Viewpoint is a slippery thing. When you’re using first person–as I’m doing right now–what the narrator should know is easy to figure out: The narrator knows exactly what the main character does. But when you’re using third-person, that narrator can know anything at all, and things get a little trickier.
But isn’t the point of a third-person viewpoint that you don’t have to tie yourself down to a single viewpoint? Yes and no. Even a third person narrator has a tone and character.
Let’s take this to absurd extremes. Imagine the following, slightly ridiculous paragraph:
She didn’t know it and never would, but by choosing to walk through the alleyway, she narrowly averted death that would have laid a year in her future. Although she would be robbed and beaten to within an inch of her life in the alley, by taking this ill-advised shortcut she was in reality avoiding being hit by a tractor-trailer filled with empty egg cartons.
Whenever I read a story with a line like this, I usually think of moralistic black-and-white action serials, or pulp detective potboilers. In modern fiction, the colorless narrator who knows all is best used for books with large, confusing casts of characters, where a colorful storyteller would complicate matters.
In theory, the narrator knows what has happened, what will happen, even what could have happened had a character done something differently. Outside of historical fiction, this sort of storytelling has long since fallen out of fashion. Now in favor is allowing the writer to more closely examine character motivations and consequences. Fiction feels more intimate and random, perhaps even what we currently consider “realistic”.
It’s common for modern well-done third-person narration to follow characters fairly closely. The “omniscient” narrator sticks to what the current “viewpoint” character knows. The tone of the narration is the tone of the writer’s voice, letting the book concentrate solely on plot and characters.
Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it. He’s also a musician who plays in a Celtic fusion band.