The Omniscient Narrator: When You Know It All (Point of View Post No. 4)

Third person omniscient is the broadest and most flexible point of view. For most writers, it’s also the most challenging to write.

The Omniscient Narrator Knows And Sees All

With omniscient point of view, the narrator can see into everyone’s mind. Not only that, the narrator can go beyond the experiences and knowledge of the characters.

For example, the story could start with a history of a town, a company, or a country regardless whether any of the main characters know that history. Or a scene could begin with a bird’s eye view of a city block and gradually zero in on a single seat on a single train car.

The omniscient narrator also can opine about each character from a step back, rather than being locked into a character’s perspective.

The first two lines of Gone With The Wind provide an example of omniscient narration:

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father.

In these sentences, we are in neither Scarlett’s nor the twins’ POVs. Rather, we get a big picture view of Scarlett.

Scarlett herself, for instance, would be unlikely to describe herself as “not beautiful,” and the Tarleton twins probably wouldn’t describe her that way or refer to her mother’s and father’s ancestry if asked to tell someone what she looked like.

Later in the chapter the story zooms in so that we get Scarlett’s internal thoughts and feelings as well as those of the Tarletons, but there are many passages in the book that provide a sweeping view of Southern society, the war, and politics. Those are all told via the omniscient narrator.

Pros Of Third-Person Omniscient Point Of View

The pluses of omniscient narration are the big picture scope and feel, as well as the flexibility. As a writer, you can swoop into the viewpoint of whatever character you choose, and you can back off and give the perspective of many people at once.

Omniscient is the perfect choice for Gone With The Wind because Margaret Mitchell is able to provide numerous perspectives when she needs to, whether of soldiers on the front lines, prisoners of war, society matrons, or carpetbaggers.

She can also include descriptions of lands and cultures and characters that are rich with history and details that no one particular character is aware of.

Cons Of Third-Person Omniscient Point Of View

The disadvantages include that writing in omniscient narration can be unwieldy. As the author, you have so many choices for every single scene that it can be overwhelming.

Also, a lot of care is needed to avoid jarring the reader when you head hop from one character to another or zoom in or out from a bird’s eye view to a single character’s view.

You can avoid this to some extent by only switching POV from scene to scene or chapter to chapter, but then you may as well use third person limited shifting. (For more on that point of view option see Limited And Shifting Third Person (Point Of View Post No. 3)).

Another method is to use a character’s line of dialogue or a movement by the character to segue into that character’s perspective.

Keep in mind that because of the big picture perspective your reader may not feel as connected to or invested in any particular character. Partly for this reason omniscient narration, while common in many classics, is not often used today in fiction.

Most present-day readers want to feel as if they are truly seeing through the eyes of, or living in the body of, one or more characters, and it’s hard to feel that way with omniscient narration.

Further, today’s readers also are unused to shifts of point of view within scenes, and it may distract them or make them wonder if you shifted deliberately or made an error.

Where You’ll Find Omniscient Narrators

You see omniscient narration used more in literary novels than in popular or genre fiction.

Literary books focus more on the writing itself than the plot (though how much more varies) and also tend to leave more for the reader to infer about the characters’ thoughts and feelings. This makes such books better suited to an omniscient narrator, as readers don’t have the same expectation of closeness with the viewpoint characters, and they expect to work harder to understand the story.

So should you try omniscient narration?

It’s true that some modern readers may be unfamiliar with it and so be throw off by it at first. If you are writing an epic or sweeping tale, though, or you simply love the approach, give it a try.

Until next Friday, when I’ll write about combining various points of view in one novel

L.M. Lilly


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