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Point of View—Part Three

on July 26th, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on April 18, 2013

This is the third of three articles in a series on point of view.
See Point of View, the Full Story for the introduction and Part Two, First-, Second-, and Third-person POVs.

In this article we’ll focus on the specifics of the omniscient point of view.

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While I’ve separated the omniscient POV for purposes of this series, I’m actually listing the omniscient POV under third person because it uses the third person’s he and she words. However, do note that some would give omniscient its own category and list points of view as first, third, and omniscient. Omniscient is different enough that it can be its own category, but because it uses the same basics as third person, I’ll include it as part of the options for third-person POV.

However, while omniscient uses the same he/she words that other third-person narration does, the effect is different. The viewpoint is literally different.

The full true omniscient point of view is the God point of view—the omniscient narrator sees all, knows all, and can report all. This narrator has unlimited wisdom about not only the characters in a book but knowledge about every subject in every age. Thus, while a character living in the year 1605 couldn’t know about space travel—so he couldn’t talk about it—an omniscient narrator could both know about it and refer to it. A character in first- or third-person narration who didn’t speak Swahili could not accurately report what he heard another character say in Swahili. The omniscient character, on the other hand, could repeat it and translate it.

Yes, I have seen a character repeat another character’s words, sometimes full paragraphs, in a foreign language, while in the POV of a character who didn’t speak that language. Here’s my reminder to you that it can’t be done. If you don’t speak Swahili, you can’t report that someone else said Mimi nina kuangalia kwa dada yangu  [I’m looking for my sister]. You could say what it sounded like, but you couldn’t repeat it and spell it correctly. Exceptions, of course, for language whizzes and mimics who might get close to the right words after hearing a phrase once.

The omniscient narrator can see into every character’s head and report what each is feeling or thinking. This point of view could report what a fish in a fishbowl felt and saw, what a blade of grass experienced as it blew in the breeze.

The omniscient was once the primary POV for fiction. But reader preferences have changed. Readers no longer prefer being told stories by a narrator who knows all, who can step into the story and interrupt it with a discourse on gold mining or impressionist art. For the most part, today’s readers don’t want interruptions at all. For the most part (there are always exceptions), readers don’t want lectures and lessons. At least not overt ones that interrupt the story’s action.

This isn’t to say that the omniscient doesn’t have its place. But the days when a story was told by an omniscient narrator who made himself known—even going so far as to speak to readers directly—are past. How often do we read something such as It’s the truth, Dear Reader. I can attest to it myself? We do see such wording every so often—Elizabeth Peters uses something similar in the introductions to her Amelia Peabody stories and the Lemony Snicket books use a similar device—but it’s become very much a gimmick to remind us of the earlier fashion. And even Elizabeth Peters doesn’t interrupt the narration with narrator asides; she typically restricts them to pages in the front or back matter.

Since the trend has been away from anything that would expose the underpinnings of the fictional story and toward giving readers closer ties to the protagonist, this style of narration has become less common.

But that doesn’t mean the omniscient narrator has gone away completely; its focus has merely shifted a bit in today’s use. And we’ve got options to choose from.

Options

The options are what make omniscient problematic, at least for the writer. A writer who begins with one option may switch unknowingly to another. But stories flow easier and readers stay more involved when POV is maintained or when it changes at expected times and places in the story.

Full Omniscient

This is the God version that I’ve already mentioned.

The omniscient narrator could tell us what’s happening with character A and/or with character B. And it wouldn’t matter if A and B were in the same room or across the world or across the years. This POV could give us the thought of character A in one line and the thought of character B in the very next sentence. (When that’s done in other POVs, the result is head-hopping.)

The omniscient narrator can report what a character looks like (from the outside in) as well as what a character feels or thinks (from the inside out). The fully omniscient narrator, who hasn’t been restricted, could literally report anything.

The omniscient narrator speaks in his own voice with his own words—he can sound different from any other character in the story. He is not restricted to the word choices of a character and shouldn’t sound like one of the characters. He could speak with a neutral voice.

Limited or Restricted

The writer might want to limit his omniscient narrator, not allow him to report everything he knows. This may seem a contradiction, for the omniscient narrator not to declare all, but look at it as him simply not reporting all that he might know.

There are several ways to limit the omniscient narrator.

