Understanding Third-Person Point of View: Omniscient, Limited and Deep

Image: sculptures of human brains, arranged in tiers on circular platforms
Photo credit: neil conway on VisualHunt.com / CC BY

Today’s guest post is by editor Tiffany Yates Martin (@FoxPrintEd).

For most writers, first- and second-person POVs are fairly straightforward (though in the point-of-view family, second might be the eccentric uncle no one quite knows how to engage with).

But third-person can be the family troublemaker, so sensitive and mercurial with all its facets: third-person omniscient, third-person limited, deep third-person. (And don’t even get me started on objective third-person—that guy! Living off the grid somewhere in Montana…)

Yet besides chummy, easygoing first-person, third-person POV dominates the current publishing market, so it’s helpful, as with any difficult family member, to learn to navigate its many moods. And the two biggest bugaboos are uncertain POV and slipping POV.

The Basics of Third-Person POV

Imagine you are Ant-Man. For non-Marvel nerds, he’s a superhero in a special suit that makes him tiny and able to flit anywhere, including inside of people.

  • Omniscient third-person POV. You-as-Ant-Man can fly anywhere in the world, even into people’s minds, as well as forward and backward in time. You know anything anyone has ever known—both personal experience and empirical fact. You have access to all the knowledge of the universe, like a god.
  • Limited third-person (also called close third). Ant-Man is on a tether to a single character—you can’t break free. You can go inside her head and be privy to all her thoughts, but no one else’s. Yet as an external observer you can also offer objective commentary on the character, and know more than she knows.
  • “Deep” third-person. This a subset of limited-third. This POV still confines Ant-Man to a single person at a time, but now you have gone subatomic and live deep inside the character—taken over by her to the point where you think her thoughts, feel her feelings, share her experiences past and present, even talk like her at every moment. In essence you’ve become her, so you can only know anything that she knows: what she sees, hears, feels, experiences, does, remembers.

Using POV with clarity means understanding and not violating the parameters of whichever one you’ve chosen. Uncertain or shifting POV will make your reader feel ungrounded, unsettled—and unable to deeply engage in the story because we don’t feel we have firm footing in it, even if we can’t place exactly why.

Using POV Consistently

This is where imagining your access as Ant-Man may help prevent POV slips.

In omniscient POV: The narrator can indeed flit into any perspective, but the narrator doesn’t “become” any character. That means you can reveal anyone’s thoughts and reactions—and also comment on them, and also provide perspective that they may not have. You can also offer external observations on all characters—their appearances, expressions, reactions, etc.

But if the narrative slips into anyone’s direct point of view, it’s a POV shift that can subtly disorient readers. And if you-as-narrator zoom around characters’ perspectives too much, you’re “head hopping,” jumping from person to person in a way that can be dizzying for the reader, like someone relentlessly channel-surfing.

In limited third-person: You-as-narrator are still a separate voice or “character”—an observer, a reporter on events rather than experiencing them directly, but imagine there’s an invisible electric dog fence around your single POV character. While you can know and report on what that character thinks and feels, the only way you can convey any other character’s inner life in this POV is through the interpretation of your point-of-view character, based on what he observes in others and around him: external reactions like their expressions, gestures, demeanors, tones, etc.

Also, in limited-third person you the narrator can observe something she misses, like the keys dangling from his hand, or the fleeting sneer across his face, or the way he watches her when she’s not looking. You’re always in the room with her, but not always inside her. (In omniscient you can see all of that, including the keys behind the other character’s back, where he’s been, and what he’s actually feeling.)

In deep third: You’re confined by that same dog fence with all the same rules as limited-third, except that there is no separation between you and the POV character—you live exclusively inside her. You-as-narrator are, in effect, the point-of-view character, living those events firsthand—like first-person point of view, but with he/she/they pronouns—and so every word of the story is filtered through her perspective: her vocabulary, her phrasings, her knowledge and experiences, etc., as if you’re channeling her.

When head hopping or POV slips occur

Head-hopping in limited and deep third results from breaching the boundary of any other character’s inner life while in your single subject’s POV. Your POV character can’t know another character is feeling sad or angry, for instance—but she can infer it from what she observes about him: a drawn face, clenched fists, a sharp tone, word choice, etc.

Because you-as-narrator are separate in limited-third, you could observe that your POV character is blushing, or offer perspective on the blush she may not fully realize. That’s not a POV slip because you can choose to flit into and out of your character. Sometimes there’s a sliver of difference between limited and deep-third—but you’re still a separate person in limited, attuned to your POV character the way you might know your spouse’s or child’s every nuance of emotion.

In deep third, if your POV character is unaware of something, you are unaware. If “she didn’t notice the spider creeping ever closer to her foot,” then you can’t mention it in deep third or you’ve slipped out of POV—she doesn’t notice means you can’t notice either. You are her. Everything is oriented from and filtered through her/your point of view.

You can withhold knowledge or keep secrets from the POV character in omniscient and limited-third—she doesn’t know everything you, as a separate person, know. But in deep third there are no secrets—only what you-as-POV-character choose to share. This can get tricky with stories that rely on “reveals” (which is all stories, really), in that you have to find organic ways to obscure information from readers that aren’t misleading them about something the character is fully aware of.

For instance, one character can be hiding her pregnancy from another—and you-as-author may want to keep it a secret from the reader too. But in deep third you must do it within the internal truth of your character—in other words, she is fully aware of it, but you’ll have to reveal a partial truth that misdirects the reader: “The moment he walked in her hand flew to her stomach, but she made herself drop it to her side. She didn’t want him to see how nervous she was.” We’ll likely initially assume an upset tummy from nerves—and only later will we realize its meaning as the full truth is revealed.

The more technical bits of POV

In handling a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions, in omniscient point of view you often need to orient the reader to it with descriptor words: “she thought,” “he felt,” “she heard,” “he decided,” “she wondered,” etc. In limited and deep third generally you don’t need the descriptive tags—we know we’re in this single character’s POV, so by default anything observed, known, sensed, thought, experienced, etc., is done so by them.

In all three points of view direct thought—meaning real-time, present-tense, first-person inner dialogue—should reflect the character’s immediate perspective: her vocabulary and way of speaking, regional speech patterns of her background, feelings, etc. In deep third remember that you are the character, so additionally every word of the story should be framed in her vernacular and frame of reference (except other characters’ dialogue, of course).

Using limited-third and deep POV doesn’t mean you can’t have multiple POV stories, but within each scene of the story, point of view should be confined to a single character. If you want to offer another character’s perspective, just start a new section after a space break—or a new chapter—and then apply these same POV parameters to the new POV character’s perspective.

Parting advice

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t worry. Point of view can be a dauntingly broad—and deep—topic and, making it even tougher to pin down, for every hard-and-fast “rule” of POV there are authors who’ve successfully shattered them—like Toni Morrison’s seamless shifts from omniscient to limited-third throughout Beloved, or Kevin Kwan’s rampant head-hopping in his bestseller Crazy Rich Asians. In storytelling the only rule is, Does it work?

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