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Friday, January 24

Whose Head is it Anyway? Understanding Omniscient Point of View

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Third-person omniscient is when somewhere other than a character in the book is telling the story. This outside narrator knows things the characters don't, can make comments about what's happening (or about to happen) or see inside the heads of other characters. That's the key to omniscient POV: it's the stuff the character doesn't know. Easy to say, right? But hearing that and understanding that are two different things, because a detached third limited can sound a lot like third omniscient, especially if it's not changing characters. So much so, that sometimes it's hard to know the difference.

Let's look at some examples:

From John Scalzi's The Android's Dream:
Harris Creek sat across from Lingo Tudena, the Kathungi Cultural Attache, and performed his role for the State Department. He delivered bad news.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Tudena," Creek said. "But I'm afraid we can't let your spouse on planet."

Tudena's vestigial shoulder wings, which had been fluttering excitedly in anticipation of his wife's visa, halted mid-flutter. "Begging pardon?" he said, through his vocoder.

"Your wife, Mr. Tudena," Creek said. "Her visa has been denied."

On its own, it's hard to tell exactly whether this is third limited or omniscient, because it really could go either way. It's clearly Creek's POV, and that's obvious in the full scene. But look at the line I bolded. This line refers to the emotional state and motivation of the other character in the scene. It's possible that Creek has such a great handle on alien behavior that he deduced this emotion from watching Tudena, but it's also possible this is an outside narrator who knows more about what's going on than the POV character in that scene.

After reading the entire novel (which I recommend by the way) this strikes me as more omniscient than third limited. Scalzi sticks to one POV per scene, but he also conveys a lot of additional information throughout the novel. Those details could be the POV's knowledge, but the narrative distance makes it feel more like an outside narrator filling in the blanks. The stinker of it all is only Scalzi knows for sure which one it really is. This is what makes this so hard sometimes.(It's also a good indicator of well-done omniscient)

So let's look at something that's totally third omniscient.

From P. Bosch’s, The Name of This Book is Secret
On the evidence of the items on her backpack, you might guess that Cass had led a very adventurous life. But you would be wrong. The truth is, up until the time this story begins, none of the disasters she predicted had befallen her. There’d been no earthquakes at school – none strong enough to shatter a window, anyway. The mildew in her mother’s shower turned out to be just that – not the killer mold Cass predicted. And that child spinning around on the grass did not have mad cow disease – he was just having a good time.
It should be obvious that this is someone else telling this tale. Cass is one of the main characters (her and her friend Max-Ernest) and the narrator is an outside person who knows everything that has happened and has an opinion about it. The bolded sections also talk directly to the reader, as if the narrator knows he’s telling a story to someone. This is omniscient in the classic sense. An outside narrator telling a story and interjecting their opinions on the topic at hand.

(More on addressing the reader here)

Let's look at a few POV questions:

Can the tone and voice of the narrator resemble that of the character and trick you into thinking it’s from their perspective?

You can have an omniscient narrator who is fairly invisible and lets the voice of the characters come through (as in the Scalzi example), or you can have a narrator who has a strong voice and takes over for the main voice of the story (as in the Bosch example). If the POV is an omniscient third, with an invisible narrator, it can indeed feel very much like limited third (Scalzi again).

I'm a firm believer in never trying to trick your reader, as they can lose faith in you and stop reading, so I'd suggest not trying to do that. But it would really depend on what you wanted to accomplish by being sneaky. Fight Club is a good example of a narrator who isn’t what he seems. But that tricks not only the reader but the narrator as well, so it’s not like you’re trying to pull one over on your reader. That makes all the difference. Never play your reader for a fool.

Does the attitude of the narrator affect how obvious their presence will be?

In Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, Death is the narrator and he has quite the attitude. Ally Carter's Heist Society is quieter, but it's clear there's someone outside the story telling this tale.

From Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief:
First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.


You are going to die.

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.
That’s attitude. Even though this seems like a first-person novel, the bulk of it is in third person as Death follows the life of Liesel, his book thief. But he pops in to share his thoughts from time to time. It’s a brilliantly done POV.

Let’s look next at a quieter omniscient.

From Ally’s Carter’s Heist Society:
There had been a time when the girl responsible -- the very one who had lucked into that last-minute vacancy only a few months before -- would have had the decency to admit what she'd done and quietly taken her leave of the school. But unfortunately, that era, much like the headmaster's car, was finished.

