POV part 6 – When Should you use 3rd Person Omniscient POV?

The omniscient narrator or POV is often referred to as a “God-like” narrator, one that narrates the thoughts and feelings of any given character at any given time. It is often compared to a camera lens that looks down on a scene happening. The narrator is never in the scene but instead watches and narrates from a distance.

This POV is not as close to the characters as first-person or third limited. This perhaps is one of the reasons that it is not as popular in contemporary fiction as it used to be because contemporary readers like to really know their characters. They don’t necessarily want the commentary from an omniscient narrator.

Many classics are written from the omniscient viewpoint. For example in The Odyssey, the narrator begins with background exposition, takes the reader to Mt. Olympus to watch Athena plead Odysseus’ case with Zeus, and then flies down to Ithaca for the action there with the suitors. In each case, we see and hear about the different character’s frustrations and desires through the narrator’s lens.

Another classic example is Pride and Prejudice where it works exceptionally well.

An omniscient narrator has a strong authorial voice in that it is a consistent voice, but it can also quite subtle. The narrator is present as the action happens and possibly comment on it through the characters, but they are not involved in the action.

The omniscient POV is close to limited third person in that it allows for multiple POV’s but there are several differences. In an omniscient POV, the narrator can share information that the POV character wouldn’t know, and the POV character can shift within a single scene.

While not many contemporary books are written using the omniscient POV, J.K. Rowling wrote the entire Harry Potter series using it, but it is subtle. As a reader, you have to look for it because it feels very much like limited third person. It’s not.

The Chamber of Secrets begins with Harry Potter spending another horrible summer at the Dursley’s when to his horror the house-elf Dobby appears. Dobby has confiscated all of Harry’s letters from his dear friends Ron and Hermione, and the elf wants Harry to promise that he won’t return to Hogwarts. Harry refuses so Dobby drops Aunt Petunia’s fancy cream pudding which crashes to the kitchen floor.

“Uncle Vernon…promised Harry he would flay him to within an inch of his life when the Masons had left, and handed him a mop. Aunt Petunia dug some ice cream out of the freezer and Harry, still shaking, started scrubbing the kitchen clean.

Uncle Vernon might still have been able to make his deal — if it hadn’t been for the owl.

Aunt Petunia was just where to buy wellbutrin passing around a box of after-dinner mints when a huge barn owl swooped through the dining room window, dropped a letter on Mrs. Mason’s head, and swooped out again. Mrs. Mason screamed like a banshee and ran from the house shouting about lunatics…

Harry stood in the kitchen, clutching the mop for support, as Uncle Vernon advanced on him, a demonic glint in his tiny eyes” (20).

Dobby dropping the pudding is described from Harry’s POV, but following the incident, Harry is in an entirely different room mopping. Harry wouldn’t know that his aunt was passing around dinner mints. He wouldn’t have seen the owl fly in and scare Mrs. Mason. This narration signifies that the story is being told by an omniscient narrator and not through a limited third-person focus on Harry.

Author John Gardner wrote, “The traditional third-person omniscient point of view, in which the story is told by an unnamed narrator (a persona of the author) who can dip into the mind and thoughts of any character, though he focuses primarily on no more than two or three, gives the writer the greatest range and freedom.” It’s not an easy POV to handle well, but I would agree with this sentiment.

But remember, if you choose to write in an omniscient POV, you need to avoid head hopping and confusing your reader. You must maintain the author’s voice and tone and not begin telling the story from multiple third limited viewpoint within a single scene.

If you’re considering writing a story with an omniscient narrator, ask yourselves these questions. If you answer a strong “yes” to all of them, then go for it.

1) Do you have a strong, consistent authorial voice you can maintain throughout the story regardless of which character you are focusing on?

2) Do you have more than one main viewpoint character who needs to tell the story?

3) Will there be action occurring that none of the viewpoint characters would know about that a narrator must tell the reader (as in the Harry Potter example)?

4) Does your plot include the main characters miscommunicating or misunderstanding one another in such a way that the irony would be most effectively pointed out by a third party narrator?

If you answer yes to all of these questions, then using an omniscient narrator might be the best choice for you. Try it. Write a scene using an omniscient narrator and see how you like it. Then, re-write it from another viewpoint. Which do you like better? Choose the one that works.

In the comments, I’d love to hear if you’ve ever written a story in third person omniscient. Was it successful? What were your biggest challenges with it?

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