Omniscient Point of View

omniscient POVOmniscient POV gives the power to see and know all. It was used much more frequently in the 18th century than it is now, though many beginning writers use it without realizing it.

Writing in omniscient point of view allows you to pop into the mind of any character you choose when you choose… once, or repeatedly. As the author, you may also include your own observations or opinions on the action, even to the point of addressing the reader directly.

Some books written in omniscient POV include The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles and Howards End by E. M. Forster.

Cynthia scowled. “You don’t know anything about it,” she said, trying to hide her true feelings on the subject.

“Says you,” her cousin retorted hotly, hoping to read between the lines. He scanned her face for clues, then plopped on the grass next to her in defeat. “Tell me, then.”

In the example, we’re sent to both Cynthia’s mind, who’s trying to control her true feelings, and her cousin’s, who is hoping to read between the lines, then plops next to her in defeat.

Some readers don’t like omniscient and will accuse the reader of head hopping. Others say it creates distance. Beginning writers may write like this unintentionally because they want to include descriptions of how everyone is feeling in a scene, not realizing they’re actually popping into everyone’s heads to do that. So it must be easy, right? Nope. Writing omniscient well is far from easy. While it’s true that one of the strengths of this POV is that it allows these things to be revealed, there are some problems with this POV as well, such as:

  • Omniscient POV loses the willing suspension of disbelief that we cultivate in a work of fiction.
  • It destroys the sense of reality we try to create in our new world because the author can insert their own opinions.
  • It creates more distance between the reader and the characters.

So, if the drawbacks are so bad, what are the strengths of omniscient POV?

  • Reminding the reader that this is a work of fiction can be a terrific device by highlighting the artificial nature of the story.
  • By increasing the distance between reader and character, the reader gets an entire panorama of reality itself.
  • The author has more control in steering the story and its meaning where s/he wants it to go.

 

Third Person

third person point of viewThird person point of view. In this point of view, you’re telling the story from a distance, as if you’re watching the people in it.

Katie faced the black wall with determination, scanning the endless rows of names. There it was. Dennis McDermott. Her fingers traced the letters. She hadn’t been sure how she’d feel, seeing his name there. The father she’d never known. The father who’d never known her. Her heart swelled against an ever-tightening band. It was just a name, after all. It wasn’t him. It wasn’t a real person who could wrap his arms around her. Tears welled in her eyes as she realized maybe that tight band around her heart was him. Holding her close in the only way he could. 

Third person allows us to go into the head of the the third person point of view character, but we also get to see what’s going on outside of this character. If we only see inside one character’s head, that’s called limited third person viewpoint. If we get to see inside more than one character’s head, it’s called multiple third person viewpoint.

Like first person, third person point of view has strengths and weaknesses. Some of its strengths include:

  • POV characters can be described from the outside (what they look like, what they’re doing).
  • You’re not limited to your character’s world view. In third person, you can present objective facts without coloring them with a character’s opinion. Third person opens up the story, so it feels less claustrophobic.
  • It’s easy to include more than one point of view in third person. As the author, you can move through the plot as needed to expose the information necessary through all the major characters instead of just one or two.
  • In third person, you can withhold information until you need to reveal it by having it known only to characters who are not point of view characters.
  • It’s easier to remain objective with your characters when you aren’t writing “I,” so you can easier evaluate and imagine them.

With all these strengths, it’s not hard to imagine why third person point of view is such a popular choice among authors. However, for every positive, there is a negative. Third person also has its drawbacks.

  • Third person creates more distance between the character and the reader. This can be controlled, but this takes practice and is a topic for another post.
  • You lose the effect of language patterns that you can get with first person.
  • Flashbacks, memories, opinions, and other devices are more awkward to put in. They can be done, but it takes greater skill to manage them smoothly.

