Tuesday 31 May 2016

Understanding Point of View - Limited Vs Omniscient

In my last post, we talked about first and third person Points of View (PoVs).

Now, we need to consider whether the viewpoint for your story is:

Limited: This is where we can only write about things our viewpoint character knows or observes.
Omniscient: This is where we can write about anything and everything. It is often used when a writer wants to ‘head-hop’ between characters.

Limited First Person PoVs

When we write in first person, we are usually restricted to using a limited point of view. As the character is telling their own story and cannot know about things outside of it

The exception is where characters are telling stories about their pasts, as they’ll have gained knowledge and matured since the events of the story and can use phrases such as:
  • Little did I know… 
  • In hindsight… 
  • As I later discovered…. 
But their viewpoint is still limited to the knowledge they have at the time of telling the story. (Unless they have become an all-seeing deity, in which case you may use an omniscient viewpoint.)

Limited and Omniscient Third Person PoVs

When we write in third person, we can choose to use either a limited or an omniscient viewpoint. 

Here are my thoughts about some of the advantages and disadvantages to each:

Omniscient Point of View


  • You can tell the whole story - With omniscient PoVs, you can easily switch from one scene to briefly talk about another one, before switching straight back to the original scene . This is particularly useful if you have a complicated plot with lots of events unfolding at once.
  • Dramatic Irony - Omniscient viewpoints allow you to explicitly tell you readers things that your characters don't know.
  • You can use all of your characters - In omniscient PoV, you can dip in and out of your characters minds at will - Even  your most minor characters, provided they have something relevant to think.


  • Distance - Omniscient viewpoint keeps your reader further away from the characters and which reduces their emotional connection. This is mainly because omniscient viewpoints use the voice of a narrator to tell the story, rather than the voice of the character.
  • Withholding Information - If you are narrating as if you know everything, the reader will expect you to give them any relevant information. For this reason, I wouldn't recommend omniscient for a whodunnit, although it can be done. (The trick is not to narrate as if you can see absolutely everything - set some rules for your omniscience.)
  • It can get confusing - When you're writing about lots of characters and events, you need to remember to keep it clear and to factor in some quieter scenes between the exciting bits.  Even in omniscient viewpoints, too much switching about can confuse and annoy your readers.

Limited Point of View


  • Immersion - Limited PoVs allow the use of the characters voice and direct thoughts, which makes the reading experience more immersive.
  • Characters in conflict - Switching between characters, while using limited viewpoints, lets you highlight their differences through their voices and attitudes. It is also a great way to show any misunderstandings.
  • Less blatant exposition - It's much better to gradually introduce the technology, backstory and social structures of your fictional world by showing them through a character's thoughts and actions, than to simply tell the reader about them. This is particularly important for fantasy stories, where long expositional passages are traditional but can be a huge turn off for modern readers.


  • One scene at a time - Using a limited PoV usually requires you to follow your characters around until their scene is finished, so you can't suddenly start talking about something that is happening elsewhere without switching to another character's viewpoint, which you generally shouldn't do to frequently.
  • Your character's personality is make or break - If you're forcing your reader to follow one character around for a while, you need to make sure that character is worth reading about.
  • Separating your knowledge from the character's - It can be difficult to remember what your character knows and what they don't. This applies to plot points, other characters, vocabulary and general knowledge.

It's this last point that trips most writers up. It can be tricky to keep track of what your character knows, or can know, or did know, or will know later in the story but doesn't yet. However it is worth the effort to get it right. Try to look out for these common mistakes:
  • Describing a character’s own facial expressions in detail. (You are excused if they happen to be looking in a mirror.) 
  • Using language, idioms or knowledge from outside your character’s frame of reference. 
  • Characters miraculously knowing about plot developments they were absent for. 
  • Characters telepathically knowing the thoughts and emotions of other characters. 
  • Giving your characters an unrealistic awareness, or obsession with describing, what their hair is doing, or how they look at any given moment. Generally, people don't do that. Especially not in the middle of a sword fight. 

I should mention here that anything, on any list of fiction writing mistakes, can be done intentionally, and sometimes to great effect, but you should probably learn to follow the ‘rules’ (or, at least, learn what they are) before you learn to break them.

Hopefully you've found these lists helpful and, although most writers tend to stick to their comfort zones, you should now be able to make a conscious decision about the best Point of View for your story.

Let me know which PoV you prefer to write in and if there are any other Pros or Cons you've come across.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post, I loved to read this, I got lots of things to learn here.
    Thank you,
    Freya, UK