The Point of View (POV) in a story or novel is the narrative perspective from which the story is told. When you tell a story about other people using he, she or they (or it) to describe the events they experienced: that is a third person narrative. It’s a natural way for us to tell stories about things that happened to other people or things.
In third person narrative it is clear the narrator is not personally involved in the story and play no part in the events and have no influence on the outcome.
There are two distinct ways to use third person narratives: close or limited and roaming or omniscient. Here I will discuss the latter.
A story in the omniscient or third person roaming point of view has a narrator who has a complete overview of every event, they can see every character and, more importantly, are privy to the thoughts, feelings and motivations of everyone in the story. So an omniscient narrator can be authoritative and truthfully tell us what is happening to all the characters.
The idea of a ‘roaming’ third person narration comes from the idea that the third person narrator is sitting on the shoulder of a character seeing, experiencing events from their point of view and able to see and hear their thoughts and inner dialogue you (just as a third person close or limited narrator would) but the roaming narrator can move from one character to another. One thing to be wary of in this type of narrative is ‘head hopping’ where we move to rapidly between characters or even back and forwards between them.
HEAD HOPPING EXAMPLE
Stephanie was pleased to have found a parking space so close to the bar. Strictly speaking the space was only to be used after 6pm and it was still only five minutes to but she was already late and it was pouring with rain. She congratulated herself as she ran for cover popping the central locking over her shoulder as she went. Unbeknown to her the traffic warden had sheltered in the shadows of the funeral parlour doorway and he gave a smirk as he realised he would achieve today’s quota today after all.
The bar was busy but Stephanie spotted Nicola holding course on the far side of the bar. Nicola was sipping from a glass of something pink. She spotted Steph and called across the bar, waving her arms and indicating the empty seat next to her. She’d been saving it and was relieved to see Steph was finally there as the bar was filling up and more than one person had already asked if it was taken. But that was typical of Steph, Nicola thought with a moment’s irritation, always later than you expected and then easily offended if you hadn’t managed to save her a seat as if you didn’t care enough or something.
Steph plonked herself onto the bar stool and shrugged her jacket off.
‘Have you see, Jack?’ she asked Nicola off scouring the crowd for him.
‘He’s over there, ’ replied Nicola flicking her head in the direction of the juke box. That was odd, he’d been there will Craig just a moment ago. ‘Or he was,’ she added, puzzled.
Jack peered from behind the pillar wondering if he could make it to the door without being spotted by the girls. He just wasn’t in the mood tonight.
As you can see from this example, moving too fast between characters makes the story choppy and hard to follow but done well it’s important to consider when it’s appropriate to move from one character to another and how you can make the transition.
Epic stories with huge numbers of characters benefit from this kind of storytelling as the narrator can access all areas of the world and report on events, thoughts and conversations wherever they occur. Many countless classics have used this POV.
Consider this passage from ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens
Art or nature though, the original stock of Louisa’s character or the graft of circumstances upon it,—her curious reserve did baffle, while it stimulated, one as sagacious as Mrs. Sparsit. There were times when Mr. James Harthouse was not sure of her. There were times when he could not read the face he had studied so long; and when this lonely girl was a greater mystery to him, than any woman of the world with a ring of satellites to help her.
So the time went on; until it happened that Mr. Bounderby was called away from home by business which required his presence elsewhere, for three or four days.
The narrator is able to tell us Louisa’s reserve baffles Mrs Sparsit and that Mr Harthouse is unsure of her and then in the next paragraph we learn Mr Bounderby was called away on business – all thoughts and activities are known to the narrator.
In this passage from “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett the story is focused on Mary.
During the confusion and bewilderment of the second day Mary hid herself in the nursery and was forgotten by everyone. Nobody thought of her, nobody wanted her, and strange things happened of which she knew nothing. Mary alternately cried and slept through the hours. She only knew that people were ill and that she heard mysterious and frightening sounds. Once she crept into the dining-room and found it empty, though a partly finished meal was on the table and chairs and plates looked as if they had been hastily pushed back when the diners rose suddenly for some reason. The child ate some fruit and biscuits, and being thirsty she drank a glass of wine which stood nearly filled. It was sweet, and she did not know how strong it was. Very soon it made her intensely drowsy, and she went back to her nursery and shut herself in again, frightened by cries she heard in the huts and by the hurrying sound of feet. The wine made her so sleepy that she could scarcely keep her eyes open and she lay down on her bed and knew nothing more for a long time.
Many things happened during the hours in which she slept so heavily, but she was not disturbed by the wails and the sound of things being carried in and out of the bungalow.”
This too is told from an omniscient POV. Despite the focus on Mary we are told that she ‘was forgotten by everyone. Nobody thought of her, nobody wanted her, and strange things happened of which she knew nothing.’ At the end of the excerpt we read ‘Many things happened during the hours in which she slept so heavily, but she was not disturbed by the wails and the sound of things being carried in and out of the bungalow.’
So the narrator knows the thoughts of other ‘off-stage’ characters and things happening of which Mary was unaware. So this is an omniscient or roaming narrator even though the prose is focussing on one character’s experience.
POINT OF VIEW EXERCISE:
Rewrite the head hopping example above using a 3 rd person roaming or omnisicient POV and post it in the comments below for review.