Neutral or Not

One option is for the writer to limit the omniscient narrator’s personality and word choices. The omniscient narrator might be a neutral reporter who uses neutral words. He may make no value judgments and offer no opinions or snide asides.

Ginger walked briskly toward the café, her face a study in grief.

On the other hand, he could be biased or judgmental.

The foolish woman walked briskly toward the café, her tears flowing freely. No doubt she’d pinched herself hard to make the faux tears flow.

The omniscient narrator who reveals his own opinions could become a character himself, with his word choices coloring the tone of the story. He may offer commentary, as in an editorial, that reveals his feelings or attitude toward the characters he’s telling the reader about. He might also reveal his attitude or stand toward a particular social topic. Think about political thrillers in which a page or more is given to an explanation of a social ill or other topic. For example, maybe the narrator tells readers how bribes in third-world countries lead to shoddy practices and inferior products being sold in first-world countries.

The tone could be fully neutral, a simple report of how A leads to B to C and ultimately to Z. Or the narrator could offer his opinion of how capitalistic practices lead to such outcomes.

Note that this omniscient narrator who reveals his own opinions may be mistaken for the voice of the author. Or this may actually be the voice of the author trying to hide in a narrator.

If you want to include your opinions—religious, political, social—but don’t want to be identified with them, don’t choose this option. Readers will assume any omniscient narrator with an opinion is the author. Instead, hide your opinion in the voice and words of a character.

If you don’t want the narrator to come across as a character, keep the narrator’s words neutral.

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Limited Objective

Another option for limiting the omniscient narrator is to restrict his reporting to objective knowledge. Thus he reports only what is seen or heard—events and dialogue and description. With this limited or objective omniscient, readers don’t see inside the characters. They don’t get reports of thoughts or feelings because the narrator isn’t dipping into minds and hearts to show what characters are thinking or feeling.

This is very close to the third-person objective, but there are differences. The omniscient narrator still reports what he sees and hears in his own words, not the words and voice of a character. And he can still report what a character looks like from the outside, which a character can’t do. And the omniscient narrator can compare characters or events to other people and things the character herself has no knowledge of, can mention things and places and truths the character has no knowledge of.

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Limited Subjective

In this omniscient POV we can still see from the outside—A huge purple knot formed on Tito’s foreheadand we can hear Tito’s thoughts and feel his feelings, but we can’t hear the thoughts and feelings of everyone or everything. In this POV, the writer has restricted internal reports of thoughts and feelings to only one character (or to a few).

In this point of view, viewpoint duties do not switch between characters in the same scene. If we’re following one character’s thoughts, we stay with that character until the scene is finished.

This sounds much like the third-person limited subjective, but as noted above, the omniscient narrator still reports what he sees and hears in his own words, not in the words and voice of a character. (Character thoughts and feelings would be reported in the character’s words.) And he can still report what a character looks like from the outside, which a character can’t do for himself. And the omniscient narrator can refer to events and people and things the character herself has no knowledge of.

Strengths of the Omniscient POV

The omniscient can be used to convey information that no character could know.

Omniscient works well for historicals and stories that either have large casts or that transpire over long periods of time, when the sweep of the story and/or the plot is more important than the thoughts and feelings of a single character.

Omniscient can be used to ease into other points of view without violating rules for those points of view.

Omniscient works when you need more distance from the characters but don’t necessarily want the cold feel of third-person objective.

Omniscient is useful when you don’t want to shade the story’s narration toward a particular character.

Omniscient can convey information in fewer words than the third-person subjective.

The omniscient point of view can be used to transition between scenes and to introduce scenes from a distance, something often necessary no matter which POV the rest of the story uses.

Weaknesses of the Omniscient POV

The omniscient can feel/sound old-fashioned.

An omniscient narrator can be confused for the author.

Too much may be revealed.

Readers may not know who is offering an opinion or observation, a character or the narrator.

The feel is one of distance rather than intimacy since readers don’t get to spend a lot of time with a single character.

Readers may get dizzy seeing into every character’s head and jumping into and out of them.

Today’s readers like to identify with the protagonist, one reason the omniscient is no longer in favor. Readers want to become a character. When they are jerked out of a character’s head and heart and thrust into another’s, they can’t develop the same identification with character and story they can with third-person limited subjective.

Readers may wonder just who this narrator is telling all this information or slanting the story. And when they’re thinking about the foundations of a story, readers are no longer caught up in the fiction or the plot of that story.

New writers may have trouble limiting what the omniscient narrator tells.

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When the omniscient narrator reports what’s happening to characters and yet also dips into the heads of characters to report their thoughts, the writer must be clear whose thought he is portraying. This is easiest when the narrator reports in a neutral voice—when that narrator doesn’t become a character himself—and when characters have distinct voices of their own.

Jaye stared, dumfounded, at the numbers on her monitor. The loser had cleared out their joint account, leaving her nothing.

While loser might be Jaye’s opinion of her husband, if the narrator isn’t impartial, this could just as easily be the narrator’s opinion and report. Context and/or rewording could clarify whose opinion we’re reading.

Omniscient is sometimes necessary and useful, but it’s not apt for every story.

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I’ve given you a lot to consider and chew on.

The first step is to choose your point of view. You might not decide right away how much narrative distance you want, so that may be something you decide on as you work on your first draft. Or you may know exactly how close to your characters you want readers to be. Choose the best POV and variation to achieve the desired distance. Choose, too, the best character for the viewpoint character. See what’s accepted for the genre. See what other writers have done.

Know, however, that you aren’t locked into one viewpoint character or into one point of view. You are allowed to, sometimes encouraged to, give readers more than one viewpoint character or more than one point of view. You can use multiple third-person limited, meaning different viewpoint characters but the same POV. Or you could alternate a first-person POV chapter with a third-person POV chapter. This means different viewpoint characters and different POVs. You can use any combination that works for the story, always keeping in mind the reader as well as the story needs.

Also, don’t be shy about trying on one POV and then another for the same story. Try a few chapters in first person and then try those same chapters in third. What’s better? What’s worse? How would the chapters sound in omniscient?

You can see what began as something simple—first person, second person, or third person—is not quite so simple. What seemed as easy as choosing I, you, or he/she to report your story has turned into something a bit more involved.

Don’t panic after reading this; the basics are still the basics.

The easiest POVs for new writers to try are first person and third person subjective—most modern stories use one of these two viewpoints. You would do well and be well received if you chose either of these POVs. Even experienced writers use these options. If omniscient works for your story, however, go with that.

Write as intimate a story as you can, given genre and subject matter and plot. Readers like to imagine themselves in a story. In movies and role-playing computer games, viewers and players can’t get into the mind or heart of a character the way they can in a book. Don’t be hesitant about playing up the strengths of the written word.

If you change viewpoint or viewpoint character, let the reader know. Typically you introduce either change at the top of a scene. (As always, there are exceptions.)

Let readers know from the very beginning which POV they’re reading. If you’ll be switching POVs or viewpoint characters, do so fairly early in the story to establish the pattern.

If the story is first person with only one viewpoint character until you reach the penultimate chapter—the one in which the antagonist, the one we’ve never heard from before, brags about all he’s done to harm your hero—the reader will not be happy with you. Not only will you have yanked him out of the character he’s come to identify with, you’ll have shown him you could have given him insight into the antagonist all along but didn’t. Readers may decide they don’t like you. And that’s you the author, not you the character. Consider giving readers a taste of this viewpoint, even if only briefly, much earlier in the story and perhaps throughout the story as well. Play fair with readers.

If you’re using third-person omniscient but also dipping into multiple characters’ heads and hearts to share thoughts and feelings, establish that pattern early, especially if you’re showing the thoughts of multiple characters in the same paragraph. Accustom readers to POV patterns so they can expect them and not be rudely surprised by unexpected changes. You don’t want readers thinking about what you, the writer, are doing. You want them caught up in plot and/or characters.

Use multiple POVs and viewpoint characters if the story calls for them, but don’t use more than absolutely necessary. Each time you change viewpoint character or POV, you give the reader a chance to notice the mechanics of the story, to be distracted from the fiction. When you do change, do it well. Use the pattern you’ve established. Identify the new POV and viewpoint character right away. Use scene and chapter breaks to do some of the work for you.

Make sure a viewpoint character only reports what his POV allows and uses words and terminology and a style that he would know.

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This is not the be-all and end-all for point of view, but it’s definitely enough for this series.

Here’s to writing great fiction with a variety of points of view.

