Your Guide To Third Person Omniscient Vs. Limited Points Of View

Every story is written using a particular point of view.

The story might be from the point of view of one or more characters, like first person or third person limited, or from a narrator’s point of view, like third person omniscient. 

It can be daunting to decide what point of view to use for a story and even harder to get it right.

The problem is that if you make a mistake and switch points of view mid-chapter or even mid-paragraph, you will knock the reader out of the story. 

You need them to suspend disbelief and become involved in the story. 

But the point of view is such an essential part of the story that readers can’t ignore it if you get it wrong.

Are you confused about point of view? we’ll talk you through limited vs. omniscient viewpoints, the pros and cons of both, and how to choose the right viewpoint for your story.

What Is Point of View in Writing?

The point of view in writing is simply the chosen view that the narrator has of the story.

The most common points of view are:

  • First-person, written using “I” because the narrator is the main character telling their story.
  • Second person, where the tale is told to “you.” This isn’t often used in fiction, and you can perhaps picture it more clearly if you think of a blog post where the writer might say, “When marketing your author business, you can…”
  • Third person limited has the narrator telling the tale from the point of view of the main character, but not as the character. This is usually written using “she” or “he.”
  • Third-person omniscient is where the narrator knows everything about every character and can tell the audience things that some characters don’t know yet.

Let’s explore the difference between third-person limited and third-person omniscient in detail.

Third Person Omniscient Vs. Limited Points Of View with Examples

In this section, we’ll compare limited vs. omniscient and show you an example of each point of view, along with our thoughts on the excerpt.

What Is Third Person Limited Point of View?

It’s probably no surprise to find that third person limited is written in third person. Instead of it being written using “I” or “you,” you’d use “he,” “she,” “they,” or even “it.”

In this case, it’s written from the point of view of one of the main characters. The narrator only knows what that character knows.

They can only see what that character sees, and everything is likely to be colored by that main character’s ideas and biases.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Limited Point of View?

Every point of view has its limitations or issues for writers. Here are the pros and cons when writing in third person limited:

Pros:

  • You don’t have to stick to just one character with third-person limited. Romance novels, for example, will often show the limited viewpoint of the main female character and then alternate chapters or scenes with the limited viewpoint of the main male character. This allows you to closely explore what your characters are thinking, feeling, and seeing from each point of view.
  • In each point of view, each character has no idea – unless they are told – what the other one is thinking. This allows for misunderstandings and tensions galore to help move your plot along.
  • The reader is in the action right along with the main character. This lets them feel what that character is feeling and bond with them.
  • You can also introduce unreliable narrators with this point of view, to create confusion if you’re writing a mystery, for example, which the reader may or may not spot.

Cons:

  • The reader can only know what the point of view character knows. You can’t tell the reader anything else outside of that point of view until another character tells the point of view character, or they find out some other way.
  • It can be tempting to head hop where you keep swapping points of view within a scene or even within a paragraph. It can be extremely confusing for readers. If you do this, it’s difficult to tell who is speaking or doing an action.

Example of Third Person Limited Point of View

Here’s a third-person unlimited excerpt from Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasy, The Final Empire:

“Ash fell from the sky.

Vin watched the downy flakes drift through the air. Leisurely. Careless. Free. The puffs of soot fell like black snowflakes, descending upon the dark city of Luthadel. They drifted in corners, blowing in the breeze and curling in tiny whirlwinds over the cobblestones. They seemed so uncaring. What would that be like?

Vin sat quietly in one of the crew’s watch-holes—a hidden alcove built into the bricks on the side of the safehouse. From within it, a crewmember could watch the street for signs of danger. Vin wasn’t on duty—the watch-hole was simply one of the few places where she could find solitude.”

This is a very quiet scene. There’s no one else around, and Vin isn’t having a conversation with anyone. In fact, from this scene right inside her head, we can see that she doesn’t even want to. She’s craving solitude. It’s a lovely piece of writing where we get to see her innermost thoughts and wonderings.

