inside one character’s head. You see what that character sees, only guessing at what’s in other characters’ minds. This viewpoint doesn’t prevent you from hopping into someone else’s head; it means you need to provide a clear division when you’re switching, such as a new chapter or an extra line space.
In third person omniscient, readers can see into the minds and motivations of each character, often switching between them in each paragraph. Your readers can know things that the characters don’t know themselves because you can portray what each character is thinking and feeling inside. The drawback is it keeps your readers at a certain remove from getting too deep into one single character.
You can still switch viewpoints in the third-person limited view, but it needs to be at a chapter break to help readers follow along. Consider a recent book you’ve read in third-person limited. You most likely read individual chapters in different characters’ viewpoints, or you saw a line space with three asterisks: * * *
Markers like this cue readers to imminent change, either time or location, but sometimes a viewpoint. You must be very careful to establish what is changing at the start of the next paragraph to keep your readers with you during the change. Say you’ve been writing from inside Jack’s head and are switching to Sarah’s point of view. You need to open the next section with Sarah’s name, location, and point in time to keep your readers grounded in what’s going on and what’s changed.
As Card says, "By changing viewpoint characters, a limited third-person narrator can get most of the same kind of narrative effects as an omniscient narrator." But, he points out, limited third-person narration requires a lot more to setting the scene than an omniscient narrator. When you’re omniscient, you can get into each character’s head immediately. With third-person limited, you need more time to set the stage. For example, you need to help your reader see into your character’s head more deeply from a limited viewpoint which takes time to develop. An omniscient narrator can reveal more about characters in less time.
Consider how hopping between characters’ heads can create a certain amount of distance between your readers and the characters. An omniscient narrator is constantly letting readers know who’s telling the story: it’s the narrator, not the characters, leaving readers on the outside looking in. To fully identify with characters, your readers need a more limited viewpoint that lets you get deeper into the characters’ psyche.
An omniscient viewpoint character shows the reader the story because he or she is looking back on the events. In contrast, a limited third-person gives you an intimate look through the character’s eyes. Even when written in past tense, limited third person feels more like the action is happening in the present.
Deciding on a point of view
It all depends on what you want your readers to feel. If you want readers emotionally involved with your main characters, limited third-person viewpoint is an excellent choice. However, if you want a certain distance to create some comedic relief, first-person or omniscient narrators let you make witty comments that draw attention to the narrator.
When you’re writing an epic that spans generations and great scores of time, omniscient viewpoint will be the most succinct. For stories where you’re relating an eyewitness account of something, first-person narration feels more factual. Consider, however, that most fiction written today is in limited third-person viewpoint because readers want to immerse themselves in your characters.
It’s also the easiest viewpoint for beginning writers to master.
But if you feel you can best tell your story through first-person or an omniscient narrator’s viewpoint, by all means, have at thee. It’s your story and only you can tell it.