Third Person Narrative Perspectives

Posted by on Mar 2, 2015 in Divas on Writing | 0 comments

Third Person Narrative Perspectives

Divas on Writing: Third Person Narrative Perspectives

Today we are going to discuss the differences between omniscient and limited third person narrative perspectives. I believe that every writer needs to have a good handle on narrative perspective before they put pen to paper. Not having such will lead to a narration that is all over the map. What you want is consistency in narrative tone and style. So what’s the difference between omniscient and limited? How do you tell the difference? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each perspective?

Omniscient Narrator:

An omniscient narrator is a storyteller who is not a part of the story, but they have a godlike view of every event and everyone’s minds. The hallmark of an omniscient narrator is they do not tell the story from a specific character’s point of view, but rather from their own. Most often the voice the omniscient narrator uses is the author’s. The omniscient narrator may express what a character is thinking and this will be expressed in the voice of the character in the same way the discourse is, but the narrative itself is in the voice of the narrator.

Issues arise in the omniscient perspective when the narrator becomes distracted or unfocused and shares too much information—usually information that has no bearing on the plot or characterization. Omniscient narration can also be prone to distance between the reader and the characters if the narrator’s voice is too strong. Also, sometimes the voice of the omniscient narrator bleeds into the discourse and the characters begin to sound like the narrator instead of like themselves. Like any narrative style, if the narrator is not a visual storyteller, the story can become dry, stilted, and telling.

Limited Narration:

A limited narration is limited to one or several characters. The limited narrator is very much like a first person narrator. The limited narrator only knows the past and present of the character through whom they are telling the story. They are privy to that character’s thoughts, perceptions and emotions. When a limited narrator leaves the perspective of their narrating character and jumps into another head and then back to their perspective character, this is referred to as head hopping, and it can be a very distracting problem. The limited narrator cannot tell events that they are not privy to.

Many times authors abuse limited narration tell a story through the minds/perspectives of many characters. Do not do this. The limited narrator should speak through at least one character, but I would limited it to no more than four just for the sake of keeping the narrative tone somewhat consistent. Limited narrators are confined in the mind of their perspective character. If they know what everyone around them is thinking, then they are mind reading, which is another narrative issue and other than head hopping is the primary issue with the limited perspective.

To help you differentiate between the perspectives, I have created a chart that contrasts the aspects of the different styles of third person narration, its strengths and its weaknesses.

 

Omniscient Limited Using Multiple Characters Limited Using One Character
Aspects of Omniscient Narration: Aspects of Limited Narration: Aspects of One Character Limited
  • Knows all of the characters motives, thoughts, desires, etc. (but may withhold information)
  • Knows the past, present, and future
  • Is sure of what they state and is generally a reliable narrator
  • Doesn’t insert their opinions into the story (generally)
  • Doesn’t speak with the voice of the characters
  • Is limited in the amount of minds it narrates through—usually one or two.
  • Knows only the perspective character’s motives, thoughts, desires, etc.
  • Knows only the perspective character’s past and present
  • Can be unsure of what it states or make suppositions.
  • Can insert the perspective character’s opinions into the story.
  • Speaks with the voice of the perspective character
  • Can use a conversational tone
  • Limited to the perspective of only one narrator
  • Only knows his own motives, thoughts, desires, etc. And can only relate what he has been told, seen, experienced, etc.
  • Has only varying and limited knowledge of the other characters’ past and present.
  • Can be unsure of what it states or make suppositions.
  • Speaks with the voice of a character.
  • Can use a conversational tone
Strengths of Omniscient Strengths of Limited Strengths of One Character Limited
  • Narrator is very knowledgeable
  • Leaves many possibilities for the way the plot unfolds because the narrator is not limited to a few character perspectives.
  • Is generally an impartial narrator
  • Not locked in one character’s mind
  • Creates a strong emotional connection between the readers and the characters.
  • Able to be in multiple character’s minds but not so many the narrative feels unfocused
  • Can be an unreliable narrator and can be prejudiced
  • Interesting story perspective
  • Has all the strengths of the first person perspective
  • Has a strong emotional feel to the narration
  • Allows the reader to become intimately acquainted with the perspective character
Weaknesses of Omniscient Weaknesses of Limited Weaknesses of One Character Limited
  • Can create an unfocused feel in the narrative if the narrator focuses on too many characters
  • Can create a sense of distance between the characters and the readers
  • Can easily degrade into telling narrative rather than showing
  • Narrative may easily fall into a limited narrative feel
  • Feel of the narrative may be very stiff and formal, depending on the voice of the narrator
  • The voice of the omniscient narrator may not mesh well with the voice of the characters, may not fit the time period of the story, or may not fit the style of the story.
  • Does not know the future (unless the story is being told about a past event the narrator has already experienced)
  • Cannot relate things the perspective character hasn’t witnessed, heard, or been told
  • Does not have knowledge the perspective character does not have
  • Can create extremely telling narrative if the narrator is not a visual story teller
  • Can limit the way the story is told if the perspective character is not present for a pivotal scene.
  • Does not know what characters are thinking or feeling because the narrator cannot read the other characters’ minds.
  • Can only insert his or her own thoughts and perceptions into the story
  • Does not know the future (unless the story is being told about a past the narrator has already experienced)
  • Cannot relate things he or she hasn’t personally witnessed, heard, or been told
  • Does not have knowledge of things he has not witnessed or been told.
  • Can only make assumptions about the character motivations, emotional state, etc.
  • Is a very unreliable and prejudiced narrator.
  • Creates extremely telling narrative if the narrator is not a visual story teller.

Regardless of what narrative form that you choose, I recommend that you avoid the following pitfalls:

  1. Mind reading in the limited perspective.
  2. Head hopping in the limited perspective.
  3. Addressing the reader (breaking the 4th wall).
  4. Narrative voice in the omniscient perspective that overwhelms the character’s voices.
  5. Narrative voice in the omniscient perspective that sounds exactly like the character’s voices.

 

Exercise:

Now that you know the key differences between the third person narrative perspectives, it’s time for you to practice. Write a scene in the omniscient perspective. Now I want you to rewrite it in the limited perspective of your choice. How does changing the perspective change the way you tell the story?

Shay Goodman (95 Posts)

Shay Goodman is a self-proclaimed maven of mayhem and editing goddess. She has over twelve years of experience in the publishing industry and has worked as a copy editor, proofreader, and a developmental and content editor. She spent several years gainfully employed as a managing editor and director of acquisitions for a small independent press until deciding it was time to strike out on her own once again. Shay has worked with both international and New York Times best-selling authors, most notably: Suzy Duffy and E.L. James. She is proudly a founding member of Write Divas.


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