Limited vs. Omniscient Third Person POV
Sat Sep 24 2016
The most recent manuscript I reviewed for a client had something really interesting happen with its viewpoint. And by "interesting", I mean "instructive." I'd have thought by now I knew what there was to know about viewpoint—as I did when I wrote the How to pick your point of view article—but evidently there is always more to learn. Consider this week's article an addition to the earlier one.
Here's what happened. The manuscript was technically written in third person omniscient POV. The writer even did all the stuff you're supposed to do: they set it up early, so readers would know it was third omni, by showing the mental states of more than one character. They had early scenes which jumped in both time, place, and who was in them.
And yet, as the book went on, the POV nevertheless felt wrong. It was third omni from the beginning, but every time the narrative dropped into a new character's head, or broke away from the protagonist's location, it just didn't work.
Eventually, I figured out why: The narrative really wanted to be third person limited instead of third omni. It really wanted to track just the main character's experiences, and therefore it spent the lion's share of the time involved in scenes which were indistinguishable from third person limited writing. Graphically, the story looked like this:
The moments when the story shifted into omniscient mode were few, far between, and very brief. Thus, those moments stuck out like dissonant note in an otherwise harmonious composition. There just wasn't enough omniscient material to keep readers in that mode.
A question of proportion
If that story's omniscient POV failed because there wasn't enough omniscience in it, that suggests we should look to a story's proportions to decide which POV works best.
Third person limited
Indeed, for that client, I suggested they switch to third limited. The non-protagonist material was distracting, and kept pulling me away from the one character I was actually interested in following.
The easiest (and best) solution is simply to remove the other stuff. There's not much of it, nobody will miss it, and by not showing that stuff the narrative would be able to preserve more surprises for the reader. As I wrote in last week's article, jumping into too many POVs just creates spoilers.
Third person omniscient
Third person omniscient works best when you really do need to track significant and complex actions across many characters and many settings within your story. For example, Lord of the Rings:
Lord of the Rings spends a marginally larger share of its time on Frodo and his journey than on anybody else. Nevertheless, after the breaking of the fellowship, Tolkien really did need to track what was going on with Aragorn as he rode down to Minas Tirith, summoned the army of the dead, and all that stuff. He really did need to track what was going on with the riders of Rohan. He needed to track what Legolas and Gimli were getting up to in their side-quest to rescue Merri and Pippin, who were taken by the orcs largely as a narrative device to provide readers with visibility into what the orc armies were doing.
LotR is a complex story, and when you map it out you can't really say that the story is mainly about Frodo, mainly about Aragorn, or anything else. If you map out your story and it kind of looks like this graph, then third omni is a great POV choice.
Multiple third limited
But, let's say you plot out your story and get a graph that's something like this:
What then? You have multiple significant threads, arguing for third omniscient. Yet, you don't have so many major threads as a Tolkienesque or G.R.R. Martinesque epic sprawl across continents either. And in looking at the graph, you get the sense that you really do want to follow certain characters very closely. Following characters closely argues for third limited, but you don't want to cut the two other significant players out entirely.
This is a great situation for multiple third person limited, in which you use third person styling for each character you choose to follow, but you only follow the smallest number of important players. In the above graph, you'd cut any scenes told from the viewpoints of the one guy, the other dude, and the love interest.
This doesn't mean those characters would disappear from the story. It means that you would only show those characters externally, from within the viewpoint of the three major players. You wouldn't let readers in on what those side-characters are thinking or feeling, and we'd never see them except when your viewpoint characters are around them.
Although I'm sorry my client has some work to do in fixing the POV in their manuscript, I'm quite pleased with what I learned from that manuscript. I like viewing the tradeoffs between third limited and third omni in terms of the proportions within the manuscript, as doing so turns what might otherwise be an elusive, gut feel decision into something concrete.
(P.S. NaNoWriMo is a short five weeks away. Still plenty of time to plan out a story before the kickoff. Happy writing!)