When I edit manuscripts for other authors, one of the main problems I see is slipping up when it comes to point of view, especially confusing third-person limited and omniscient. Let’s break all this down so it’s easier to understand.
Third-person point of view means that the narrative of the story is told in the third person – we use pronouns such as “he”, “she”, and “they”:
- “What do you mean?” he said, scratching his head.
- She grabbed his hand.
- They weren’t listening to her.
Third-person point of view goes a little deeper than that, though. There are two types of third-person to choose from. Third-person limited (sometimes called close third person) and third-person omniscient.
There’s a clue in the name of this point of view: limited. In third-person limited, you stick to one character’s perspective and are “zoomed in” on them.
This can be done per chapter, per scene, or for the entire book. For example, you might write your entire book from the perspective of a character called Belle. Or you might have different perspectives per chapter: some chapters for Belle, and some for her love interest, Beast.
You might choose who you’re “zoomed in” on depending on the scene: some scenes from Belle’s point of view, some scenes from Beast’s, and some from the point of view of the villain.
Whichever way you do it, you shouldn’t dip into other character’s minds within a scene/chapter that comes from the point of view of one particular character.
This means if you’re writing a scene or chapter from Belle’s point of view, we shouldn’t have access to Beast’s thoughts. We can only know what’s going on inside the mind of the narrator, Belle (remember the word limited?), not everyone. If you end up giving us access to lots of people’s thoughts outside of the narrator when you use third-person limited, you end up with a problem called head-hopping.
We should be in one character’s head for the duration of the scene, chapter or book – but we still use third person (he did this, she did that, they did this).
Books written in third-person limited
- The Orphan of Cemetery Hill by Hester Fox
- The Giver by Lois Lowry
- P.S. I Love You by Cecilia Ahern
- The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
- Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
- The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
In third-person omniscient, we still use third person (he did this, she did that, they did this). However, omniscient is “zoomed out”. The narrative doesn’t come from the point of view of any one character. It comes from the point of view of an external, godlike narrator, who knows everything about the story and its characters.
This means that the narrator can enter anyone’s mind, and is more detached from the story. This narrator can provide a perspective that the characters can’t. For example, they can give knowledge of future events that haven’t happened yet (to use a very hackneyed example: “little did they know, the worst was yet to come…”). They know everything about the characters and their situations.
With omniscient, sometimes exposition can be a problem, as the writer ends up “telling” too much. It can also feel more detached, and can make it difficult to warm to any one character.
This type of perspective is more common in older literature and literary fiction. Many classics use this perspective.
Books written in third-person omniscient
- Dune by Frank Herbert
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
- The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien
Which point of view should you choose?
Third-person limited is much more common, especially in modern fiction. Omniscient can be difficult for new or inexperienced writers to grapple with, and it has fallen out of fashion. There’s a lot of classic children’s literature, for example, written in omniscient, as well as old fairy tales that you can read for free online. But today? Not so much. I tend to recommend picking third-person limited for these reasons.
However, omniscient can work in some contexts. If you’re writing about a god or similar figure observing mortals (like in The Book Thief), it’ll probably work, but you do need the skill to pull it off.
Whether you choose third-person limited or third-person omniscient point of view, the key is to keep it consistent.
I recommend checking out some of the books I listed written in each perspective if you aren’t sure. Reading, and seeing how other authors do it, is massively helpful for any area of writing craft!
If you need help with your manuscript or you’re struggling to make your point of view consistent, check out my editorial services.