Inventing Reality: A Guide to Writing Science Fiction

Third-person omniscient

Narrating the story through the perspective of the main character is not the only way to tell a story. Sometimes it’s told from the author’s viewpoint. When this occurs, the author is writing in third-person point of view.

A specific kind of third-person point of view is “omniscient”, in which the author is an all-knowing, God-like narrator. Consider this example of third-person omniscient from R. Garcia y Robertson‘s short story “Oxygen Rising”:

“Hey, human, time to earn your pay!” Curled in a feline crouch, a silver comlink clipped to its furry ear, the SuperCat flashed Derek a toothy grin. Tawny fur showed through gaps in the bioconstruct’s body armor, and his oxygen bottle had a special nosepiece to accommodate the saber-tooth upper canines, huge curved fangs whose roots ran back to the eye sockets. This deep in the highlands of Harmonia, even homo smilodon needed bottled air. Cradling a recoilless assault cannon, the SuperCat had small use for ceremony, letting everyone call him Leo.

Derek grunted, getting paid being the least of his worries.

Notice how the story isn’t told by or from the perspective of Leo or Derek. Instead, we have a unique perspective, as if watching these two characters interact on a stage before us. But we’re doing much more than observing them. We are also able to get inside their heads, to know what both characters think and feel.

This trait is a major strength of a third-person omniscient point of view. It can reveal anything and everything about any of the characters – their perceptions, thoughts and observations. This is useful if no human viewpoint can encapsulate the story, as often is the case of science fiction stories that deal with aliens and artificial intelligences. The viewpoint also is excellent for humorous, satirical stories because the characters’ absurdity - which the main character wouldn’t notice - can be shown (though that’s not the reason Garcia y Robertson used it in the excerpted story).

In addition, third-person omniscient gives author more freedom than first-person point of views when developing a story. This is because he can change locations and use multiple viewpoints; first-person, of course, is limited to the main character’s perceptions, so only action that he is directly involved in can be shown.

Still, third-person omniscient has its drawbacks:

n It imposes distance between reader and the main character - Events in a story often gain a certain formality as narrator telling the story is ill-defined. An aloofness in the narrator also can create distance. After all, how could a god (the story’s narrator) ever exist man-to-man with the story’s main character?

n Dramatic tension can be more easily defused - When the story is told from the main character’s perspective, readers can more directly feel and relate to his stress and challenge. It’s like being told about the walk through a haunted house rather than actually going through one.

n Know-it-all voice can intrude on the narration - Like a backseat driver, some omniscient narrators are just darn irritating.

Knowing when to choose third-person rather than a first-person point of view is a matter of understanding what kind of story you want to tell. Each point of view has tradeoffs. If the story you want to tell best matches the advantages that a particular point of view offers, then go with that one.

You Do It

Write a 100-word piece in third-person omniscient (Stuck for a story idea? Describe a pilot trying to keep his spaceship from crashing into a busy spaceport). Now rewrite the piece in first-person (either limited or objective). How does the story change as you switch point of views? Which point of view best serves what you hope to accomplish in the story?