Do You Head-Hop? Getting Third Person Point of View Right

by Ali on July 16, 2013

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 One common mistake that fiction-writers make with point of view is head-hopping while writing in the limited third person.

In case that sounded like gobbledygook, let’s get some definitions pinned down:

Third Person – using he or she (“I” is the first person)

Point of view (“POV”) – the perspective from which you’re writing

It’s easy to understand point of view when you have a first person (“I”) story – but it can be trickier to get your head around it in a third person one.

There are two key types of third person narration, omniscient and limited, and I’m going to go through each before I give you an example of head-hopping.

Third Person Omniscient

Some novels have an “omniscient” narrator – one who knows all about the characters and can dip in and out of their thoughts as needed. In these cases, head-hopping isn’t just okay – it’s an essential part of the perspective.

A good example is J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, which does this for some (though not all) of the chapters.

These two sections come from within a page of one another, and show Miles’ thoughts, followed by Samantha’s:

‘Brace yourself,’ said Miles Mollison, standing in the kitchen of one of the big houses in Church Row.

He had waited until half-past six in the morning to make the call. It had been a bad night, full of long stretches of wakefulness punctuated by snatches of restless sleep. At four in the morning, he had realized that his wife was awake too, and they had talked quietly for a while in the darkness.

[...]

‘Sam and I went in the ambulance,’ Miles enunciated clearly. ‘With Mary and the body.’

Samantha noticed how Miles’ second version emphasized what you might call the more commercial aspect of the story. Samantha did not blame him.

Elsewhere, the omniscient perspective shifts to give us a view that’s not attached to any character:

The announcement of Barry’s death on the Parish Council website sank with barely a ripple, a tiny pebble into the teeming ocean. All the same, the telephone lines in Pagford were busier than usual this Monday, and little knots of pedestrians kept congregating on the narrow pavements to check, in shocked tones, the exactness of their information.

This type of narration – dipping in and out of different character’s thoughts as well as giving a broader perspective – can work well, but it can also make it difficult for readers to immediately identify with your characters.

Using the omniscient narrator can come across as a little old-fashioned, and it’s best handled with care. However, if you do want to show multiple characters’ thoughts within one scene, you need this omniscient style.

Third Person Limited

Many modern novels are written in the third person limited perspective.

This means writing in the third person but sticking with one character at a time. Imagine that you’ve got a character positioned behind that character: you’re showing the reader what they see, not what someone across the room is seeing.

Here’s an example, from The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey:

Afternoon descended into dusk, and Mabel left the window to light an oil lamp on the table, as if she was going to prepare dinner and wait for Jack’s return, as if this day would end like any other, but in her mind she was already following the trail through the woods to the Wolverine River. The lamp burned as she laced her leather boots, put her winter coat on over her housedress, and stepped outside. Her hands and head were bare to the wind.

Third person limited works well because it encourages the reader to identify with the character quickly. It also allows you a fair bit of flexibility as author. You can still switch to another viewpoint … if you do it right.

Head-Hopping in Action

Here’s a bit of my novel, Lycopolis, rewritten slightly so you can see what third person limited head-hopping looks like:

In the dim light, Seth’s pupils were so large that only a faint rim of blue iris was left around them. For the first time, Kay noticed the grey shadows beneath his eyes. Earlier, she’d almost convinced herself that Hannah was right, the medallion was just a coincidence – but then there were the bruises. And the nightmares.

“He’s not fine,” she said, “And you’re not either, are you?”

He wasn’t expecting that. “Of course I am,” he said, and smiled. He tightened his grip on her arm; she’d back down.

“Let go of me,” she said.

He let go and raised his eyebrows, hoping the implication was clear: you’re over-reacting. “Take it easy.”

In the first paragraph here, we have Kay’s perspective. She’s looking at Seth, and thinking.

Suddenly, though, we’re into Seth’s head with “He wasn’t expecting that” – and the rest of the passage carries on from his perspective, showing what he’s thinking.

Here’s how the actual text goes, staying in Kay’s head:

He blinked, and for just a moment, she saw a flash of surprise, perhaps even fear. “Of course I am.” An easy smile curved his lips. His grip tightened on her arm.

“Let go of me,” she said.

He did, raising his eyebrows. “Take it easy.”

Why Headhopping is a Bad Idea

Abrupt changes in point of view jar the reader. Some readers won’t be able to put their finger on what’s changed, but it will bother them.

