Perhaps one of the oldest forms of narrative, the third-person omniscient perspective was the standard point of view for most 19th-century novels, including works by Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens. And it certainly hasn't lost its status as a favored storytelling method. Philip Pullman made great use of the narrative approach in the His Dark Materials trilogy, Cormac McCarthy's fatalistic western Blood Meridian uses third-person omniscient point of view, and The Game of Thrones is likewise popular with its omniscient narrative approach. It's a particularly favorite narrative choice for Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres and was Tolkien's choice for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
What is third-person omniscient point of view?
In its simplest definition, third-person omniscient point of view takes an all-knowing approach to narrative technique, as the narrator knows or can access what any character is doing, thinking, or feeling, at any point of the story. The narrator also "knows" the end and can reveal pieces of information from this god-like perspective that limited narrators cannot reveal.
The beauty of third-person omniscient point of view is an element of objective reliability or truthfulness to the plot. The third-person omniscient narrator is as close to a reliable narrator as you can get. And while the narrator might certainly interject their own humor, thoughts, judgments or personality into the narration, the reader knows that the narrator has seen it from the bird's eye point of view and is, therefore, to be believed. This forms a sense of intimacy with the narrator but can have the negative effect of placing emotional distance between the characters and the reader.
What does third-person omniscient point of view look like?
The best way to understand third-person omniscient perspective is to look at how it has been used in classic literature of the past. For example, the following excerpt from William Golding's Lord of the Flies uses a third-person omniscient point of view:
Within the diamond haze of the beach something dark was fumbling along. Ralph saw it first and watched till the intentness of his gaze drew all eyes that way. Then the creature stepped from mirage on to clear sand, and they saw that the darkness was not all shadow but mostly clothing. The creature was a party of boys, marching approximately in step in two parallel lines and dressed in strangely eccentric clothing. Shorts, shirts, and different garments they carried in their hands; but each boy wore a square black cap with a silver badge on it. Their bodies, from throat to ankle, were hidden by black cloaks which bore a long silver cross on the left breast and each neck was finished off with a hambone frill. The heat of the tropics, the descent, the search for food, and now this sweaty march along the blazing beach had given them the complexions of newly washed plums. The boy who controlled them was dressed in the same way though his cap badge was golden. When his party was about ten yards from the platform he shouted an order and they halted, gasping, sweating, swaying in the fierce light. The boy himself came forward, vaulted on to the platform with his cloak flying, and peered into what to him was almost complete darkness.
A narrator of distinction
One great benefit to the third-person omniscient point of view is the way in which it allows a writer to juxtapose the narrator against the rest of the characters in the story. The narrator sits outside of it (the plot) but entertains running commentary on it all the same, allowing writers to create narrators who are historians of sorts—narrators who introduce the reader to an (often) epic world to which he or she holds the keys. The reader can learn as little or as much about the world as the narrator allows. This makes the persona of the narrator far more important than it is for narrators with limited viewpoints, but one that must be crafted carefully to avoid confusion for the reader.
Think of the third-person omniscient narrator as a director of a movie. The director will move from cinematic, sweeping vista shots to allowing the audience to hear intimate conversations between characters, while also casting a certain tone on the story—whether fatalistic, or optimistic, or romantic. The narrator plays a large role in setting the tone, and in such, plays a role that is as important (but different) than that of the characters.
It is important to keep in mind however that it's never a good idea to reveal the narrator or give him/her a name in third-person omniscient point of view. Let him or her be the all-seeing eye, but never known as part of the story or cast of characters.
So 19th-century novels used it—does it work today?
Run an Internet search on all things third-person omniscient and you'll find multiple articles arguing against its effectiveness as a narrative viewpoint for modern readers. In fact, some "insiders" of the publishing industry will argue that publishers don't want to read manuscripts in this point of view because there are too many potential problems a writer can encounter with it. And there is some truth to the complications the perspective can cause in a story. However, despite the pros of using third-person omniscient—and of course, the parade of literary giants who have used it successfully in the past—it's important to keep in mind there are some cons to it, as well. Let's look at both for a moment.
- All history and backstory to be revealed in the story can happen naturally with a third-person omniscient narrator, without having to craft it into character dialogue or flashbacks.
- Dramatic irony.
- Writing in third-person omniscient perspective allows the narrator to reveal details to the reader that the characters don't know about (yet…or maybe ever). It's a great device for building tension in a story.
- Writing in third-person omniscient allows a writer to try on many different character voices and perspectives that would otherwise be limited in other points of view.
- Revealing too much, too soon. From his or her god-like vantage point, a third-person omniscient narrator tells the story as a historian would—someone who knows how the story will end and plays a role in guiding the reader toward the resolution. This makes it easy for the narrator to reveal too much too soon or provide too many foreshadowing moments that are forced upon the reader.
- Head hopping. Head hopping is the term used by writers to describe the process of describing a scene through multiple character points of view. While some writers have managed to pull it off successfully (the opening of Cider House Rules comes to mind), it can be disorienting for the reader and should be avoided unless the writer is highly skilled in keeping the flow of the scene going without confusion. This type of perspective shift can be one of the benefits to using third-person omniscient point of view but can be jarring if not done well.
- Overdoing asides and lectures. Admittedly, for every rule to writing there is a successful writer who will break that rule, but unless your talent is right up there with the likes of Tolkien, overdoing asides and lectures can hurt the flow of action. This diversion of your reader's attention is a gamble, so use it sparingly and only if it adds significantly to the interior or exterior worlds you are creating.
- Telling instead of showing. There's no doubt that good writing is that which shows instead of tells. With the added benefit of a third-person omniscient narrator comes the potential pitfall of telling your reader too much instead of showing it. It's great to have a god-like perspective to guide your readers through the plot, but just as revealing too much too soon can have a negative effect on the outcome, so can "telling" too much in the first place.
So, let's get to the point—should I use it?
One of a writer's most intense challenges with writing and publishing a story is determining point of view. Just as narrative style deeply affects the overall outcome of a story as a work of art, it also affects the creative process an author goes through to write it in the first place.
Simply put—the narrative style you choose could make or break the success of your story, so it's crucial to know which one is best to use for the type of story you want to tell, and how to use it correctly. That said, third-person omniscient point of view, while being one of the oldest forms of narrative style, is also the most technically difficult to pull off in many stories. There is great benefit to using an all-knowing narrator who can reveal the innermost thoughts and feelings of multiple characters in a story, but "with great power comes great responsibility" (as the saying goes).
How do you know if your story will work in this narrative style? First, consider whether your tale is more character driven or plot driven. If the former, third-person omniscient will be a less intimate approach as, for example, first-person narrative. If the later, and you are telling a story of epic worlds or cross-generational adventure, third-person omniscient might just work—but tread carefully. The masters of third-person omniscient like Dickens and Tolstoy are big shoes to fill.