Tips on handling the omniscient POV in fiction

Is "playing god" the right POV for your story?
By Jack Smith | Published: January 29, 2018


Playing god with the third-person omniscient POV

 

Writing good fiction calls for creating both a strong protagonist and a solid plot. If you ignore either of these, your story can be fatally flawed. But there’s an aspect related to character that you must also pay close attention to – point of view. POV has to do with vantage point, or narrative perspective: whose eyes the story is seen from. Some characters have more at stake than others, more potential for conflict and change. You should gravitate toward these characters to serve as the “lens” for your stories.

A second aspect of POV has to do with choice of person: First and second person POV lend intimacy, while third person establishes distance. When working in third person, many writers today choose the “third-person limited” point of view, which narrows in on one particular character’s mind. If you adopt the “third-person omniscient” POV, however, you have access to more than one character’s mind (perhaps several), and you have carte blanche to reveal anything and everything about anyone in the story or novel. Some notable omniscient examples from the past include Candide, The Scarlet Letter, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and The Grapes of Wrath. What are the benefits as well as the risks of godlike knowing with the omniscient POV?

 

Benefits of the omniscient POV

Clearly it’s beneficial in some works of fiction to get into more than one character’s consciousness. Some stories may call for different perspectives played out both dramatically and internally from two or more characters. But the omniscient point of view allows you – or I should say, your author’s persona – more godlike knowledge than this. In fact, the options are seemingly endless. You may exert your omniscience to describe your characters from the outside: the clothes they’re wearing, the look on their faces, the way others tend to see them, the way others have always seen them, and, speculatively, the way others will probably always see them – this is truly godlike knowing. Indeed, you can do this for your protagonist with the “limited omniscient” POV, but this is more omniscience than most writers wish to exert. Most of the time, they want to avoid the all-seeing, all-knowing authorial view and stick to what the character is seeing and experiencing. There are exceptions, of course, such as when the narrator maintains a good distance from the protagonist and calls the character “our hero,” or her “our heroine” with playful irony. This demonstrates an external perspective, but the omniscient POV allows much more than this.

You may find it useful, for instance, to describe what several of the local townsfolk are busily engaged in – they’re gathering stones for a stoning in Shirley Jackson’s classic story “The Lottery.” You might, like Richard Bausch, in his opening pages of Thanksgiving Night, paint a sweeping portrait of an urban area (Point Royal, Virginia, in this case), creating a cinematic establishing shot before moving into character and story. You might even give the history of a particular place, which might not be feasible to filter through the consciousness of any of your characters because none of your characters knows this history, but you, the all-powerful author, do – and can provide it for the reader. You might, like a 19th-century writer, choose to step back from your characters and philosophize about the nature of people and the world.  There’s certainly a magic in this kind of omniscience, with the world of your story fully accessible to you as all-knowing author, the god-creator reigning over it.

 

Risks of the omniscient POV

Surely there are risks in exerting very much authorial presence in a story or novel. You risk putting off readers who view this narrative presence as intrusion, the meddling of an unwanted author into the world of the characters. Too much authorial involvement can kill the dramatic power of the work. When the story starts sounding like the author’s story, not the characters’, you’ve gone too far. Be careful, then, to exercise judgment on how much you engage in authorial commentary. Award-winning author Anthony Varallo points out that you don’t want the “reader sensing too much of the writer’s hand in the story,” which, he says, “can risk breaking the ‘spell’ of the story.” With the omniscient POV, Varallo recommends finding “the lightest possible touch. I would only use it if I felt I had no other way to tell the story.” And Midge Raymond, author of My Last Continent, adds, “Omniscience has its rewards but also requires such a fine balance that it can be a challenge to get just right.”

 

The multiple third-person POV

Frankly, authorial presence is mostly a thing of the past. The godlike narrator is gone, supplanted by individual characters who have limited knowledge of the world they inhabit. An alternative to omniscient authorial presence is the effaced author. This author may allow access to a number of different characters but make no commentary on them and exclude any material that isn’t filtered through a given character’s consciousness. This effaced-author approach has become a typical set-up in today’s third-person POV fiction. Catherine Ryan Hyde, author of 30 novels, including the famous Pay It Forward, doesn’t go for the omniscient. She states, “I very often narrate a novel from two points of view. More often than not, in fact. But I do it chapter by chapter, labeling each new chapter with the character name and clearly establishing POV in the first sentence. This gives me all the benefits of being able to tell the story from more than one point of view, but I think it’s easier and more comfortable for the reader.”

 

A wrap on the omniscient POV

  • The third-person omniscient POV allows much more authorial range and commentary than third-person limited.
  • Use the omniscient POV only when it seems indispensable to character creation and storytelling. Make sure it doesn’t damage the dramatic power of the work.
  • Always consider an effaced narrator instead of authorial commentary.

 

 

Jack Smith is author of numerous articles, reviews, and interviews, three novels, and a book on writing, entitled Write and Revise for Publication.

 

 

 

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