The Third-Person Omniscient Narrator

A little while ago I wrote about the dangers of head-hopping in writing, and mentioned that it’s a technique (or, depending on how you look at it, a mistake) often confused with the third-person omniscient point of view. Which kind of begs the question: what is the third-person omniscient perspective? And is it something you might want to use in your writing?

A Third-Person Omniscient Narrator

This narrative style is so named because the writing will still be in the third person (using “he/she” pronouns, as opposed to the “I” of first person), however in this perspective the narrator is omniscient, meaning all-knowing. In this perspective the story isn’t being told from the point of view of any one character, or a combination of them, but instead from a perspective which knows everything that happened, all of the thoughts and feelings of the characters, at all points throughout the story.

So… How is this Not Head-Hopping?

It’s easy to see how the two get confused. A third-person omniscient narrator can comment on the thoughts and feelings of different characters within a scene, which is very similar to head-hopping (switching between characters’ perspectives during a single scene). The thing that makes the omniscient narrator distinct from head-hopping is that the narrator is not just one of the characters, it’s a separate entity with its own voice and personality.

A great example of this is in Jane Austen’s work, where the narrator knows everything that’s going on and has an enormous amount of sass. Take this example from near the beginning of Pride and Prejudice:

Mr Bennet was among the earliest of those who waited on Mr Bingley. He had always intended to visit him, though to the last always assuring his wife that he should not go; and till the evening after the visit was paid, she had no knowledge of it.

You can see how in that one paragraph we’re told both Mr Bennet’s intentions and Mrs Bennet’s understanding of those intentions (or lack thereof), without being in either of their heads. That’s classic third-person omniscient, right there. Austen uses this narrative style to poke fun at all of the characters at one time or another, while also allowing us to sympathise with all of them. Or almost all of them anyway, I’m not sure anybody ever feels much sympathy for Mrs Bennet.

Jane Austen’s third-person omniscient narrator is incredibly snarky, it’s basically my favourite thing about her books.

Advantages of the Third-Person Omniscient Narrator

This style of narration can be extremely useful if you want your reader to be aware of things the characters don’t know, either because there are important events happening at a significant distance from each other or in order to create dramatic irony within your story.

It can introduce a lot of flexibility to the storytelling, as the narrator can introduce information or events happening anywhere and at any time to provide context for your reader, without being limited to where the characters are. It also means the reader can understand the perspectives of multiple characters within the same scene, without those characters coming to understand each other.

If you’re interested in telling a story where many characters need to get their views across, but you want a single unifying voice telling the story, this is another way an omniscient narrator can serve you. And your narrator can relay the events of the plot in a dry, scholarly fashion, or they can have a vibrant personality of their own, which can be fun to play with.

And the Downsides…

Most of the examples you’ll find if you go looking for this style of narration in literature are older books. This is a style that’s fallen somewhat out of favour in writing, possibly because of the distance it tends to create.

Readers like to be in a character’s head, they like to feel that they’re right in the story, and a third person omniscient narrator can get in the way of that. By its very nature, it can’t tell the story from any one person’s perspective, and so the readers are left feeling apart from the story in a way that can feel quite dissatisfying. While it can be nice to give your readers a sense of where all the characters in a given scene are coming from, it can also make it hard for the reader to identify strongly with any one character, and that can weaken their investment in the events unfolding.

Additionally, it can make it harder to build tension in your story. If the narrator knows everything there is to know, it’s hard to justify hiding information from the reader, which can eliminate some of the most effective ways to create conflict or a sense of anticipation for your audience.

When your readers know exactly what’s going on in every character’s head, it can be difficult to create effective tension for them.
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

This style of narration takes a lot of skill to pull off effectively, and as it’s become less popular it may be more of a challenge to get traditionally published if this is the way your story is told. That said, it’s also an extremely flexible narrative style, and if you think it might suit your story it might be worth trying it out!

Do you have any favourite examples of third-person omniscient narration? Especially from recent books? Share them in the comments!

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