Two days after the Porsche-Gate, as the students had taken to calling it, the girl in question had the nerve to sit in the hallway of the administration building beneath the black-and-white stare of three senators, two presidents, and a Supreme Court Justice, with her head held high, as if she'd done nothing wrong.
You can hear a third party here, but the judgment is softer, not so in your face. The narrator is clear, but they don’t have quite as much to say as Death or Bosch’s narrator.

Can there be author intrusion in omniscient?

Opinions will vary on this one, but I say no. You have a narrator, and even if they know all, butting in your author's nose is bad same as in any other POV. But an invisible omniscient narrator can come across like author intrusion. In the Scalzi example, the bolded line could feel like a POV shift, and the asides for additional information could feel like infodumps. They key difference, however, is that omniscient information is information that is needed to understand the scene and it moves the story forward. It stays in character (whether a clear narrator or an invisible one), the voice is consistent, and the information relevant. It’s not explaining why/how/what so the reader “gets it.” Facts are stated as that narrator would state them and then moves on.

What is limited omniscient?

A limited POV is where you stick to one POV per scene. In a full omniscient, your narrator would head hop and show the thoughts and feelings of everyone in the room, and judge what they think and do. In limited omniscient, your narrator would follow one character only.

Why would you use omniscient to follow only one or two characters? Why not just use third limited?

Personal taste. The narrator is as much a character in both The Book Thief and The Name of This Book is Secret as the protagonists. They are people telling a story about other specific people. While Death may take a break from Liesel and visit some other characters in the novel, the focus is usually on her because she’s the book thief. She’s the one who catches Death’s eye and the story is just as much about why she did as what happens to her. Why Death finds her and her tale fascinating is what makes the entire novel fascinating.

(More on working with multiple points of view here)

Omniscient vs limited third allows you to pull back and be more objective. You might want to focus the story on a few characters, but have a more detached "in the know" narrator to achieve an effect. Heist Society is a good example of this. It follows one character, working almost in a voice over fashion that adds to the nature of the story, but it does pull away in certain scenes to give a more general overview or to dip in another head at certain moments. This perfectly mirrors the traditional heist movie format, so it serves a purpose and adds to the fun of the novel. Carter could have easily told this just from Kat’s POV, but you’d lose that sense of mystery as to what was really going on, because being in her head full time would tell you too much. A separate narrator gives you just enough without giving the secrets away. Just like any good jewel thief. The format fits the genre.

And Now, a Warning

Tastes vary on this, but I find what really makes an omniscient POV sing is the narrator. An invisible narrator has a much harder time avoiding a told feel, because it can easily come across as author intrusion. If you write in third omniscient, keep an eye on your voice. Staying in the voice of the novel and characters will go a long way to keeping that omniscient style feeling like your narrator and not like you’re butting in or telling. Maintain judgment on what’s said, so it’s not just infodumps or backstory. Someone anonymous just “telling” the story often feels like someone telling the story. Put a soul behind your narrator – whoever they are.

(More on narrative distance vs telling) 

Juliette Wade over at TalkToYoUnivrse has a great post on POV , so if you're hungry for more, pop on over.

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. I've often struggled with this. I was never sure, working on Locked Within, whether I was pushing the narrator's knowledge too far or not. I stuck to a limited third as much as possible, trying to flavour the narrator's voice with my protagonist's attitude.

  2. Thanks for this post. I like having the narrator sound distinct in my stories, but I've read too many writing blogs which dictate that letting your narrator be seen or felt at all is disrupting to the reader and a very bad thing to do. Thanks for letting me know it's okay to do it after all.

  3. Paul: It can be a tough thing to balance no matter what POV you're doing. Even when I write first person, I sometimes wonder if that bit of info is something my narrator would think about at that moment, if not at all. It often comes down to gut instinct and doing what feels right to me.

  4. Great post! To me, the real difference between 3rd limited and 3rd omni shows up in internal monologue. I actually did a post (What Makes Omniscient Different from Head-Hopping) about this a couple weeks ago after being inspired by your post about voice. :)

    Omni (to me at least) means that the narrator (visible or not) could share the feelings and thoughts of all the characters, but this sharing wouldn't be as deep in the voice of the characters. This difference can be very subtle (as you mentioned above, this line is tricky), but when I read, that difference changes who I *feel* is telling the story.

    For example, an omni narrator might say:
    Susan turned her back on the girls and walked away. Not that she cared what they thought of her.

    While a 3rd limited narrator might say:
    Susan turned her back on the girls and walked away. As if she cared what they thought of her.

