Writing the 3rd Person Omniscient Voice with Confidence

Whether this is a well-known fact or not, I don’t know. But if you didn’t know this already, then here it is: writing from the perspective of third-person omniscient is the easiest way to write. It is the most versatile, the most flexible and the most widely used.

This is the perspective of the disembodied, all-knowing narrator. The third-person omniscient, or the 3PO, can jump from character to character. The 3PO is neither a he, nor a she, and yet is both. Most importantly, the 3PO does not need to justify how he/she/it knows what a character is thinking.

Why, then, do many authors writing from the 3PO point of view fail to take advantage of this inherent leniency by justifying their characters’ thoughts?

What do I mean by that? Well, take for example the following passage written by a well-known, well-loved author of romantic suspense (whom I won’t disrespect by naming):

He smiled. It was the kind of smile that made her want to take a couple of steps back, turn and run for her life. But that would be the worst thing she could do, she told herself. She knew enough about animal behaviour to know that predators only got more excited by fleeing prey.

Did you see it? The justification?

At the least, that little she told herself is unnecessary. We already know we’re reading this character’s thoughts. We already know she’s thinking: that would be the worst thing I could do! That’s the beauty of the 3PO point-of-view. You don’t have to remind us that your thoughts are really your characters’ thoughts.Unhappy

Unfortunately, the she told herself is also distracting. One minute the reader is snuggled up comfortably in the character’s head, and the next they’re ripped away by that small, seemingly innocuous justification.

Worse still, it suggests a lack of confidence by the writer. It may be unintentional, but it’s there: the need to justify omniscient words by adding to it the context of a character’s relative position.

The she told herself is entirely redundant. The paragraph would exist nicely without it:

He smiled. It was the kind of smile that made her want to take a couple of steps back, turn and run for her life. But that would be the worst thing she could do. She knew enough about animal behaviour to know that predators only got more excited by fleeing prey.

If you’re writing from the third-person omniscient viewpoint – and it’s likely that you are, or will at some point in your career – have confidence that your omniscient knowledge, your omniscient words and your omniscient thoughts can stand on their own.

ConfidenceYou don’t need to remind readers that what you’re thinking is really what the character is thinking. We already know it. And if we’ve read more than ten pages into your book (the general make-or-break point for any novel), then chances are we trust your insider information and your judgement. We know you’ll translate your characters’ thoughts and feelings faithfully, and that you’ll bring us through to the story’s end.

We trust you to speak for your characters. You just need to trust yourself.

26 thoughts on “Writing the 3rd Person Omniscient Voice with Confidence

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  1. I usually find it tough to get into third person omniscient stories. I usually find them disorienting. Maybe I have just not read one that was well written.


    1. I’m sorry you haven’t found one that’s interested you. Personally, I find them preferable, but to each their own, I guess. What a diverse group we readers are, huh? : ) Happy reading!


  2. Two reasons for reblogging here. First you show my favourite Scottish Castle; my acrylic painting of it can be found on carolec55.wordpress.com/myartwork. Secondly, your article highlights a very tricky issue for first time writers. I loved both.


    1. Thank you for saying so, Carole. You’re right, it is a tricky thing to master, and it comes down to trusting yourself that you’re conveying your character’s thoughts without needing to use the tags. It’s where experience comes in, I think. Thanks for posting. And that’s a lovely painting, by the way. I love how you’ve captured the sunlight and shadow on the mountains behind the castle.


  3. Thanks for shining a spotlight on this complex trust issue. It’s interesting because when I read something in which the author states the obvious I usually feel like he/she doesn’t trust me as a reader, I didn’t think of the perspective you gave here, that maybe the author doesn’t trust him/herself.


    1. Glad I could be of help 🙂 I think the trust thing goes both ways, it’s both trusting the reader and trusting yourself as a writer. You have to trust in yourself that you’ve been clear enough in your writing, and then trust that the reader will take from your writing what he or she is supposed to. But always, the trust should start with yourself as the writer because you are the starting point. Thanks for commenting!


  4. I’ve been touting the 3rd person POV (partial omniscience) throughout my brief blogging career, because of the flexibility for the writer and benefits to the reader, which you so aptly describe here. I find it hard to believe reports that some writing instructors think it’s harder to write than 1st person. I believe the problem that some writers and readers have with it, is when the writer attempts head-hopping, and especially when more heads are being hopped into and out of than human psychology can reasonably accommodate.

    I wrote my first novel with only two POV characters, assuming a partly omniscient narrator voice, putting the characters’ ruminations into untagged italics, and doing away with as many dialogue tags as possible. But now that I’m recording an audible version, I have to put all those tags back in, plus thought tags – and I hate it. But I can’t afford to hire voice talent, so for visually impaired readers who can’t access the cues on the page, tags are a necessary evil.


    1. Yes, I can imagine that would be a necessary evil when recording an audio version of your book. But emphasis on the necessary part, because at the end of the day, you’re sharing your work with people who might not have been able to enjoy it otherwise. So I would argue that the rules are different in this medium. And you’re right, head-hopping is tricky, and if it’s not done right, it can be confusing for the reader. I think the confidence part plays in here, too. You need to be clear about whose head your in, and then you need to be confident that you’re describing the right character’s thoughts without those dialogue tags. Experience plays a big part as well. Thanks for commenting, and good luck with your writing!


  5. Your example doesn’t work because the writer stayed in 3rd person. In order for main character thoughts to be effective, they have to become first person. I use that in my books and it works great because then you’re hearing, or reading, an actual thought in the protagonist’s mind. It makes the story more personal and interesting; especially when you’re writing Kid Lit, which I do. 🙂 So, if done correctly, I say there’s nothing wrong with “thoughts” being added to the narrative.


    1. Thanks for your input, however, I would have to disagree. The power of the 3rd person omniscient lies in assuming a character’s thoughts without being the character in a 1st person voice. If the character’s thoughts are transcribed in the 1st person, then it’s not using the 3rd person omniscient technique. You’re right, there is of course nothing wrong with thoughts being added to the narrative, and they certainly can be added in the 1st person. However, this post discussed using the 3rd person omniscient’s ability to record a character’s thoughts without a) assuming that character’s POV, and b) using unnecessary dialogue tags. There are different strengths to each option, though. Best of luck with your writing, and thanks for commenting 🙂


  6. Great post, Veronica! It challenged me. I’m a minimalist in most areas of my life, including writing. I’m moved to use the least amount of words without sacrificing needed context. When I first read the excerpt without the “she told herself,” it felt as if the author were inserting her viewpoint. So I reworked it and came up with this:

    He smiled in a way that made her want to take a couple of steps back, turn, and run for her life. But she knew that would be the worst thing she could do; predators only get more excited by fleeing prey.

    Since I don’t know the preceding text, this may not work. Maybe “He smiled” needs to stand alone. But thank you for this 5 minutes of fun!


  7. “she thought to herself” is absolutely necessary in the above case. Without it, the omniscient narrator would be the subject of the sentence, any not any arbitrary character (that is impossible to guess).


  8. Great post, Veronica! I decided to write my second novel in the first person, and after it was done, had second thoughts and converted it into the omniscient third – what a difference! However I have read novels in the first person that blew me away. In the end it is skill and brilliance that really count – and a great writer can create a fantastic story with any tools. That’s what I’m thinking right now anyway!


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