Third-person omniscient is when somewhere other than a character in the book is telling the story. This outside narrator knows things the characters don't, can make comments about what's happening (or about to happen) or see inside the heads of other characters. That's the key to omniscient POV: it's the stuff the character doesn't know. Easy to say, right? But hearing that and understanding that are two different things, because a detached third limited can sound a lot like third omniscient, especially if it's not changing characters. So much so, that sometimes it's hard to know the difference.
Let's look at some examples:
From John Scalzi's The Android's Dream:
Harris Creek sat across from Lingo Tudena, the Kathungi Cultural Attache, and performed his role for the State Department. He delivered bad news.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Tudena," Creek said. "But I'm afraid we can't let your spouse on planet."
Tudena's vestigial shoulder wings, which had been fluttering excitedly in anticipation of his wife's visa, halted mid-flutter. "Begging pardon?" he said, through his vocoder.
"Your wife, Mr. Tudena," Creek said. "Her visa has been denied."
On its own, it's hard to tell exactly whether this is third limited or omniscient, because it really could go either way. It's clearly Creek's POV, and that's obvious in the full scene. But look at the line I bolded. This line refers to the emotional state and motivation of the other character in the scene. It's possible that Creek has such a great handle on alien behavior that he deduced this emotion from watching Tudena, but it's also possible this is an outside narrator who knows more about what's going on than the POV character in that scene.
After reading the entire novel (which I recommend by the way) this strikes me as more omniscient than third limited. Scalzi sticks to one POV per scene, but he also conveys a lot of additional information throughout the novel. Those details could be the POV's knowledge, but the narrative distance makes it feel more like an outside narrator filling in the blanks. The stinker of it all is only Scalzi knows for sure which one it really is. This is what makes this so hard sometimes.(It's also a good indicator of well-done omniscient)
So let's look at something that's totally third omniscient.
From P. Bosch’s, The Name of This Book is Secret
On the evidence of the items on her backpack, you might guess that Cass had led a very adventurous life. But you would be wrong. The truth is, up until the time this story begins, none of the disasters she predicted had befallen her. There’d been no earthquakes at school – none strong enough to shatter a window, anyway. The mildew in her mother’s shower turned out to be just that – not the killer mold Cass predicted. And that child spinning around on the grass did not have mad cow disease – he was just having a good time.It should be obvious that this is someone else telling this tale. Cass is one of the main characters (her and her friend Max-Ernest) and the narrator is an outside person who knows everything that has happened and has an opinion about it. The bolded sections also talk directly to the reader, as if the narrator knows he’s telling a story to someone. This is omniscient in the classic sense. An outside narrator telling a story and interjecting their opinions on the topic at hand.
(More on addressing the reader here)
Let's look at a few POV questions:
Can the tone and voice of the narrator resemble that of the character and trick you into thinking it’s from their perspective?
You can have an omniscient narrator who is fairly invisible and lets the voice of the characters come through (as in the Scalzi example), or you can have a narrator who has a strong voice and takes over for the main voice of the story (as in the Bosch example). If the POV is an omniscient third, with an invisible narrator, it can indeed feel very much like limited third (Scalzi again).
I'm a firm believer in never trying to trick your reader, as they can lose faith in you and stop reading, so I'd suggest not trying to do that. But it would really depend on what you wanted to accomplish by being sneaky. Fight Club is a good example of a narrator who isn’t what he seems. But that tricks not only the reader but the narrator as well, so it’s not like you’re trying to pull one over on your reader. That makes all the difference. Never play your reader for a fool.
Does the attitude of the narrator affect how obvious their presence will be?
In Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, Death is the narrator and he has quite the attitude. Ally Carter's Heist Society is quieter, but it's clear there's someone outside the story telling this tale.
From Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief:
First the colors.That’s attitude. Even though this seems like a first-person novel, the bulk of it is in third person as Death follows the life of Liesel, his book thief. But he pops in to share his thoughts from time to time. It’s a brilliantly done POV.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.
*** HERE IS A SMALL FACT ***
You are going to die.
I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.
Let’s look next at a quieter omniscient.
From Ally’s Carter’s Heist Society:
There had been a time when the girl responsible -- the very one who had lucked into that last-minute vacancy only a few months before -- would have had the decency to admit what she'd done and quietly taken her leave of the school. But unfortunately, that era, much like the headmaster's car, was finished.You can hear a third party here, but the judgment is softer, not so in your face. The narrator is clear, but they don’t have quite as much to say as Death or Bosch’s narrator.
Two days after the Porsche-Gate, as the students had taken to calling it, the girl in question had the nerve to sit in the hallway of the administration building beneath the black-and-white stare of three senators, two presidents, and a Supreme Court Justice, with her head held high, as if she'd done nothing wrong.
Can there be author intrusion in omniscient?
Opinions will vary on this one, but I say no. You have a narrator, and even if they know all, butting in your author's nose is bad same as in any other POV. But an invisible omniscient narrator can come across like author intrusion. In the Scalzi example, the bolded line could feel like a POV shift, and the asides for additional information could feel like infodumps. They key difference, however, is that omniscient information is information that is needed to understand the scene and it moves the story forward. It stays in character (whether a clear narrator or an invisible one), the voice is consistent, and the information relevant. It’s not explaining why/how/what so the reader “gets it.” Facts are stated as that narrator would state them and then moves on.
What is limited omniscient?
A limited POV is where you stick to one POV per scene. In a full omniscient, your narrator would head hop and show the thoughts and feelings of everyone in the room, and judge what they think and do. In limited omniscient, your narrator would follow one character only.
Why would you use omniscient to follow only one or two characters? Why not just use third limited?
Personal taste. The narrator is as much a character in both The Book Thief and The Name of This Book is Secret as the protagonists. They are people telling a story about other specific people. While Death may take a break from Liesel and visit some other characters in the novel, the focus is usually on her because she’s the book thief. She’s the one who catches Death’s eye and the story is just as much about why she did as what happens to her. Why Death finds her and her tale fascinating is what makes the entire novel fascinating.
(More on working with multiple points of view here)
Omniscient vs limited third allows you to pull back and be more objective. You might want to focus the story on a few characters, but have a more detached "in the know" narrator to achieve an effect. Heist Society is a good example of this. It follows one character, working almost in a voice over fashion that adds to the nature of the story, but it does pull away in certain scenes to give a more general overview or to dip in another head at certain moments. This perfectly mirrors the traditional heist movie format, so it serves a purpose and adds to the fun of the novel. Carter could have easily told this just from Kat’s POV, but you’d lose that sense of mystery as to what was really going on, because being in her head full time would tell you too much. A separate narrator gives you just enough without giving the secrets away. Just like any good jewel thief. The format fits the genre.
And Now, a Warning
Tastes vary on this, but I find what really makes an omniscient POV sing is the narrator. An invisible narrator has a much harder time avoiding a told feel, because it can easily come across as author intrusion. If you write in third omniscient, keep an eye on your voice. Staying in the voice of the novel and characters will go a long way to keeping that omniscient style feeling like your narrator and not like you’re butting in or telling. Maintain judgment on what’s said, so it’s not just infodumps or backstory. Someone anonymous just “telling” the story often feels like someone telling the story. Put a soul behind your narrator – whoever they are.
(More on narrative distance vs telling)
Juliette Wade over at TalkToYoUnivrse has a great post on POV , so if you're hungry for more, pop on over.
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound