Playing God – thoughts on omniscience

In my last post about viewpoint, I briefly touched upon first person narrators and why they’re popular among beginning writers. Today I will tell you what I think about the omniscient narrator, which is the most basic form of third person viewpoints. Perhaps the best way to look at it is through an example:

It took Pete two months to work up the courage to ask Nora out. She was so delicate-looking, so frail-boned, her skin translucent, her straw-brown hair wisping off into golden sparks around her face. How could a beer-and-football guy like Pete ever impress Nora Danzer? So he studied the kinds of things that fragile beauties are impressed with-the current exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, the art of cinema; he drew the line at opera. When he was ready at last, he wrote his invitation on a whimsical Sandra Boynton card and left it on her desk with a single daffodil.

ย ย  Taking her out was like taking a final exam. Pete knew he was failing, but he couldn’t figure out why. He kept bumbling along, trying to impress Nora with his sensitivity, never guessing that Nora was much more comfortable with beer-and-football types. She had grown up with brothers who thought that “fun” was any outdoor game that left scabs. She had often told her friends that all but six of her delicate, fragile bones had been broken during childhood-at least she could hardly remember a time when she didn’t have a cast on some part of her body. She liked rowdiness, laughter, crude humor and general silliness; she had thought Pete was like that, from the way he bantered and joked with the others at the office.

– (Reproduced from ‘Characters and Viewpoint’ by Orson Scott Card)

The two paragraphs above tell you all you need to know about omniscient narrators. First of all, they can be anywhere, see any thing and know everything. They can duck in and out of people, fly away to the poles mid-scene, take a break to tell the reader a little about the weather…you get the point. The only rule with omniscient narrators is that there are no rules. In the example above, notice that you get both points of view – Pete’s and Nora’s – at different places, but also that you get a third point of view that is neither Nora’s nor Pete’s (“…never guessing that Nora was…”). This is the voice of the narrator telling us what Pete and Nora don’t know or can’t see.

But all that power comes at a cost. Using the third person narrator gives you the means to be anywhere anytime, which means you have to be much more judicious in your choice of where you should be. If you don’t make your choice well, you’re much more likely to leave your reader feeling disoriented. You can see it happen in the two paragraphs above, if you read closely. That point where the narrator switches from Pete to Nora, skilfully as it is done in this case, still jars a little.

Another problem is the difficulty you will have of hiding your narrator. Of course, if your narrator is witty or funny or full of zen wisdom, then you want him to be visible and making him omniscient may be the best thing to do. But most narrators ought to be hidden so that they cede ground to the story, and it’s very difficult to do that when (s)he insists on ducking into every nook and corner of your scene and make observations.

The biggest disadvantage of the omniscient narrator is that you often sacrifice depth for the sake of breadth. It is great when you’re in ‘information dumping’ mode or if you want to rattle off a bunch of back-stories about some secondary character, but if you want your reader to feel close to your people and get to know them, an omniscient narrator won’t do. This is where first person trumps third person; where third person is best to give the most amount of information in the least amount of space, first person allows you to go deep inside one character, see him from inside out, get to know him. Moby Dick would not have been the same if it had started with “His name was Ishmael”.

The most popular choice of viewpoint, therefore, would be something that would combine the best elements of both first-person and omniscient. It would allow the reader a deep look into the story’s characters at times, but it would also allow the writer the flexibility of flitting over to ‘telling’ mode every now and then to quicken the pace. It would sit on the happy fence where both writer and reader can be happy.

It’s called the ‘third person limited’ point of view, and if you have to be a fiction writer, you must learn to be at least competent in using it. We’ll speak more about it in my next post.

Comments

  1. Yes, it is called third person limited, and as a writer you should learn to love it. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  2. To get this straight (taking forward the previous post), third person limited narrator is the ‘invisible narrator man’, who has the liberty to make unlimited observations but limits it to things in the universe that have direct connection with the story, and the protagonist; while an omniscient narrator is a complete bozo for whom the concept of editing (of thoughts and writing) is alien.

    If you’re someday going to write an essay on ‘show, don’t tell’, please do not riddle it with illustrations like:
    {Instead of writing, ‘”Get out,” shouted the professor angrily’; you should write, ‘the professor threw the duster at the student. ‘Get out,’ he shouted.} I’ve read way too many suggestions like this on the net.

    Instead, you should tell us the kind of situations where ‘show’ is important, and the situations where ‘tell’ is better than show. I really think that a book needs to strike a healthy balance of show and tell. Would you agree?

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    • Your narrator can be obtrusive in any of the three viewpoints: your first person has no choice but to be obtrusive but he’s forgiven for being so because he’s one of the ‘story-people’. Your omniscient narrator also has no choice but to be obtrusive, and here you run a risk of losing the reader because of your narrator’s freedom. He can go anywhere, see anything, hear anything – so he can go to the North Pole where there is no living soul and describe the ice if he wants. The third person limited point of view allows the most scope for concealment. But even there, if you’re not careful, he can jump out and disorient the reader anytime he wants. As the author, you want to stop him from doing it.

      As I said in one of my previous comments, I don’t think of narrators as living things. I just think of them as specialized, advanced cameras which are placed in different locations. At least gives me an illusion of control.

      I’m not going to do a ‘Show, don’t tell’ piece, because I strongly believe that ‘Show, don’t tell’, is not a technique. It’s a consequence of the writer applying a few principles correctly to his writing. If you read my post, ‘Four ways to improve your narrative’, I make the same point. I plan to do a similar ‘do and don’t’ thing with dialogue, so that will cover ‘how to show’ for both narrative and dialogue.

      As for when to show and when to tell, I will come out and say that you show for at least 90% of your novel. But yes, there are a few occasions on which telling is better than showing. I will do a post one of these days about it. Thanks for the suggestion ๐Ÿ™‚

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  3. All quiet for a while now? No new posts?

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  4. Hi James,

    Yes, been quiet for a while now, but a few changes in the offing soon. I do plan to come back in a month or so. Glad to know at least one person is missing me ๐Ÿ™‚

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  5. One person at a time, I guess, if you can’t get them all at once :).

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