3 Differences Between Omniscient Viewpoint and Third Person
I’ve been writing in omniscient viewpoint now for at least a couple of years, and it’s been a real learning experience. When I started Miasma, there were some things I didn’t know, mainly because the information isn’t available, or worse, just plain wrong. When I a search on the viewpoint, I got a lot of sites giving quick examples — but the writers not really understanding what it is. Writers can easily compare third to first — just change the “she” to “I.” Admittedly, I think that’s overly simplistic and doesn’t get into the benefits and pitfalls of each.
But omniscient viewpoint is the strange bird — it’s actually a category under third, but it doesn’t work the same way as third. Writers often have trouble with it because they try to make it fit into their knowledge of a traditional third person, and it’s like trying to fit a peg into a hole that isn’t even there.
These are the things that cause conflict when omniscient is compared to third:
Eyes in the story
THIRD: The viewpoint of a character who is in the story. That character is making decisions that directly affects the story.
OMNI: The viewpoint of a narrator is who is outside the story, telling us what’s happening. This narrator can choose what it wants to tell us about the story or omit, but the narrator doesn’t have any impact on decisions being made in the story. If it helps, imagine a storyteller sitting down to tell us a fairytale.
Who Sees What
THIRD: The world is seen through the viewpoint character’s eyes. We only see what he/she sees, know what only that character knows. So the viewpoint character may have a reaction to what someone looks like, but they aren’t going to describe themselves. This particular problem of trying to describe the viewpoint character often ends up with the mirror scene — character looks into the mirror and assesses what they look like.
OMNI: The world is seen through the narrator’s eyes. The narrator can see everything, and knows everything. So the narrator can show us what the main character is doing, or what other characters in the same scene are doing. Because the narrator is telling us the story, it can move from one character to another in the middle of the scene.
The above two categories cause writers to have a lot of problems with this next one.
THIRD: More than one character can have a viewpoint in the story. Often, this can be used for subplots. When a viewpoint changes, a new scene starts, which is pretty standard.
OMNI: It’s one narrator telling the story. That’s it. That narrator may move from one character to another in a single scene and let us know what that character is thinking — but because it’s one narrator, it never changes viewpoint.
What writers often do when they first try to understand omniscient viewpoint is they put third into it and try to make third fit. It doesn’t work because the omni narrator isn’t a character in the story, nor is it more than one viewpoint. We also hear all about head hopping from message boards, so when we see an omni book, we don’t have any other frame of reference other than, ‘Start a new scene for a new viewpoint” — instead of realizing the viewpoint never changed.
So omniscient viewpoint isn’t just about changing pronouns, but really, it’s about changing how we think about the approach for a story.