Point of View – Third Omniscient

February 3rd, 2008

Point of view is a subject we as writers discuss frequently, for obvious reasons.

A reader recently asked me in email if there are any online discussions of the use of third omniscient in fantasy (and sf) as opposed to third limited; discussions of the latter are easy to find, the former not so much. I said that I thought that third omniscient isn’t in fashion these days, although there are examples of it in print.

So I’d like to open up a discussion here.

What are the peculiar problems inherent in third omniscient?

What books of old or now current have used this pov?

If you’ve used it, please discuss the why and how, if you feel so inclined.

27 Responses to “Point of View – Third Omniscient”

  1. Sherwoodon 03 Feb 2008 at 8:02 pm

    Omniscient is also known as the God’s-Eye view.

    For a long time it was so unpopular it was nearly forbidden, as i discovered when i first started sending stuff tp publishers back in the mid sixties as a teen. Having grown up reading a lot of 19th and early 20th C novels, I wrote in omni. I had to learn tight third in all its shades.

    Now I think omni is making a comeback.

    There are different types of omni, I’ve discovered–just as there are different types of tight third, from camera-eye (inside no one’s head, just what the camera “observes” a la Dashell Hammet) to the third we most use in our genre, which is what the POV character can see, hear, experience, and think.

    In omni that narrator is a discrete component of the story.

    Some people mix the narrator up with First Person, especially in a novel which opens with an ‘I’ telling the story. But the differences are these: the narrator can see into everyone’s head, and also, the narrator is not who the story is about.

    The key here is, though, that there is a narrative voice present. In any piece of fiction, someone is telling the story. In tight third, it’s easy to forget this, or to mix the narrative presence with the actual uthor. In some cases they are indeed indistinguishable.

    Examples:

    In Jane Austen’s novels, the narrator almost never emerges from the background, but just once is a while she will sum up the action, or make an observation, or give the reader an ironic transition, then dive back down below the surface of the story. Conversely in Vanity Fair, Thackeray’s narrator strides out on stage, and lectures the reader directly about the story. He stops the actors in the middle of action (We shall halt here, before Mrs. Fussbudget sips her tea, and the motes of dust are still in the air, to consider now what we have learned about the wicked Mr. Nogoodnik) so the narrator can emerge once again and talk directly to the reader about the story, in order to really hammer in that point.

    Sometimes the narrator was shrouded in what we call ‘frames’ to create a sense of reality, as if the story were true. Modern readers sometimes find the layers of letters at the beginning of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein tedious and pointless, but at the time the book came out, with its scary cutting edge scientific experiments and extrapolations, the frame tale–as if the story was told in letters–made it seem as if it really had happened. Thus it functioned both as a science fiction novel, and as a horror novel.

    One last note: not knowing who the narrator is is one reason, I think, the voice can go fuzzy during exposition and become dull. The text slips into neutral or encyclopedia “voice” as the data is awkward to put it in the head of the POV

  2. ehjoneson 03 Feb 2008 at 8:08 pm

    Perhaps a definition of the terms might be in order, because I’ve never really been 100% clear on all the nuances. For instance, in third omniscient, the omniscient narrator knows the POV of all characters, and sees all events whether they are seen by the characters or not. But if your story shifts POV characters often, does that make it third omniscient? If you describe events, like say a supernova 3 systems away, obviously no character is there to see it… is it third omniscient?

    And for third limited… told from the limited POV of a character in the novel, but in third person. But again, if your POV switches often… is it limited? Or does that move it into omniscient?

    I believe I write in third limited. While there are moments in my work that describe events that no character sees, and while my POV changes from one character to another, these things are clearly delineated. I don’t change POV characters without a definite break in the narrative, and any given scene is only viewed through the POV of one character at a time (although it may be repeated later to show the POV of another character).

    But when it comes right down to it, I don’t usually think about whether it’s third limited, third omniscient, first person, etc. I just write whatever feels right for the story I’m telling.

  3. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 03 Feb 2008 at 8:11 pm

    Damn.

    Just wrote a post, hit “post,” and had the damnable internet hiccup and swallow it.