If you switch viewpoint once in a scene, that’s OK. If you’re changing it around every paragraph or two, though – and you don’t have an omniscient narrator like Rowling – the changes will get choppy and confusing.

It can be tempting to jump between different character’s heads: it gives you the chance to show what someone’s thinking, not just what they’re doing. But you can give an indication of that through another character’s observations, if you need to, and stay with third person limited.

For you as a writer, working in one point of view at a time may help you get into your story. It can present challenges (“how do I show that A is lying when the scene is from B’s point of view?”) but it can also make things more interesting for the reader, by allowing them to infer a character’s motivations.

When You Can Switch Points of View

Of course, you don’t have to stick with a single point of view for a whole novel, or even a whole short story – and you don’t need to use an omniscient narrator either. You might switch:

At the End of a Chapter

This is the safest option! In Lycopolis, I use seven different characters’ POVs, and switch to a new character each time a chapter ends.

Some authors use the character’s name at the start of their chapters when they do this. (Take a look at George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones for an example of this.)

At the End of a Scene

You might want to have multiple scenes and viewpoints per chapter. If so, you can switch at the end of a scene: the scene break is usually indicated with a blank line or with three asterisks. This is pretty much the same as switching at the end of a chapter, only you’re unlikely to head the scene with a character’s name.

During a Scene (Carefully)

Of course, writing rules are there to be broken, and you can switch viewpoints during a scene, even in third person limited. If you’re going to do so, though, I’d usually recommend keeping the number of switches to a minimum.

Alternatively, you could have a “special” type of scene (perhaps a prologue or interlude) where you write from an omniscient perspective and give us a birds-eye view of your novel’s world, delving into characters’ thoughts when needed.

 

What’s Your Point of View?

I’d love to hear what you think.

When you’re writing (or reading a story) in the third person, do you prefer the omniscient or limited perspective?

Have you got any good examples of head-hopping, or other third-person limited perspective problems?

Just pop a comment below.

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Elizabeth July 16, 2013 at 5:33 pm

I usually write from a third person limited perspective, but omniscient can be beautiful when done right. My favorite example is Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and I’m itching to try a project from this point of view! I think if the main character has a very quirky unusual voice it can be great to have first person point of view, but as a reader I like third person better. I see a lot of writers now are using first person point of view and getting different perspectives by switching characters in each chapter. I think that’s great if it’s the best point of view for the book (like in Swamplandia), but I don’t think it should be the default point of view because it’s easier to write.

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Ali July 18, 2013 at 11:37 am

I agree with you on first person, Elizabeth — I’ve loved some first person books with unusual narrative voices (Emma Donoghue’s The Room and Jane Harris’ The Observations come to mind), but in general, I prefer third person.

Good point on not just picking the easiest perspective to write — and sometimes it might be worth experimenting with perspectives early on, to see what suits the story best.

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Gemma W. July 16, 2013 at 11:29 pm

Informative and interesting. But unfortunately I have almost zero interest in fiction, despite having read fiction for 20-odd years. I think the last time I wrote any sort of fiction was in year 9 at school! O_o
Gemma W.’s last blog post ..A healthy perception and gratitude are not mutually exclusive

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Ali July 18, 2013 at 11:39 am

Gemma, glad you found it an interesting read, at least! Fiction-writing certainly isn’t for everyone — and it looks like you’re blogging, so I hope that’s a good creative outlet for you.

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LycoRogue July 17, 2013 at 12:07 am

I like to think that I write in omniscient (I prefer this because I love getting in to each character’s heads – to me it draws the readers in more), but now I fear that I’m in fact writing limited with some head-hopping. >_<

I think I might need some more clarification. How does one know if they're writing in omniscient, or if they're ATTEMPTING omniscient but falling flat with limited head-hopping????
LycoRogue’s last blog post ..Mini-Post

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Ali July 18, 2013 at 11:42 am

I struggled with this a bit when writing the post!

I think — though maybe this is a matter for a Huddle discussion or something — that true omniscient narration means that you’re moving constantly between different people’s thoughts, with some sentences / paragraphs that aren’t from any perspective (like the J.K. Rowling segment starting “The announcement of Barry’s death…”)

If you’re generally following one character — say, for 50% of a chapter — and then suddenly switch to another for two lines, that’s head-hopping.

I’m open to other thoughts on this, though; I really like third person limited and it’s a good while since I’ve even attempted writing anything from a more omniscient perspective.

