A Matter of Perspective (Part Six – Third Person Omniscient)

We’ve come to the final chapter of our ongoing series of perspectives. This time we take a look at third person omniscient.

Normally, in most cases we would equate the word “omniscient” to be on par with “godlike,” or “all knowing.” In a sense, this is pretty accurate to this style – the narrator, or author, is basically the deity in this fictional world, and is willing to take the reader into the minds of any of the other characters. The story is not written from the perspective of one single character – rather, we the reader will experience the story from multiple characters!

Most of the time, this is done in a fashion that makes sense. Usually, it will be presented from the perspective of one character per chapter, or sometimes scene. The author flows between the perspectives of a variety of different characters to keep the story flowing. This style is very common among fantasy and science fiction novels, and Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” novels can be a great example of how this style can be used well.

However, it also can be jarring and confusing. I’ve read several works by aspiring authors where the perspective sometimes changes within the paragraph, and a couple times, even within the same sentence! Needless to say, this can be extremely disorienting, and even off-putting, to the typical reader. The best way to void this, of course, is to be extremely conscious of who is telling the story at any given time. Let me provide you with a bad example….

Sue internally winced in pain as Charles excitedly explained his thoughts about how wonderful Meteor Man changed his life.

Who is the narrator of the above sentence? Is it Sue, who is trying to hide her reaction? Is it Charles, who is trying to put his thoughts into words? Since the answer to the question could be “both,” this approach could only serve to confuse the reader. It’s best if we try to keep it confined to one person or the other, just to avoid this type of scenario.

The biggest advantage of this perspective, of course, is that the author has completely free reign to take the reader wherever he or she wants to go. If the author wants the reader to see the story from the perspective of the starship captain, and then the ground team on the alien planet, they can do so! When done poorly, though, the author can end up alienating the readers, who may find the story to be an incomprehensible mess and hard to follow.

So finally, let’s see the scenario that I set up from the first part of this challenge. How would I write that scene from the third person omniscient perspective?

The mouse scurried along the ground, its stomach growling with hunger. She needed to find some food to feed her starving babies back home. The cat stalked the mouse quietly, determined to fill its own hungry belly with a meal made of tasty rodent. Sitting nearby, watching the scene play out, sat a small child named Pat. His stomach rumbled with hunger as well, and he envied the other two. At least one of those will leave the alley with a full belly – the only question Pat had was which one?

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