Third Person Point of View: Omniscient, Limited, and Objective

Point of view is a crucial element of any work of fiction. It determines the narrator’s intimacy with the reader, and affects plot and world presentation. In this article, we take a closer look at the differences between third person omniscient, limited, and objective.

manuscript-mentoring.png

Manuscript Mentoring

January 27, 2022 · 9 Min Read

third_person_point_of_view.jpg

In fiction, the two most popular points of view used by writers are first person and third person. When writing in the first person, the writer uses the “I” and “we” pronouns. Third-person narration uses “he”, “she”, or a name when referring to a protagonist. However, a point of view can be further defined by how much the narrator knows. This knowledge is what determines whether the narration is omniscient, limited, or objective.

 

Third person point of view definition

Before we take a closer look at the different third person points of view, let’s first define third person writing.

In short, the third person point of view is when the narrator (the writer) refers to events from the outside. To do so, “he”, “she”, “they” or names are used to refer to characters. Have a look at the following example:

Larry ran as fast as he could. After fifteen minutes, he slowed and came to a stop.

In the above example, the narrator is telling a story about the protagonist, Larry, to the reader. It is therefore written in the third person. But how would the same sentence look if written in, say, the first person?

ran as fast as could. After fifteen minutes, slowed and came to a stop.

In the adjusted example, “Larry” and “he” were exchanged for the “I” pronoun. The writer is conveying a story about himself, which makes it a first-person narration.

point_of_view_in_literature.jpg
 

What is third person omniscient?

Third person omniscient is when the narrator knows the thoughts and motives of all of the characters. The writer may delve into the memories of the protagonist, then switch to what another character is thinking—all without using action or dialogue.

 

Examples of third person omniscient books include Little Woman by Louisa May Alcott, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Dune by Frank Herbert, The Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson, and The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden.

 

Third person omniscient was the prevalent point of view in the 19th and early 20th century. However, its popularity has gradually been replaced by third person limited and first person.

What is third person limited?

 

Third person limited is when the narrator knows only the thoughts of the protagonist (the hero of the story). The motives of other characters are shown exclusively through dialogue and action.

 

Some examples of third person limited books include The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, 1984 by George Orwell, and The Giver by Lois Lowry.

 

What is third person objective?

Third person objective is when the narrator conveys action and dialogue without delving into any character’s thoughts. Not even the protagonist’s internalizations are explored. Of the three types of third person writing, third person objective is the most impersonal.

 

This aloofness makes third person objective novels rare; the point of view is often more prevalent in short stories. A good short story example of this POV is Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway.

third_person_limited.jpg
 

How do the differences affect prose?

In a general sense, point of view impacts relatability and plot presentation the most. It is easier for a reader to relate to a character if the character’s thoughts are known. Additionally, the plot structures (foreshadowing, the interpretation of events, etc.) are also altered by the narrator’s knowledge.

Relatability

 

The intimacy that the reader shares with a character is impacted by the point of view used by the narrator. The most intimate POV is first person as the reader is placed directly in a character’s shoes. Third person, on the other hand, is more distant. As alluded to, the less the third-person narrator knows about the thoughts of characters, the less sympathy the reader has toward them. Let’s have a look at an example:

The fireman threw down his hose and walked away. He didn’t even bother to look at the man screaming for help on the third floor.

In the above example, the fireman’s actions are conveyed with no mention of his motives. It gives the impression that he is uncaring and not willing to do his duty. This type of description would not be out of place in a piece written in third person objective or—depending on who the fireman is—third person limited. Let’s rewrite it in the third person omniscient point of view.

The fireman threw down his hose and walked away. He didn’t even bother to look at the man screaming for help on the third floor. “My wife needs me,” the fireman thought. “She’s going to leave me tonight if I don’t go back.”

The rewritten version gives a glimpse into the fireman’s reasoning, which in turn makes his actions more palatable to the reader. In short, the narrator’s increased knowledge of the situation has made the fireman more relatable.

what_is_third_person_omniscient.jpg
 

Plot Presentation

The narrator’s degree of knowledge also impacts the reader’s immediate understanding of events and actions. A story where only the protagonist’s thoughts are explored (third person limited) will be structured differently to one where, for example, both the protagonist and antagonist’s thoughts are explored (third person omniscient). Have a look at the following:

         Fred took aim at his old enemy. He was a moment away from ending a family feud that had raged on for two generations.  “Justice,” he thought. “You will pay for what you did.”

         William held up his hands.

         The shot went off.