***

Part One—Point of View, the Full Story—Introduction

Part Two—First-, Second-, and Third-person POVs

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12 Responses to “Point of View—Part Three”

  1. Grace says:

    These posts about POV and character viewpoint are the best breakdown and descriptions of each type, how to use them, and how not to use them. Thanks for the in-depth study of something that can really make or break a story!

  2. Thanks, Grace. It’s definitely in-depth.

  3. Stella says:

    This is a mighty long post. :-)

    Omniscient POV is the most difficult POV to pull off. I’m writing a novel in limited OPOV, which, according to my betareaders works well. What I often see is a chapter starting basically with one POV, and, halfway through, the only inside I get from the other POV is: He thought she looked sexy. (Or something along the line.) Just a one liner and that interrupts my reading experience.

    I find OPOV is only done well, if the head-hopping doesn’t interrupt the flow.

    It’s certainly nothing for a new writer.

    Great blog, by the way.

  4. Stella, it is a long post indeed.

    Choosing the right point of view and maintaining it throughout a novel can be tough. And you’re right about the way one POV violation can pull a reader straight out of the fiction. It’s something that can creep in anywhere in a novel.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog.

  5. Kenneth says:

    I’m impressed with your blog. The most glaring problem I see with Indie author’s are they violate the rules of POV. Moreover, selecting an editor becomes complicated if the editor has no idea about the scopes of POV and understands the rules.

  6. Kenneth, thanks for letting me know you enjoy the blog.

    POV violations are easy to make and easy to overlook as we write. But critique partners and beta readers can help root out such errors.

    I like that writers can try anything, can make almost any option work. But knowing what POV means to a story is necessary for decision making. Both drawbacks and benefits should be considered.

  7. Kevin says:

    I’m writing in omniscient, focusing on one character per chapter/break (but with an opinionated narrator). Now I sometimes need to include a characters thoughts. I’ve read that in omniscient italics shouldn’t be used, and usually I can frame a thought in the voice of the narrator, but with sudden thoughts and reactions its weird to add on a tag. It takes out the immediacy. Italics look much better to me. I don’t understand why I shouldn’t use them. Isn’t the narrator all knowing and would know their thoughts and be allowed to express them however he wanted? To me italics are the equivalent of thought bubbles or characters speaking in their heads in movies.

    The people against them say there’s something wrong if you need punctuation/font to differentiate thoughts, but this sounds ridiculous to me. It’s like saying dialogue should be clear without quotation marks. I was wondering what your thoughts were.

    • Ken says:

      Hi, Kevin,

      Each story presents its own technical problems. Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: after reading your story, can you imagine the story differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? An apple is final because nature made it that way. If you are born knowing the rules of POV, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself. Even James Joyce, the most extreme disregarder of rules, was a superb
      writer. He probably would have been an Indie author.

  8. Kevin, there is no firm rule for character thoughts—see this article (and the comments) on Writing Character Thoughts for options.

    Yet I can see why someone would suggest not using italics with an omniscient narrator, especially an opinionated one. How is a reader to know whether the thought is the character’s or the narrator’s? Thoughts in italics, with no thought tag to identify them, would typically be assumed to be the narrator’s. His, after all, is the viewpoint of the entire story. (Yet his thoughts don’t even need italics because unless otherwise stated, everything is his opinion.)

    While omniscient allows you to see inside the characters, the viewpoint is still the narrator’s. So you can see why italicized thoughts without thought tags might be confusing. Any thought in an omniscient POV, unless noted as being something else, can be assumed to be the narrator’s.

    You could make adjustments, of course, to let readers know they were hearing the character’s thoughts. Something such as—

    Ernest studied the red X painted on the ground. Messy, he thought. Very messy. The thieves should have used a different kind of paint, one that didn’t look so much like blood. He bent down and traced a gloved finger outside one edge of the X. Definitely not the thieves’ best work.

    Something like this, with the one thought tag, would be enough to tell readers that the whole paragraph was from the character’s, and not the narrator’s, viewpoint. And no italics are required.

    While I always suggest that you can try anything—and anything you try has no doubt been tried by others, even used in published books—always keep in mind that you don’t want to confuse the reader. Some standards are standards because they’ve come to work over time.

    You might also want to consider how much of this kind of thought you’re going to have. Will italicized thoughts pop up all over? If so, maybe an omniscient POV isn’t the best choice. If seeing into the heart and mind of a character or characters is important and will happen often, the distancing omniscient POV might not be the best option.

