Third-Person POV: Omniscient vs Limited

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The one issue I have with writing this post is that omniscient is a pain to write.  I get it wrong half the time.  So, I might cut this short to stop getting frustrated.  That and I think it’s fairly straightforward.

Now, I write in a present tense 3rd person style with a limited POV.  I went with limited because it never felt right to have characters or the audience know things that weren’t shown in the book.  I push the boundaries whenever I can when describing new locations, but I really have to use dialogue and discovery to get the facts out.  This includes character thoughts because I always imagine others standing around waiting for inner monologues to end when I picture a scene.  Still, that’s just me and I probably work fast and loose with the rules here.  Might even have it wrong now that I think about it.  It’s another reason why I needed to look a bit more into this.

So, what are omniscient and limited POV?

  • Omniscient is when the narrator knows everything.  They are aware of all events, thoughts, and feelings in a story.  This also means that the audience is aware of all these things as well even if the characters are not.
  • Limited is when the narrator relates only what they are aware of.  They cannot share any thoughts, feelings, and knowledge that they do not have.

Right off the bat, I can see why my own style is going to require a third category later in the post.  Anyway, these POVs work off stable and established narrators even if that role changes by the chapter.  It’s why people don’t like things switching in mid-chapter and get confused on who they are viewing the world through.  After all, POV is the lens that you use to reveal the story.  So, you need it to be clear on who is talking and showing the world even if it’s a faceless/bodiless narrator.

I’m sure most people would agree that one is not better than the other.  With omniscient, you can share a lot and not be restrained by having to holding some things back.  The feelings and thoughts of characters are out there.  With limited, you can’t be as free, but you can easily establish more tension and mystery.  You’re hiding a lot until the right moment and people will understand why it wasn’t shown at the start.  There are different levels of this too, especially since you can be flexible.  Most audiences are only subconsciously aware of POV, so that gives you wiggle room.  Means beta readers are helpful to see if the ‘feel’ is right.

Now, I did find that there is a third category: Limited Omniscience.  This is probably what I use without realizing it.  Part of this is due to the present tense since past tense makes it easier to use the two main POVs.  Now, this one has the narrator experience actions through a character, but not the thoughts and feelings.  You can get that through actions and expressions, but the inner workings of a character are kept hidden until they reveal them.  That is the limited part while the omniscient part is knowing all of the experiences and actions that are going on.  For example, Luke Callindor’s actions in battle are omniscient POV while his feelings and thoughts are predominantly limited until he makes them known.

I really like the combo, but that’s because it’s what I’ve been using for years.  So, I’m rather biased on this.  What do other people think about this topic?  It’s both fairly simplistic and complicated, which makes it hard to write about.  I think it doesn’t help that we all use POV differently even slightly.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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16 Responses to Third-Person POV: Omniscient vs Limited

  1. L. Marie says:

    I’m always interested in a discussion of narrative perspective, so thanks for this, Charles. I can see what you mean. I’ve read manuscripts where the author seems to start off one way (like third person limited) but then muddies the waters by switching to a different perspective (omniscient). So it’s helpful to have resources to point to that discuss perspective.

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  2. I generally write in the first person present tense. I do this so that the reader is more in the action than the other POVs. This means the reader knows as much as the characters and nothing happens off-stage so to speak. The biggest issue with the first person is not to overuse the pronoun ‘I.’ I enjoyed the explanation of the differences in limited and Omniscient

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  3. What works for me is third person limited, but with several POV characters who will switch off for the sake of variety, or because they may be in different places and are witnessing things the reader needs to know.

    In the past, I have actually labeled the sections by whose POV it is, in the first draft. During the final edit I go back to take those out. I’ll find a way to show who the POV is, so readers don’t get mixed up.

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  4. This is something everyone fights with. I’ve probably broken all the rules at one time. I generally stick with third person, but have written in first person, and even did a few shorts in second.

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  5. V.M.Sang says:

    An interesting and important post. I try to write in limited PoV, but occasionally slip up into omniscient.
    One occasion when this happened in a crit group, the critiquer pointed out that in the past, omniscient was the most common PoV, but in modern work, it’s limited that is most commonly used. This person said that for someone who wants to be traditionally published, they should use limited as agents and publishers would be likely to reject omniscient.
    An interesting thought. Do trad publishers reject omniscient?

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    • That’s why I do omniscient. Kept slipping so I eventually took the hint that I should stay there. I’ve heard that read publishers reject styles that don’t fit modern molds. Makes things much more difficult.

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