What’s nice about this, as written in third person limited, is that the point of view adds to the scene.

It’s so tightly written from Vin’s point of view that we can only see her literal view as well as her viewpoint, and that adds to the atmosphere of the scene.

What Is Third Person Omniscient Point of View?

We’re still writing in the third person, so again, you’d use “she,” “he,” “they,” or “it.” However, here the narrator knows everything about every character in the story.

The reader might think of this as the author narrating the story, but not as a character, as someone outside the happenings in the book.

With third-person omniscient, you might also have an objective narrator who is just telling the story as an observer, or you could have a subjective narrator who definitely has opinions on the story and the characters.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Omniscient Point of View

Just like any other point of view, there are both good things and bad things about third-person omniscient.

Of course, it’s up to the writer to make it work if it’s the right point of view for the story:

Pros:

  • This point of view lets you show what multiple different characters are thinking with ease. You’re writing as the all-knowing narrator here, so you don’t have to worry about saying anything that a particular character shouldn’t have known.
  • You can also give the reader information that none of the characters knows about. This can be a nice way to build tension if you feed the reader something they can then see coming, which the characters have no idea about yet.
  • This point of view is excellent for world-building. You have an overview of the world and its characters as the narrator and can include descriptions of place, time, and scene more easily.
  • You can also move backward in time or forward quite easily from this point of view.

Cons:

  • This one could also be seen as a pro, depending on how you look at it. You must carefully think about what to tell the reader, when, and whether to reveal all. This does take more work, but you can also use it by keeping back certain information until the best point to reveal it, which can be useful for thrillers and murder mysteries.
  • Again, it’s also very easy to start head hopping, or even worse, switch unintentionally into third-person limited.
  • This point of view is not often used anymore and can feel distancing to a modern reader.

Example of Third Person Omniscient Point of View

This excerpt, in third person omniscient, is from The Color of Magic by the great Sir Terry Pratchett:

“Through the fathomless deeps of space swims the star turtle Great A’Tuin, bearing on its back the four giant elephants who carry on their shoulders the mass of the Discworld.  A tiny sun and moon spin around them, on a complicated orbit to induce seasons, so probably nowhere else in the multiverse is it sometimes necessary for an elephant to cock a leg to allow the sun to go past.
Exactly why this should be may never be known.  Possibly the Creator of the universe got bored with all the usual business of axial inclination, albedos, and rotational velocities, and decided to have a bit of fun for once.”

You really don’t get more omniscient than seeing the whole of the Discworld from an unnamed point right out in the universe. The narrator here isn’t just talking from the point of view of knowing everything about the characters in the book; they’re talking from the point of view of knowing everything about the world it takes place on too. Or mostly.

But it is Terry Pratchett, so even here, from such a cold, distant point in space, there’s humor, warmth, and bags of personality, even in such a short excerpt. You can definitely see that this is a subjective narrator with definite opinions.


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Common Mistakes When Writing in Limited POV

Let’s look at the mistakes writers tend to make in third-person limited. Keep your eye on these, and you should be able to avoid them in your own writing.

1. Unclear or unconvincing character voices

When writing in third person, it’s not the same as writing in first person where you are writing as the character. But you must still pour in enough personality and emotion to make sure you sound like the character you’re writing about. 

You still have to get involved and not remain too distant from who you’re writing about. And if you have multiple characters, each one must sound distinct from the rest.

As they get to know each character, the reader should be able to tell that they each sound different on the page from the rest.

2. Forgetting whose point of view you’re in

If you have several characters where you show each viewpoint, don’t forget who you are writing as you switch back and forth. It’s easily done, and it’s so easy to forget that character A doesn’t know what character B does.

You need to remember each character, who they are, how they feel, and what they know each time you switch back and forth.

It can be helpful to simply write the character’s name at the top of each chapter or scene as a quick reminder of whose point of view you’re supposed to be writing.

3. Describing things your current point of view character doesn’t know

If someone is hiding behind a wall that’s too high for your current character to see over (unless they’re Superman with X-ray vision or psychic), they can’t see that person or describe them, shout out a warning to another character, or go another way to avoid them.