So, how do you choose between first and third person? No one can answer that for you. If your story is epic and has a multitude of characters, perhaps multiple third person may be right for you. Likewise, if you want to be able to pull back and provide objective facts or descriptions, third person may be what you’re looking for. Third person may also be your cup of tea if you want rich descriptions of your characters from the outside. This is used a lot in romance novels so the reader can enjoy those silky curls or that buff, muscular chest.

However, if you want your reader to strongly identify with your POV character, to see the world with their eyes, you may want to choose limited third person or first person. Try a chapter or two in each and see what works best for you.

First Person Point of View

first person point of view

Ah, first person point of view. Many of the books that cross my desk are written in first person. The reader gets to experience the story inside a character’s head. I find that many first-time authors choose first person as their chosen point of view, at least in the books I edit.

I peered into the bassinet. There was a tiny person, wrapped in a fluffy pink blanket. She squirmed, threatening to wake. I squirmed. What would I do if she cried? I was afraid to touch her. I heaved a sigh of relief when she seemed to settle. How could they send her home with me? I had no clue what to do with her. How could I take care of her? What if I dropped her? What if I failed? It wasn’t like I could just find another home for her, like a puppy. She was supposed to be mine. I swallowed hard. My daughter. It didn’t seem real. It couldn’t be real. 

One of the great things about first person point of view  is you really get into that person’s character. The narration is in that character’s speech pattern, we get the immediacy of their experience, and the reader feels as if they are feeling what the character feels. First person offers range that can be awkward in third person. You can wander through impressions, feelings, memory, opinion as they pass through the character’s head. This is one of the great strengths of this point of view. There are, however, equally strong weaknesses that you need to keep in mind if you choose to write in first person.

  • You can’t include a scene in which your character is not present. Likewise, you can’t include any information your character wouldn’t have access to. If you must include crucial information your character doesn’t have direct access to, you must be creative in finding ways to make it accessible, like letters, overheard conversations, and so on.
  • You must include any information you character does have. This is especially important if you’re writing a mystery. Suddenly springing a clue upon your readers that your character already knew about is bad form.
  • As the author, you’re limited to your character’s view of the world. If your character is a Pollyanna, then s/he must see the good in everyone, no matter how evil they are. Their evilness must be shown in other ways.
  • Don’t confuse yourself with your character. It is so easy to do. If you feel a certain way about something, make sure your character doesn’t feel that way just because you do. You need to remain objective. If your character has a strong political pull to the right or left, for example, and you’re the opposite, you can’t let your own leanings color your character in any way. You need to be able to become the reader enough to judge what you put on the page. This is why many authors consider first person to be extremely difficult. It is the also what many beginning authors forget when they choose to write in first person.

Point of View

point of view
Handcuffs and Key

When you write a story, you need to choose a point of view. Who will be telling the story? Will it be one of your characters? Will it be you, the author?

Who you choose can change the story. Let’s say you want to tell a story about a bank robbery. Major characters may include the robbers, the hostages inside the bank, and the police officers on the scene. If you choose one of the robbers, the story may consist of adventure, planning the heist, danger, a falling out between partners, and lack of trust.

If the story is told through the eyes of one of the hostages, it becomes one of bewilderment and fear. Do they hope to escape? Maybe several band together to stand up to the robbers or maybe they learn their lesson when one gets injured for doing something foolish and they await rescue.

If a detective on the case is the one who relates the story, it becomes a procedural… we get treated to the protocols of the case, talking down the robbers, negotiating for the release of the hostages, the stress when one is shot.

As you can see, each angle tells a different tale, although the main story remains the same. If you have a large cast of characters in your book, use as few points of view as possible to tell the story. Figure out the least amount you need to adequately cover the story and any internal dialogues you need in your story. Having too many can get confusing, not only for the reader, but for you. Now you must decide between first person, third person, omniscient, or those rarely used second person, plural first, plural third, and epistolary forms.

Over the next several posts, I’ll be covering some of these various forms of point of view, including the pros and cons of choosing them, as well as what pitfalls to watch out for when you use them.