Newbie Thoughts on Omniscient POV

Fish (fly-replete, in depth of June,
Dawdling away their wat’ry noon)
Ponder deep wisdom, dark or clear,
Each secret fishy hope or fear.
Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond;
But is there anything Beyond?
This life cannot be All, they swear,
For how unpleasant, if it were!

— Rupert Brooke, The South Seas: Heaven

Omniscient is a harder point of view than third-person limited. At least with limited you can pretend to be a character, melting your voice into the background until it’s barely noticeable. A good trick, if your narrative voice still cracks as you find it. If you’re a particularly good actor, doing first person is even easier still, since you know the voice the story is being told in—the voice of a character in the story.

But with omniscient, you are no character in the story. You can never play one of those characters. You are, instead, your own character—a really strange one, a meta-character. Someone’s telling the story, and it’s not the individual characters narrating from inside their heads, and it’s not you playing third-person puppet shows. You can’t absorb yourself, and thus possibly the reader, into these roles.

You are an outsider. Omniscient, yes, but outside of events. There is a distance between you and the characters—can you even think of them as “your” characters?—that can’t be crossed; that, should it be crossed, would result in a mess as you head-hopped every paragraph.

That said, why do it at all? Third-person and first-person are very successful in modern literature, and so you’ll need an incredibly good reason to engage in this mode of storytelling. Especially if you’re a new writer.

You do it because you need the distance. Sometimes the distance is used for humor, irony, social criticism, etc. You need an ulterior agenda and purpose that’s strong enough to separate you from the characters. You can’t simply want to show that Pete grows to love Nora, or that Nora grows to love Pete, or even both; those are intimate, even selfish concerns. No; you must want to show the greater implications, complications, insinuations, contradictions of the actions and desires of the characters throughout the entire story.

Hmmm. So, at a minimum, to carry off omniscient you need a specific agenda in mind that’s above and beyond that of the in-story characters.

That’s a tough one.

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2 thoughts on “Newbie Thoughts on Omniscient POV

  1. Nice post Arachne :). I think omniscient is a much harder point of view to pull off than third person limited. Particularly when nowadays authorial intrusion is frowned upon. The Victorian writers could use their own authorial voices to comment on the text, whilst today we’re expected to keep the narrator invisible, which isn’t easy when you’re diving in and out of other characters heads.

    It’s also possible though, (but extremely rare) to have a first person omniscient perspective narrated from the position of a god. A friend of mine is writing a novel based on this, but I’d love to see more of it. :)

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