So far, I’ve been talking about points of view where the author’s persona is close to a single character in the story. When the author’s persona is close to multiple characters and combines their experiences into a single narrative, then the point of view becomes omniscient third. It’s sometimes called “omniscient author” or “authorial narration.” In Steering the Craft, Ursula K. Le Guin labels it “involved author”. I learned this POV as omniscient third person, so that’s the term we’ll be using in this series.
In Le Guin’s words, the author’s persona is one “who knows what’s going on in all the different places the characters are at the same time, and what’s going on inside the characters, and what has happened, and what has to happen.” This also includes perceptions, analyses, and observations “that only the author could make.” If you encounter a description of a place when no one is currently there, the writer is dipping into omniscient third. Same for when the writer describes what a character looks like when they are alone (and not standing in front of a mirror).
Writing omniscient third is how writers can play god, exploring all perspectives at once. The end result also gives readers access to these god level insights into the characters and their situation. By combining all of these perspectives, the story can paint (or at least point to) the truth found between all of them. Maybe this is why it’s the oldest POV in fiction.
Nowadays, omniscient third is the least popular POV too. Le Guin points to the Victorian era and how writers of that time “abused” omniscient third. Common practices of addressing the reader directly, appealing to their emotions, or telling them how the story should be interpreted are what Le Guin is referring to. Readers generally don’t like being told Feel sorry for this person! when the writer hasn’t created a character worthy of sympathy. However, a writer who refrains from dictating to the reader can create something incredibly textured and deep.
Le Guin calls omniscient third the most complex and the most difficult POV to write. Personally, I disagree with the latter. The title of hardest POV to write goes to the one we’ll discuss next time. But I agree that omniscient third is the most complicated because of how much the writer must know before setting pen to paper.
The term “omniscient third” is a bit of a misnomer since you’re not aiming to replicate true omniscience. The end result you’re aiming for is a tapestry woven from multiple characters’ perspectives, rather than one character’s single thread. As the writer, you need to have a solid idea of what all the characters are thinking and feeling during the scene. Writing versions of the same scene from each character’s perspective is simply not practical, but making notes describing each character’s thoughts and emotions as fully as you need to will definitely help.
The most important thing to avoid when writing omniscient third is revealing everything at once. Doing so just kills the pacing and can slow the scene to a halt. The art of good omniscient third narration is choosing which moment to show from whose perspective. For each beat in the scene, ask who has the best view of what’s happening, who has the most interesting reaction, who would provide the most entertaining perspective, or who just makes the most sense to make the narrator for this bit. If a character knows something that you don’t want the reader to know, then avoid lingering too long in their head. Visiting it, however, will enable you to drop clues to the reader before the other characters catch on, thus setting up some delicious dramatic irony.
Because you’re jumping between different characters’ perspectives, you’ll need to include ways for you and the reader to track whose head you’re in when. Using the character’s names is the most obvious method. Leverage paragraph breaks as well to separate different moments written through different characters’ eyes. You can also apply the “no tags” strategies I describe in my post on dialogue.
Now a challenge for you. And some of you may have already guessed what it is. Open that scene you wrote for parts 2 and 3. Write a version of it in omniscient third. Narrate a portion of the scene from each of your character’s perspectives.
Share your scene, or a link to it, in the comments below. Have you ever read a story written in omniscient third? Have you read one that was published recently? Have you tried writing in it before this challenge? Do you think you’ll use it again now that you’ve tried your hand at it? Keep an eye out for our next post on the hardest POV – objective third.