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Recently I started writing a story. Two equally important protagonists, omniscient 3rd person narrator, a rather sweet romance.

And it was not good.

The interactions felt shallow. Despite the ability to get into mind of any of the characters, I was rarely getting in mind of either, and the descriptions of their actions felt dry and not compelling, not immersive at all.

For a try, I shifted the perspective, 1st person of one of the protagonists.

Immediately, I could jump in her mind, add much needed impressions, observations, the descriptions gained depth, the story got captivating and pretty good.

Conclusion 1. Rewrite the whole as 1st person. That works. I can do that.

Conclusion 2. I suck at writing 3rd person. I can't write that immersively. Can't strike balance between peeking right in mind of the protagonist and keeping distance.

How do I fix that? Any exercises? Suggestions?

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3 Answers 3

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In my opinion, writing with a omniscient 3rd person character is the most difficult exercice.

Since you're seem to be able to write as 1st person, I think this exercice can help you.

First, try to write a scene, discussion or anything else, between at least two character with the perspective of each character to have the point of view from each protagonist. Focus on their feelings, their impressions, proper to themselves.

After, write the same scene with an external point of view. You won't have to think about the feelings, the more important is to have a distant description of this scene.

Then, you can write with an omniscient 3rd person narrator. Since you've previously have written each internal point of view, jumping into one mind and changing when it's needed will be easier. And since you have the external description, you don't have to think of some new details. You just have to take some part from each previous work and merge them until your final work satisfy yourself.

Sure, you still have to find the correct balance between the distance and the immersion on each protagonist, but by this method, when you're working on this balance, you won't have to think about the story itself, only on the way to tell it. It will be easier to find your balance with all elements avaible. And when you'll find it, writing the previous parts won't be necessary anymore.

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Most people suck at writing omniscient 3rd person, because it’s like writing poetry in free verse: without a structure that provides some boundaries on what you can say, there is a greater risk that your story will turn into the narrative equivalent of a slime mold, smeared out randomly across the page without a skeleton to guide it. If, for example, a plot development depends on one character knowing a secret and the other one finding it out, how can the omniscient narrator not reveal the secret to the reader at the earliest opportunity?

The best (possibly the only) effective use of omniscient POV in contemporary fiction that I’ve seen is in Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel.

In Catherine Jinks’s The Reformed Vampire Support Group, the whole narrative is told in first person, but there is one chapter where the narrator opens with something like “I didn’t know it at the time, but while we were doing XYZ, this other thing was happening....” (If the events the narrator described in that chapter were things that she could never have credibly found out about later, then that trick wouldn’t have worked.)

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You may not "suck" at all at third-person. I'd suggest that the problem is that the story you're penning isn't well-suited to a third person narrative. You've actually already discovered that as you've found that first person works much better for the tale.

A major strength of a third-person omniscient point of view is it can reveal anything and everything about any of the characters – their perceptions, thoughts and observations. This is useful in science fiction if no human viewpoint can encapsulate the story, as is the case 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.

In addition, third-person omniscient gives the 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:

  • It imposes distance between reader and the main character – Events in a story often gain a certain formality as the 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?
  • 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. Third-person narration is like being told about the walk through a haunted house rather than actually going through one.
  • Know-it-all voice can intrude on the narration – As with a backseat driver, some omniscient narrators are just darn irritating.

Knowing when to choose third-person rather than a first-person 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.

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Hi Rob and thanks for this answer. I'm about to approve a suggested edit that removes your signature block, partly because Stack Exchange frowns on those in general and partly because it's promotional. You're welcome to quote from (and then cite) your book in answers here where that's relevant, and you can use your profile to advertise and link to your book, but it doesn't seem to fit here in this answer. Thanks for your understanding. –  Monica Cellio Nov 22 '13 at 17:46

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