Points of View Part Three – Omniscience and what to share with the Reader.
Narrative Perspective or Point of View (PoV) controls how the reader interacts with the world of the story. In part one of this series of articles I talked about the balance between intimacy and clarity in first and third person. In part two I used the second person to illustrate the ways in which the reader enters into the text, and how this can be used to influence their sympathies. In this final part I’m going to briefly talk about omniscient PoV and how you decide what the reader knows. This will bring us back full circle to the question of intimacy and clarity, before I finish with a few pointers I have assembled from my reading on how to manage PoV in your story.
The Omniscient PoV is from outside any characters head, and was particularly common in 19th century writing:
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
HG Wells, The War of the Worlds, Chapter 1 – The Eve of the War
You’re writing in the omniscient PoV if you describe things that your characters don’t know. If first and third person balance intimacy against clarity, omniscience is the extremity of clarity: it places you far above the characters looking down. This can make it feel quite an antiquated style of writing, as it is very different from the contemporary focus on experiencing stories through the characters and showing rather than telling the story. But it does have advantages. It is a very practical way of setting the scene, particularly where the situation is complicated and you need the reader to understand. Omniscient PoV also allows you to emphasise the absurd and is a great avenue for humour:
Mr Prosser shook his finger at him for a bit, then stopped and put it away again.
‘What do you mean, why’s it got to be build?” he said. “It’s a bypass. You’ve got to build a bypass.’
Bypasses are devices which allow some people to dash from point A to point B very fast whilst other people dash from point B to point A very past. People living at point C, being a point directly in between, are often given to wonder what’s so great about point A that that so many people from point B are so keen to get there.
Adams D, The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, Chapter 1
In this excerpt, Adams switches from third person to omniscient in order to comment on the subject of the character’s conversation. Neither Mr Prosser nor the hapless Arthur Dent, to whom Prosser is speaking, hear the section about what a bypass is. The author is speaking directly to the reader. This breaks the narrative flow and brings the reader out of the story. In a lot of modern fiction writing this is an enormous faux pas. The presence of the writer is very heavy, easily artless, and every time you snap the reader out of their immersion in the text they may just put the book down and decide to go and watch Eastenders instead.
It works in the Hitchhikers series because Douglas Adams was a very, very funny man. If your omniscient commentary is witty or clever enough then the reader will be sufficiently entertained to stick with you. But it is arguably a fair criticism of the Hitchikers books that they are a plotless, characterless mess that serve only as a means to string together Adam’s jokes. That’s part of why they work. I love them. But you’d better be as funny as Douglas Adams or as eloquent as Jane Austin if you’re going to replicate the style.
At this point you may be thinking back to that first example from the War of the Worlds and, if you’ve read the book[i], saying that this is not actually a good example of omniscience. In War of the Worlds the central character, the journalist, narrates the story after he has survived the alien invasion. So technically the first paragraph is no omniscient PoV – he’s in first person, describing events in the past with his knowledge of the present. But the first time you read it you don’t know this, so I’ve chosen this quote both because I love the book but also because it highlights two other ways in which omniscient PoV slips into the text: presented omniscience and inadvertent omniscience.[ii]
Presented omniscience is when text written from the perspective of a character appears to be omniscient – the author speaking directly to the reader from outside the character’s PoV. I would argue that the first paragraph of War of the Worlds presents as Omniscient PoV. It sounds like the author is talking. We take the voice as authoritative. It is only later in the chapter that we understand that it is the journalist speaking. This is unsettling for the reader, as it leaves them unsure of their perspective and who it is that is speaking to them. Now this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, disguising the journalist’s voice as omniscience lends him weight and gravitas through the rest of the book. But it is an obstacle to immersion.
Inadvertant omniscience is when you write something from the perspective of the character that they couldn’t possibly know or wouldn’t ever feel. This is part of a whole family of ways in which a writer can break immersion by undermining PoV – having a character mention the content of a conversation they didn’t hear, having a Georgian gentlemen describing visiting Germany; any number of things that you just might think of or forget that the character wouldn’t feel or know is likely to break PoV in this way. More pervasive and tricky to handle is the way in which your own thoughts, feelings and attitudes can slip in to take the place of those of your characters; for example the writer I mentioned in part two who described every female character with reference to the shape of her breasts, no matter whom the PoV was following.[iii] Avoiding this sort of problem requires a great deal of self-knowledge. To what extent are the ways in which you understand and interact with the world truly ubiquitous? Is your 800 year old asexual robot really going to keep on noticing the way the young police officers biceps strain against the thin cotton of his T-Shirt?[iv]
Inadvertantly breaking your PoV and speaking directly to the reader is an easy thing to do by accident. It will also really upset your reader, because to start with they will assume you did it on purpose (ah hah – the Robot is developing a sexuality!), and then be really narked with your when the hint does not pay off. Worse yet they won’t trust you anymore. To avoid this you need to establish as early as possible the extent to which your story presents events from the perspective of a particular character – whether you only see and understand things as they understand them (intimate) or whether you and the reader are watching over the character’s shoulder from a distance (clear). Having made that decision you need to rigorously read through your drafts for PoV errors.
In GRR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books each chapter follows a different character, and the characters are notoriously unreliable narrators – this can be confusing, as you are on more than one occasion left doubting that what you have read is ‘really’ what happened. It is also exciting way of experiencing the world if the story. For this to work, Martin has had to be absolutely clear in his mind what each character does and does not know and believe, and stick to this in each chapter – the introduction of omniscience (knowledge beyond the character) would create dissonance and break the story.
So, great, GRR Martin can do it – how do we do it?
First, decide whose viewpoint you are following and stick with it as much as possible. If you are jumping about between characters, or between the character and the narrator, you will distance the reader. Don’t do this by accident. Make sure the language and storytelling fit the character you are with, and that you aren’t describing things the character has no way of seeing, knowing or understanding (particularly the case if your character is a child, or an alien, or a robot, or a Tory).
Second, establish this PoV as early as possible. Gibson’s otherwise fantastic novel “Count Zero”, the second book in the Neuromancer trilogy, follows three different characters by alternating between them chapter by chapter. But because he doesn’t mention character names until, typically, about half way down the second page, you spend the first chunk being slightly annoyed as you try to figure out whether you’re following the ruthless assassin or the kid hacker. It undermines your imagination and your immersion because you can’t picture who you’re in the story with. Recently, unless I am deliberately playing with PoV, I’ve taken to mentioning the name of the character whose PoV I’m following in the first couple of lines of each chapter. It may feel crude, but it solves the problem.
Third, if you do want to switch perspectives between characters then it is better to do this with some narrative distance – so throw in some omniscient commentary and establish the voice of the writer to guide the reader through. This has all the usual dangers of distancing the reader from the emotional context of the characters, but you’re making the decision anyway by switching PoV mid-text. Personally I prefer to stick with the characters and stay predominantly one PoV per chapter (with some room for subtle shifts), but you’re probably funnier than I am, so go for it. If you do make the jump, the reader will need your help to keep track of where you are taking them.
That brings my epic three part exploration of narrative perspectives to a close. Well done for making it this far! Until I started writing these I had never considered that PoV would require so much though. It goes far beyond just starting out by asking what PoV you are using, whether it changes and why it might change. Subtle shifts in narrative distance can completely change the dynamic of a scene. I’ve found myself re-writing entire scenes from the PoV of a different character, which in turn enriches the work as my characters come to life in my head. It all takes a lot of thinking, but it’s fun, and it makes your writing better. Good luck!
Photo Credit: Familymwr, Army Photography Contest – 2007 – FMWRC – Arts and Crafts – Eye of the Holderhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/familymwr/4930275692/
[i] If you haven’t read War of the Worlds, go read War of the Worlds.
[ii] Don’t go looking for these terms elsewhere, I made them up. Having a PhD lets you do that sort of thing. Honest. Look, it’s got to be useful for something, right? I mean, I don’t even get called “Dr Crawford” here in France. Not that I’m bitter. At all. What were we talking about?
[iii] I’m probably going to come back to the breast-obsessed writer at some point in the future, as it clearly made an impression on me!
[iv] I’m reading some chick-lit at the moment. It is making me feel self-conscious about the size of my biceps. I would complain about the objectification of men* but, well, we probably had it coming – and it’s not like I didn’t guess what the book would be like from the blurb (like Artaud used to say – you knew the risks when you bought the ticket!) Now, if you would excuse me, I’m going to go and lift some weights. Or eat some ice-cream. Possibly both at the same time. Hmmm, sounds like a scene in this book.
* Plus, to be honest, I like a bit of objectification from time to time.