    Another consideration is whether or not you’re going to use the word I and present-tense verbs in the thoughts. If you did, you would want italics, something visual to alert the reader to the change. Yet if you intend to use a lot of first-person thoughts, maybe to get closer to the character, you may want to reconsider the POV. If you need an intimate viewpoint, you’ll want something other than omniscient. Plus you still need to be clear that you’re not presenting the narrator’s opinion.

    You’ve asked a great question, one that might need some pondering—there are always situations that require exceptions or rule-breaking. I may have to revisit this topic, explore it in an article of its own.

    Whatever your ultimate choice, do keep in mind that the major considerations are clarity for the reader and consistency through the manuscript.

    • Kevin says:

      I see what you’re saying. I wanted to understand the rule. I think rules should only be bent or broken only after you understand why they’re there. But I couldn’t find anything on it! Nobody explained it and some who were being very thorough about first, second, and third, just skirted over omniscient!

      My approach…

      All the narrators thoughts would be normal (without formatting) because to me it’s like first person, where italics for thoughts aren’t needed because it’s ALL the character’s thoughts. So all the narration is the narrator’s thoughts, unless emphasis is needed, in which case it’s obvious it’s not a thought because it’s in the middle of the sentence. He bought ten cars.

      I considered third person limited and had been writing it that way, but I found too often I needed an omniscient narrator because there are several parts of the story that no POV would be able to tell (there are very clear breaks to indicate this). It’s more like I’m writing in multiple third person limited omniscient. Each chapter/break is focused on one character (with the occasional transitions at the beginning and end) so there would be little confusion as to whose thoughts they were as I’m not head hopping within a chapter. And I focus mostly between two characters, so it’s perfectly predictable.

      Thoughts don’t happen often and they’d be in first person (of the character). I try to make the transition smooth, slowly zooming in and out. At the beginning of chapters/breaks you can’t hear thoughts and you’re very far away from the narrator, later I zoom in a bit, he thought tags here and there, than I zoom in more to reactions which are short, in first person, and italicized without tags.

      I treat thoughts as dialogue, in that the dialogue is often joined with a character’s actions to make it clear who is speaking, and a break signifies a change in speaker. Thoughts also often come in right after dialogue so you know who’s speaking. For example:

      She urged him on. (I would not include the thoughts of this character.)

      “Fine, I’ll do it.” He stepped closer to the edge. I’m not afraid of heights. I’m not…

      He was most definitely afraid of heights but he didn’t want her to find out. He was a fool to think pride could help him overcome his fears. (Hint of the narrator’s thoughts)

      “I can’t!” he exclaimed. He stepped away, breathing hard.
      _______________________________________

      Not the best example as I never fit this much stuff this close, but just so you could see everything together. I think it’s perfectly clear… but it might not be.

      Note: I’m not sure if the HTML tags will work. I hope you understand.

  9. Kevin, as far as I know, there is no particular rule for this situation, so you have to cobble together best practices and weigh those against the needs of the story. But the reader would definitely be able to follow what you’ve laid out here. However, I wouldn’t necessarily pick up that the words that followed were from the omniscient narrator. You may need to finesse them a bit to remind the reader that the narrator is opinionated and the next words are his. Yet if you’ve been including the narrator’s opinion all along, that might be evident. What you might want to consider, especially when you give the thoughts of the character back to back with the narrator’s thoughts, is to put an action beat between them or use a word that brings the narrator to mind, something that creates a separation, even if that separation is a light one.

    One of the strengths of the omniscient POV is that you can have thoughts of several characters in the same scene without head-hopping. If you’re really going with omniscient, don’t feel that you have to separate each character into his own viewpoint scenes.

    You’re right in that this setup sounds like the third limited laid over an omniscient foundation (or vice versa).

    Are you sure that there’s no way to introduce the info that you need to share without resorting to the omniscient? I only ask because it seems as if you’ve gone to great lengths to make this almost third limited. You can use the omniscient, especially at the beginnings of chapters, even in the third-person POVs. If that would be sufficient to get the job done, you might want to consider that option.

    That said, a writer can try anything and make it work. So if what you’re trying works for the story, run with it.

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  1. [...] This is the second of three articles on point of view. See Point of View, the Full Story for the introduction and Part Three, Omniscient Narrator. [...]