You could say they were suddenly tense or nervous, though they didn’t know why, and glanced around the street, feeling like someone was watching them. You could add more tension that way, but you couldn’t have them directly reacting to the hidden person.

4. Having too many points of view

Just because you could show the point of view of each of your characters using third-person limited doesn’t mean you should.

You will confuse your reader and lose them if you try to include too many points of view in your story. They’ll never keep track of all the characters or who is doing what.

Stick to the main characters that you have to have to tell the story.

5. Showing the thoughts, motivations, or feelings of another character

If you’re writing as James, again, unless James is psychic or super-powered, he does not know what Valerie thinks unless she tells him. He might be able to guess that she’s upset from the look on her face.

If he did it, he might even know why or have a very good idea. But James cannot describe Valerie’s innermost thoughts and feelings from his point of view because he’s not in Valerie’s head.

Be very careful with this and proofread thoroughly on your final draft to ensure you’ve caught any instances of this. It can drag your readers out of the story.

Common Mistakes When Writing in Omniscient POV

Just as with third person limited, it’s possible to make mistakes when writing in an omniscient point of view:

1. Being inconsistent with your narrator

You need to use the same voice, tone, and approach for your narrator throughout the story. If they’re completely objective, keep them so. If they’re subjective, you must keep that going through the story too.

And if they have a particular opinion on the characters or goings on, they need to keep that throughout unless you have them give a reason.

It’s probably worth writing down at least a mini-character description for your narrator, especially if they are subjective, noting their tone of voice, who they are if they are a character, and what their opinions are.

2. Telling your readers too much

You’ve got to consider what you want your readers to know at each point in your story. If you tell them too much, you can overdo it and ruin the flow of the story for them.

Your narrator may know the detailed history of that wall clock from the seventeenth century to present day, but do your readers really need to know that too?

Does it move the story forward? Does it reveal something about the plot or the characters?

Make sure what you’re including serves a purpose.

3. Head-hopping

It’s really easy to head hop in this point of view too. Try to only talk about a different character if you’re switching scenes or chapters, if possible. Head hopping is tiring and confusing for the reader and, again, can shake them out of the story.

Pay attention to who you are talking about at any one time and do your best to stick to that character.

4. Not telling the reader enough

You need to be careful with overloading your readers, but you also need to watch that you’re not leaving out chunks of important plot material because you’re trying to keep track of all the characters and where they are up to.

Plan your story carefully and ensure you include everything your readers need to know.5.

5. Telling not showing

With third-person omniscient, it’s far more about telling the story than showing what people are feeling, so this one can be difficult.

You’re usually told to show, not tell, but you can’t help it to a certain extent here. This is why this point of view can feel very distancing.

Think about how you’re telling the story and what you must include to show the reader more and help them connect with the world and the characters.

How to Choose a Point of View

Well, there’s the question, isn’t it? How do you choose a point of view for your story? Well, firstly, it needs to suit you as a writer.

We’re not saying don’t try new things or experiment with different points of view, but if you know you aren’t very good at third-person omniscient, then it’s probably best not to use it for a full-length novel, at least until you’ve practiced more.

The other consideration is that the omniscient point of view is very rarely used anymore, and it’s not as popular as it once was.

If you want to be traditionally published, it’s likely best to stay away from omniscient and work with third-person unlimited instead, which is what most books are written today.

It’s also easier by far to write in third person unlimited. We’re more used to seeing and reading it; it’s far easier to stick to and do well.

Here’s what to think about when choosing your point of view:

  • What point of view do you write well in?
  • What genre is your story?
  • Who is the main character?
  • What would suit your story?
  • How do you want to be published?

You should then be able to choose the right point of view for your story.

Hopefully, you should now be clear on limited vs. omniscient points of view and how to handle them.

As usual, when writing a book, think everything through, plan to the extent that you need to, either as a pantser or a plotter, and make sure you keep track of your point of view at all times.

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