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Garry Rodgers July 17, 2013 at 4:22 pm

Hi Ali,

This is a great summation of what ‘head-hopping’ really is. I struggled with this and actually parted ways with an editor over a difference of opinion on expressing point of view.

Unless the novel is being written in 1st person, I don’t see how it’s possible not to change POVs as what the different characters are thinking, saying, and doing are all expressions of their various POVs. That’s a vital part of storytelling.

Like you suggested, I found the easiest way to clearly show (not tell :) a POV change was to use the line break and * * *. It’s subliminal, yet so clear that there’s a change in direction and you can use it many times within a chapter without it being irritating.

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Ali July 18, 2013 at 11:44 am

Thanks, Garry! Glad you found a solution that works for you. :-) I think subtle cues are great, and I’m sure most readers don’t constantly think “Oh look, a scene break, now there’s a new point of view,” they just get on with it! But that little marker helps them make the transition.

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Jessica Flory July 17, 2013 at 5:48 pm

THANK YOU for writing this post, Ali! It bugs the heck out of me when I’m reading and the author doesn’t get this right. I think that third person omniscient is really hard to pull off – you have to make sure you’re switching through character’s heads in each scene, you can’t focus in on one. I love third person limited since you really get to know one character per scene or chapter.
Jessica Flory’s last blog post ..3 Surprising Story Killers – and How to Avoid Them

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Ali July 18, 2013 at 11:45 am

Thanks, Jessica! I’m glad I’m not the only one this bugs… :-)

I’ve never even had much of a go at omniscient, because I think it must be really tough to get right. I think you’ve absolutely hit it there — the author needs to continually switch rather than suddenly focus on one character for a whole scene.

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Rochelle July 17, 2013 at 7:29 pm

love this! This is a great post on head-hopping! It can be so confusing when you have to go back and read a passage to figure out what happened.

I’ve been struggling with this a bit — not the head hopping bit, but what POV to use. I am writing in third person limited, but only with one character. As I’ve been writing I wonder if I ought to add another character to my POV. It’s either that or first person and I don’t know if I want to go there. Is it bad to have third person but limited to just one character?
Rochelle’s last blog post ..How to Take Charge of Your Self-Doubt Part 2

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Ali July 18, 2013 at 11:47 am

I don’t think it’s bad, but you’re potentially missing out on some of the advantages of third person — being able to show your main character through someone else’s eyes, and being able to give the reader information that the main character doesn’t know.

Is there a particular reason you’ve chosen not to use first person? (Some authors simply prefer third, and some readers — I’m one of them — so that’s a perfectly good reason, in my opinion!)

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Rochelle July 18, 2013 at 7:32 pm

I want to say I’m not a fan of first person, but I keep finding out that books I love are first person and I just didn’t realize it. I think that is a sign of it being done well. When it’s not done well it’s an ack!-I-can’t-read-that reaction. As I’ve been writing I have to fight myself to keep it in third person and I just plow through because I’m worried about it. I prefer third person, but at the same time I think this would work as a first person. It’s a paranormal mystery — time traveling involved. I need to sit down and have a good talk with myself about this. I could either add a character’s head to my third person or make it first person. Sorry, I didn’t intend to take my comments off-topic!
Rochelle’s last blog post ..Stage Makeup 101

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Ali July 19, 2013 at 11:13 am

No need to apologise, it’s nice when a topic gets extended in the comments! And good luck with the novel (I’m assuming novel rather than short story?) whichever way you take it. :-)

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Peter Prasad July 19, 2013 at 12:11 pm

Thanks for this post Ali. Your observations and examples are quite good. You raise some interesting technical issues about writing, storytelling and POV, and a twee bit Oxford English too. I salute you.

Perhaps I assume my readers have a little bit more of an elastic brain that you do. I’m a head-jumper to advance the story ASAP. However that’s after a few paragraphs of background and foreplay per character. I think more than a page of such is indulgent. So I spice them again when their POV comes round again. Instead of telling you all their background bio and detailed thought processes, self-doubts, etc. I try for action that shows it. But then, what do I know?
I rely on a note from a best-selling author who threw the rules out the window and said: Just tell a good story. If my latest, GOAT-RIPPER, doesn’t work, at least I have the cheese to show for it. We ate the cheese — it works. On’Ya.

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Ali July 20, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Thanks, Peter. I’m sure many readers are indeed a bit more flexible on this than I am! I certainly agree with you on showing character background etc. through action rather than long sections of narrative.