The above passage is written in third person limited. By just reading this extract, the reader assumes that William and his family have done some grievous wrong to Fred. His motivation is therefore understood—no matter how bad his action is. But how does the reader’s perception change if the narrator knows William’s thoughts as well?

         Fred took aim at his old enemy. He was a moment away from ending a family feud that had raged on for two generations.  “Justice,” he thought. “You will pay for what you did.”

         William held up his hands. “If Fred only knew the            truth.”

         The shot went off.

What truth is William referring to? What grave mistake has Fred just made? The inclusion of a single line of thought from a different character has completely changed the dynamic of the scene. This will have obvious plot implications: the reader now knows that William wasn’t the enemy he was made out to be and that there’s something important that Fred does not know. As the plot progresses, the writer will have to take the reader’s knowledge into account.

third_person_omniscient.jpg
 

Third person omniscient, limited, and objective examples

The following two scenarios are each written in the third person omniscient, limited, and objective points of view. Pay attention to how radical the scenes differ depending on the narrator’s level of knowledge.

Example #1

 

Third Person Objective Example

     When the sun set, James looked at Sally. “I should go home,” he said.

     “Alright.” She did not even look at him.

The above example is written in the third person objective point of view. Only dialogue and actions are shown—thoughts, and therefore motives, are omitted. How will it read if the narrator knows the protagonist’s thoughts?

Third Person Limited Example

     When the sun set, James looked at Sally. He wished that he had the guts to kiss her. “I should go home,” he said.

     “Alright.” She did not even look at him.

In the rewritten example, the third person limited point of view is used to show the protagonist’s thoughts and motives. He really likes Sally—so much so that he’d like to kiss her. This crucial bit of information was absent in the third person objective point of view. But how would the scene change if Sally’s thoughts were also known?

Third Person Omniscient Example

     When the sun set, James looked at Sally. He wished that he had the guts to kiss her. “I should go home,” he said.

     “Alright.” She did not even look at him. “Why doesn’t he kiss me?” she thought.

In this third person omniscient example, Sally’s feelings are also made clear. In the previous versions, she seems uninterested—but now the reader knows that she actually likes James as well.

what_is_third_person_limited.jpg
 

Example #2

Third Person Objective Example

       The man glanced over his shoulder, then quickly entered information into the ATM. He was sweating profusely and his hands were shaking.

       The security guard at the door looked his way.     

What exactly is the man up to? His actions make it seem as if he’s doing something illegal. The third person objective point of view does not mention his thoughts. Let’s look how the third person limited changes the reader’s understanding of the situation.

Third Person Limited Example

       The man glanced over his shoulder, then quickly entered information into the ATM. He was sweating profusely and his hands were shaking. He knew that his time was limited. The bad man could be anywhere—he could be anyone.

       The security guard at the door looked his way.     

In this rewritten version, we learn that the protagonist is actually trying to evade someone bad, and that he probably isn’t doing anything illegal. The security guard could be the person the man is trying to run from. Note how the inclusion of the man’s thoughts alters the scene completely. But how would it read if we were to include the security guard’s thoughts?

Third Person Omniscient Example

       The man glanced over his shoulder, then quickly entered information into the ATM. He was sweating profusely and his hands were shaking. He knew that his time was limited. The bad man could be anywhere—he could be anyone.

       The security guard at the door looked his way.  “The crazy is back,” he thought. What had Gary called the illness? Paranoid something. Paranoid schizophrenia—yes, that was what the man had.   

The security guard’s thoughts alter the scene further. Nobody is really chasing the man; he’s just suffering from an illness. Or is he? Either way, knowing the security guard’s thoughts changes the dynamic of the scene.

Which third person point of view is the best?

 

There’s no best third person point of view; each one has its strengths and weaknesses. That being said, third person objective is the least popular because of its impersonal nature. Most readers want to connect with characters on at least some level—something that is difficult to achieve with this type of POV.

 

The vast majority of third person books are written in either third person limited or omniscient. If you want the reader to have greater circumspection, then third person omniscient may be better. If you want to curtail what the reader knows to what is shown, then third person limited is probably a better choice. The important thing is to remain consistent with whatever you choose. There are well-written books that incorporate more than one type of point of view, of course, but these tend to be rare.

Manuscript Mentoring

It can be tricky to decide on a point of view for a novel. It can be even more difficult to make adjustments to the narrator’s knowledge after a novel has been completed. If you need help editing the structure, prose, or point of view of your book, then have a look at Manuscript Mentoring’s professional editing services.