    Sorry, not trying to take over your blog with a big long comment. LOL! But since it was *you* who gave me this idea of how to tell the difference, I figured I'd elaborate and give you credit here. :)

  5. Hmm, I must have accidentally cut the second-to-last paragraph of my comment. :)

    Er, I think I was trying to say that the second line of those two examples show a subtle difference between how deep the POV is. The 3rd limited example has more snark than the omni, and thus *feels* deeper. That depth wouldn't feel right for omni.

    I'm probably not doing a very good job of explaining this. :) I guess I almost feel like omni can tell how characters are thinking or feeling, but only 3rd limited can use the character's internal voice to show how a character is feeling *about* those thoughts and feelings.

  6. Jami, I think that really well-executed omniscient point of view does in fact use character-internal voice in a limited fashion. The omni narrator must be near-invisible, and typically leads in with cues which center readers on a character before moving into that character's voice for a short time.

  7. Hi Juliette,

    Yes, you're right about that. It's probably a semantic difference then. :) I'd consider that approach a 3rd shifting POV, where the omni was used to zoom in/out between characters. Six of one, half-dozen of another.

    I've never seen a good example of that technique for something I'd call omni POV at the story level, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. :) Thanks for making me think!

  8. After reading this, and Juliette's post, its a fair bit to get my head around. I'll have to reread both a few times to get it all. Thanks so much for taking the time to go into such detail.
    The examples from books really helped.

  9. Janice: I found it the same. In the end, rather than fret over every line, I had to trust my gut.

  10. Jami: Long posts are fine and welcome. This is for discussing writing after all :) I like your examples and the change in voice there. I think you explained it just fine. It can be a very subtle thing, and something as simple as a word change here and there can change how a line is perceived.

    Juliette: Great explanation!

    Sam: Most welcome! POV is one of those things that's really tough to "get" sometimes. I remember banging my head against the keyboard myself, and then that wonderful day when it just clicked for me.

    Paul: The gut is rarely wrong :) Sometimes I still argue with mine, but I know deep down its usually right.

  11. Thanks for the great post. I'm really going to have to keep this in mind when I start revising. My current WIP is in 3rd limited (I think) and it's my first real time working in it.

  12. Witless: Most welcome, and good luck. If you have any questions you're always welcome to ask :)

  13. This is a great post. I've been struggling with third POV in all it's forms and I really need to practice at various types. I think that's what's holding me back in my current WIP. I'm a natural first, but find it difficult to translate to third, which this story really needs to be.

    1. Glad I pulled it out, then. Have you tried a very tight third? That has a very first-person feel, just with third person pronouns.

  14. I like how you discuss omniscience in detail and give guidence on how to do it right. I read an artice recently where the author just goes "don't do it" without concessions. That article can be hastagged as #BASIC.

    Too many people talk about the do's and do not's of "the rules" without going into the reasoning behind them. I hope you do more of these refreshers with some of the do's and do not's, and how writers should handle them and when to follow and break them.

    1. That's one reason this blog exists. That kind of "advice" drove me nuts, and it's not helpful. Hard to do something right when you don't know why you have to do it that way.

      The refreshers will be a regular thing from now on, so I'm glad it as helpful. I'll see what I can do to pull out more like this in the future.

  15. Hmmm....I'm going to hold onto this post. I have a story from years ago I want to rewrite, and part of what I've been considering is POV. Two main characters, a lot of head-hopping lines I want to keep, and a pretty hazy grasp of omni versus limited third have all been driving me quietly nuts.

    This helped a lot. Thanks!

    1. Most welcome! The easiest way I've found to tell them apart (when it's your work at least) is to ask yourself who's telling the story. Is it the character in that scene or someone else? If you want it from their eyes, it's limited. Someone else, omni.

  16. An area I struggle with, thanks for the great info!!

  17. Great discussion. Anyone who's interested in exploring the nature of narration and things like having an unreliable narrator might want to take a look at Wayne C. Booth's "The Rhetoric of Fiction." A classic book that's a must-read for all writers imho.

  18. I've written in omni. What usually gets left out in most discussions is that it is a single, all-seeing narrator. This is important because most writers are trying to fit it to what they know about first and third, and they come into thinking it's "multiple viewpoints" instead of a single narrator. The second problem is that they will often choose omni because they haven't quite figured out which characters are important so they're thinking, "Omni will fix it. I'll just show what everyone is thinking." The result is head hopping.

    1. Very true, and hopefully I've gotten that across.