Good luck with your novel!

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Shallow Sister September 23, 2013 at 9:39 am

I’ve had to reedit a book because of the head hopping. Written in the third person I initially felt the other main character was too shallow given the depth of my main POV character. This lead me to head hop somewhat. It has been challenging keeping to one POV and giving another character depth. I hope I’ve achieved it and that the head hoping that has taken place is minimal and acceptable. This is not something I ever thought about before and understand how crucial it actually is in keeping the story flowing.

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Faye Lynn December 3, 2013 at 9:27 pm

Thank you for the example of head hopping, and then the corrected text that eliminated hopping heads.

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Jeremy Goodell December 25, 2013 at 8:43 pm

Ali,

Thanks, this is really well done.

However I find it a little depressing. I wrote most of my (middle grade Fantasy) novel head-hopping between the two main characters because the book is told from THEIR perspective. They are sisters who are together for basically the entire book and they meet everyone and do everything together. But now as I attempt some rewriting, it’s really starting to bother me. This is going to be very difficult to get right. I really want the reader to identify with “THE GIRLS,” not with one or the other.

Any thoughts on how to approach this? I’m trying to remember any other book that might have used a similar technique or if it’s just bad form. Didn’t “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” swap between Edmund, Lucy, Peter and Susan’s thoughts? Or perhaps it was just omniscient narrative.

Thanks,
Jeremy

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Jeremy Goodell December 25, 2013 at 8:47 pm

Follow-up: I just found this elsewhere and it seems like maybe it’s not such bad form to do graceful head-hopping between two primary characters:

“The term head-hopping specifically refers to non-delineated changes of POV (written from within the head of a character) within a scene that move quickly between characters (ie one sentence or a short paragraph, then back again or to another character), especially if it’s between more than two characters, or uses the POV of minor characters who have limited POV throughout the rest of the story.
“Valid changes of POV are limited to main characters and are clearly delineated with a smooth baton change.”

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1317406-head-hopping

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Ali January 10, 2014 at 2:54 pm

It’s fine to change POV between main characters — the key is to do it consciously and deliberately, and not jump back and forth constantly.

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe has an omniscient viewpoint (which in this case features an author/narrator who occasionally talks directly to the reader), which is why C.S. Lewis can do things like this:

“At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.”

In terms of specific (if fairly prosaic) advice — can you switch between the girls with each chapter / scene change?

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Jeremy Goodell January 10, 2014 at 3:07 pm

Thanks Alli, that’s good info. I actually rewrote the first four or five chapters to do just what you said: switch between the girls every chapter. In the first chapter I actually switch midway through with a scene change. From chapter six on, the switching is done more randomly. But I’m pretty comfortable with the way it works now. From a reader’s perspective, I think they will quickly, but comfortably, get used to the idea of seeing things from each of the sisters’ perspectives, and will not likely notice when the further meshing of viewpoints occurs later in the book. So far none of my test readers has said that it was a problem for them.

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Ali January 12, 2014 at 4:14 pm

Reader feedback is always the best test! Glad you found a solution that worked for you, the book and the readers. :-)

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Mike Whitsitt March 20, 2014 at 7:22 pm

Ali,

Let me see if I understand correctly. If I have a scene where a man and woman are seated at dinner (first date) and, along with their dialogue I have inner dialogue where she is assessing him and in the next paragraph, he is assessing her, I’m ‘head hopping’ and that’s taboo? I truly believe it adds to the scene for the reader to have both of their perspectives. How would this be handled without head hopping? I’m writing third person omniscient. Thanks!

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Ali March 27, 2014 at 4:01 pm

If you’re writing third person omniscient, then that’s fine. It’s your story, and if you feel both perspectives are truly necessarily in the same scene, then go for it! The problem comes when authors are writing from a more limited perspective and slip occasionally, rather than having a balanced approach.

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Jeremy Goodell March 27, 2014 at 4:32 pm

After several months of off-and-on reading, I’m about three quarters of the way through Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and find it to be a very interesting example of mixed POV. I thought it might make a nice addition to your post here.

Dickens uses first person narrative for about half the chapters. The narrator is Miss Esther Summerson, essentially the primary character of the novel. The other half of the chapters are told by a third person omniscient narrator who switches liberally between settings and characters with each new chapter. The styles are intermixed with typically one or two chapters from Esther’s point of view, followed by one or two chapters with the omniscient narrative.

