Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
In this article we’ll focus on the specifics of the omniscient point of view.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In this omniscient POV we can still see from the outside—A huge purple knot formed on Tito’s forehead—and 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.
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.
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.
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.