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Writing

Third Person Omniscient Narration Examples and Definition

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 5 min read

When writing a work of fiction there are a number of ways to approach point of view. At a fundamental level, choosing a point of view is about deciding what information you’re going to make available to the reader, and how that information is going to be presented.

A story written from the perspective of a single person often feels more intimate, because the reader has direct, unfiltered access to the thoughts, emotions, and perceptions of a single character. But there are other kinds of stories that require a little more authorial involvement. In these situations, writers may reach for a style of narration that’s more omniscient or removed from the story and characters.

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What Is Third Person Omniscient Point of View?

The third person omniscient point of view is the most open and flexible POV available to writers. As the name implies, an omniscient narrator is all-seeing and all-knowing. While the narration outside of any one character, the narrator may occasionally access the consciousness of a few or many different characters.

Some writers use this perspective to create a more “godlike” or deliberately “authorial” persona that allows them to comment on the action with the benefit of distance. This might take the form of sweeping descriptions of setting that help to establish the mood or atmosphere of a scene, or philosophical digressions that serve to develop ideas that only tangentially relate to the action of the story.

2 Examples of Third Person Omniscient POV in Writing

Omniscient narration is one of the oldest and most widely used storytelling devices. That said, omniscient narration is closely linked to the classic novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

1. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869):

Just then another visitor entered the drawing room: Prince Andrew Bolkónski, the little princess’ husband. He was a very handsome young man, of medium height, with firm, clearcut features. Everything about him, from his weary, bored expression to his quiet, measured step, offered a most striking contrast to his quiet, little wife. It was evident that he not only knew everyone in the drawing room, but had found them to be so tiresome that it wearied him to look at or listen to them. And among all these faces that he found so tedious, none seemed to bore him so much as that of his pretty wife.

Notice here how Tolstoy’s narrator first introduces the reader to Prince Andrew, a main character, from the outside looking in. The reader learns that he’s handsome, with sharp features before moving on to the Prince’s opinions about the other guests at the soiree. Notice also that the narrator never directly enters the character’s head. Instead, what information the narrator reveals about Andrew’s opinions comes in the form of inference. That’s a deliberate choice on Tolstoy’s part, one that both gives the reader some insight into Andrew’s character without the intimacy of accessing his actual thoughts.

2. George Eliot’s Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life (1871):

It was hardly a year since they had come to live at Tipton Grange with their uncle, a man nearly sixty, of acquiescent temper, miscellaneous opinions, and uncertain vote. He had traveled in his younger years, and was held in this part of the county to have contracted a too rambling habit of mind. Mr. Brooke's conclusions were as difficult to predict as the weather: it was only safe to say that he would act with benevolent intentions, and that he would spend as little money as possible in carrying them out.

In this short passage, the reader is introduced to a new character, Mr. Brooke, and immediately the narrator reveals an important detail about his past (he traveled too much) as well as the general opinion of him in the village where he lives (that his travels have made him too rambling and digressive). Here, our sense of Mr. Brooke’s character is deepened with this information that only an omniscient narrator could provide.

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What Is the Difference Between Third Person Omniscient and Third Person Limited?

Omniscient narrators come in many different forms, and some are more omniscient than others. Many stories and novels are written in the third person, but still tend to closely follow only one or two characters. This technique is called third person limited omniscient, or often just third person limited. In a sense, it splits the difference between first and third person narration, capturing some of the intimacy and immediacy of the former while still maintaining a little more authorial freedom or distance from the character.

3 Advantages of Third Person Omniscient Narration

The third person omniscient perspective gives the writer more freedom to move across time and space or into or out of the world of the story—freedom that is unparalleled with other points of view.

  1. The third person omniscient allows the writer to develop an engaging authorial voice. Part of the pleasure of reading classic novels is getting to spend time with the voice of Tolstoy or Cervantes or Austen or Eliot. In a very real way, these narrators come to feel as real and present as the characters they’re describing.
  2. The freedom of the third person omniscient also allows the author to explore or examine parts of the world that may not be immediately apparent to the characters. If there’s important context the reader needs to appreciate the story—whether that context is historical, philosophical, social, etc.—a third person omniscient narrator can succinctly deliver that without requiring the characters to address the subject themselves, which might feel unnatural in the context of the story.
  3. A third person omniscient narration is allowed to move between the perspectives of multiple major characters. This can make it an ideal literary device for exploring the relationships between characters. A good example of this might be Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Though most of the story follows Elizabeth Bennet’s perspective, Austen’s omniscient narrator also enters Darcy’s consciousness on occasion, without which the story would lose much of its tension. Note: An omniscient point of view shouldn’t be confused with head-hopping, where the actual point of view switches mid-scene, often in a confusing or inelegant way.

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