What makes this novel even more unique is that not only is there a dramatic POV switch between chapters, there is also a tense switch. The Esther Summerson first-person narrative is all done in traditional past tense, as Esther tells the story of her time at Bleak House. However, every chapter told with the omniscient narrative is done in the present tense.

It’s a fascinating technique that surely achieves what Dickens wanted: to tell a traditional Austen-esque story of love and loss, but to mix in his own commentary on Dickensian England’s social inequities and judicial insensibilities, and to do it in such a manner that the difference between the two would be impossible not to notice.

The novel’s length makes it a tedious read, but I’ve found it very illuminating from a craft perspective. And it boggles the mind to think he wrote, re-wrote, and edited all 900 pages using quill and ink!!!

If you do decide to read Bleak House, I’d recommend watching the 8-part BBC mini-series starring Gillian Anderson and Carey Mulligan–makes it a bit easier to remember the sixty-one characters.

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Ali April 2, 2014 at 4:22 pm

It’s rather a long time since I read Bleak House (raced through it one Christmas break while at uni — I had to write an essay!) — so thanks very much for the great comment, Jeremy! I may have to dig out my copy…

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Mark Hoult August 12, 2014 at 10:10 pm

Interesting post. Omniscient is regarded as old fashioned by some, but it’s a staple of comic and satirical writing.
Mark Hoult’s last blog post ..The brutal truth about writing

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Ali August 18, 2014 at 5:20 pm

Good point — I have to confess I don’t read much comic or satirical writing!

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Britton Swingler August 15, 2014 at 4:09 pm

Thank you for this discussion – I am finding it quite helpful in wrapping my head around POV. I am a lifelong writer, but am working on my first novel. I have decided to use third person limited, using character names within each chapter title for clarity. I have played with other formats and they just don’t seem to fit.

Meanwhile, I am wondering about the best way to weave in scene/setting/world building details (aside from a prologue, which I may do as well). Is it workable to have one omniscient-like narrator who sits separately from each character? For example, within a chapter in which two characters are talking, one of whom we get to see some feelings/motivations, does it work to have a separate narration that describes the scene and some of the characters’ backgrounds in such a way that it is just commentary? Here is a sample sentence: The platform is a gigantic flat crystal that looks as if it is effortlessly suspended in space. For this sentence to fit, is the reader’s assumption that this is the character’s viewpoint, or is it a separate narrator’s comment? – That said it could be: Chris thinks the platform, a gigantic flat crystal, looks as if it is effortlessly suspended in space.

Thank you in advance for your assistance.
Britton Swingler’s last blog post ..Abrupt

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Jeremy Goodell August 15, 2014 at 5:28 pm

While it’s important for a writer to understand POV rights and wrongs, I think it’s also important to not overthink it. I see no reason why this sentence:

“The platform is a gigantic flat crystal that looks as if it is effortlessly suspended in space.”

would be out of place regardless of voice. If I were talking/thinking in the first person, I could say/think that exact sentence. And it’s equally appropriate to express Jack’s point of view.

The only distinguishing factor about the sentence is that it’s in present tense, so would be out of place in a traditional past tense narrative.

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Ali August 18, 2014 at 5:24 pm

Good question, Britton. I agree with Jeremy that a fairly neutral sentence like that could fit in most voices just fine. If I read that, I’d assume it was the viewpoint character’s perspective. (As Jeremy rightly notes, you’ll need to make sure you’re sticking with present tense throughout, or change it to past tense.)

You might run into problems if you’re describing something that’s perfectly obvious to the character but not to the reader. E.g. if these platforms are totally normal to this character, as normal as a door or a table would be to us, then it might be more appropriate to describe it as something as simple as “the platform” or “the crystal platform”.

I’d be wary about sketching in background details that the viewpoint character wouldn’t know, though. Readers can pick up a lot from the way characters behave, the way they talk, and so on. In terms of the world, again, readers will pick up a lot of this without having long explanations in the narrative — you can get away with quite a light touch.

Best of luck! If you’re feeling unsure, don’t let it stop you, just plow on forward — it’s often easier to fix little niggles with viewpoint in the second draft, especially if you can get a few writer friends to give you some feedback.

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Klaus Schilling October 22, 2014 at 5:38 pm

I detest any closeness between reader and characters; whence omniscient is my one true way to go, ideally with a narrator addressing the readers rhetorically as in the good old times of literature.

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