Recently I was reading a story in which the author kept switching between 3rd person omniscient and 3rd person limited. It was a subtle but slightly unnerving. So, I figured I’d read about it and then write about it!
Third person omniscient
This one is pretty straightforward. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a narrator that is not one of the characters sees and hears all.
I would argue that most people who write genre fiction in 3rd person are using 3rd omniscient and I’ve seen this done a couple of ways: a bodiless narrator (an eye-in-the-sky sort of thing) that witnesses but doesn’t take part in the story (more objective POV with the occasional insight into a character’s motivation) or a narrator who sees and hears all—including thoughts, feelings, actions, and general tomfoolery.
The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica is written in 3rd omniscient. There are three main characters, but we get thoughts and feelings from all of them via an omniscient narrator. This style is good for books where you might need to do a lot of world building because it can be easier when you don’t have to filter everything through your POV character’s eyes.
Think of it this way: with 3rd person omniscient, your reader doesn’t really step into a character’s shoes so much as step into a character’s world.
Third person limited
This is, in my opinion, first person where the main character just refers to themselves in the 3rd person and the writer has more leeway to create some distance between the character’s mind and their actions or the events around them. With 3rd person limited, the reader is stuck in one person’s head. We, the reader(s), get that person’s thoughts and feelings but we also only see and hear what the character sees and hears.
The most famous contemporary example is probably the Harry Potter series. Notice that Harry somehow manages to learn of events that he was either never present for (via the memories of others) or he witnesses events that wouldn’t he shouldn’t be present for (via the invisibility cloak). The reader needs to know about these events for the story to make sense (can you imagine the end of Goblet of Fire without any back story on Barty Crouch Junior???) but Harry has to learn about these through the pensieve (because Dumbledore just telling him about it is boring). In 3rd omniscient, Dumbledore could describe it and the narrator could “imagine” it and visualize it for the reader (or you could still do it with magic, that’s cool, too).
A TV example of this that I watched recently is the show Veronica Mars. In early seasons, every scene in every episode–with rare exception–includes Veronica. Each scene begins with her and ends with her. Everything is from her point of view. This is relaxed as the series goes on, but TV and film are more flexible like that.
I’m not a huge fan of writing in 3rd person limited and I see a lot of authors trying to find a workaround by writing in multiple POVs, all in limited 3rd. I like reading that, as long as it’s done well.
I would love to know why they chose that style instead of 3rd omniscient–not because I think one is objectively better but because writing in 3rd at all is awkward for me so I’d like to learn from those who are more comfortable with it.
Sometimes, you can find an author who, for whatever reason, occasionally stops separating the jumps. The Throne of Glass series has some very nicely done 3rd limited POVs, each contained in their own chapter. But, in the 3rd book, sometimes the POV changes mid-chapter or even in the next paragraph, which can be confusing for the reader (let’s face it, though, I will love that series forever).
Those who know me may point and cry, “But, Jessica, you write in shifting first person POV! How are you not the first-person culprit of the very thing you have just described?”
Because my POVs are all strictly contained in their own chapter and I have limited myself to ONLY two characters telling the story. Not three, not four, not however many I wish (especially if I get a book deal, which would be sooooooooooooooooo sweet). Two. In every book in this series, whatever I’ll call it, there will be a maximum of TWO POV characters.
That is how I roll. It’s certainly not the only way. But it’s my way. And I’ll elaborate for Monday’s post.