    *curses internet*

    To sum up what I wrote (since it was a cross post with Sherwood) I was mostly talking about writers in the field who take up the conceit of the “chronicler,” ranging from L. Frank Baum as “Chronicler of Oz” to Douglas Adams with the Hitchhikers Guide entries to Lemony Snickett and the Series of Unfortunate Events, where Lemony Snickett himself is later revealed not only as chronicler but as citizen of that world.

    I also noted that in the new Wild Cards book, Inside Straight, Michael Cassutt not only uses the full omniscient but the third person present tense, giving his story “Looking for Jetboy” a screenplay feel, which is appropriate since his protagonist is a stuntman, or in fact is THE Stuntman, since that’s his superpower, able to bounce back from any injury, no matter how fatal.

  4. Sherwoodon 03 Feb 2008 at 8:18 pm

    EHJones, if you don’t mind my answering, what you are describing in your work is what I think of as serial third person: different POVs but with a distinct divider (chapters are most common) dividing them.

    With omni, one of the things the writer has to do is decide whose POV on a given event is going to add to the story, because as you hint, you just can’t get into everybody’s head. In LORD OF THE RINGS the narrative voice slides for about two sentences into the viewpoint of a Fox watching Frodo & friends march into the woods. That serves as our first hint that the hobbits are really leaving their comfortable, familiar world, and going out into the wild. I think it’s brilliant–most readers never notice it, it’s there so fast, with nary a jolt.

    When looking at my favorite omni narrated works I notice that the author usually chooses the POV of someone who has the highest stake or can offer the most interesting contrast. Sometimes these POVs are the active participants, but once in a while a quiet observer’s viewpoint is more interesting than theirs–whether by contrast or because the observer sees more.

  5. ehjoneson 03 Feb 2008 at 8:22 pm

    Well, I guess I was typing at the same time Sherwood… and did some defining…

    But it still doesn’t answer the question I posed. Although, as I said, for me it’s not that important a question. I write what feels right, and simply do my best to make it consistent throughout. And it works for me. :-)

  6. ehjoneson 03 Feb 2008 at 8:29 pm

    Man, Sherwood, you keep beating me to the punch, and now it looks like my second post was a snide response to your second post… LOL, I’m sorry, it wasn’t, your second post wasn’t up yet! I appreciate your clarification, though. And I agree, I don’t use third omniscient, I don’t think, I use third limited omniscient… which allows for things to happen on screen with no POV character available to see them, and also for swapping POV characters, AND for the narrator to reveal things that might happen on screen but outside the notice of the POV characters, and yet still limits you to experiencing things for the most part through the eyes and senses of the various POV characters.

  7. Charleson 03 Feb 2008 at 8:37 pm

    Here are the variations of third omniscient that come to mind:

    *omniscient narrator
    *the author popping in for a moment to offer a tidbit
    *jumping around into the head of anyone in any given scene?

    Do you mean all or one of the above or something else?

  8. Maggie Brinkleyon 03 Feb 2008 at 9:05 pm

    Hee! When I first read this post on my live journal feed I thought “read Sherwood Smith! She does omniscient beautifully!”

    As a Reader, I do not like the faux-omniscient where a character seems to know what’s going on inside another character’s head. “He saw her walking by the river. She was watching the geese, considering how they fought each other over the breadcrumbs that she scattered before them.” That jolts me: how could he know what’s going on inside her head?

    However, if there’s a segue from him to her (He saw her walking by the river. Marianne was laughing at the antics of the geese. She scattered crumbs for them…) Actually, that’s probablty an example of how I’m very bad at omniscient: what is needed is a transference from person A to person B, without person A knowing anything about what person B is thinking; because person A can only see what person B is doing externally.

    Can anybody explain this omniscient business, please? Or any other POV stuff? Please?

    I began to understand the place of the external storyteller, ironically, when I read C J Cherryh’s ‘Gate of Ivrel’ which is told through the point of view of Vanye exclusively: but the third or fourth time I read it I began to understand that what Vanye saw wasn’t everything. I began to read between the lines, so to speak, seeing how what was happening wasn’t just as Vanye interpreted it. I’m still, after almost 40 years, trying to understand Point of View. Can anyone explain it to me??

  9. Sherwoodon 03 Feb 2008 at 9:50 pm

    Maggie: you know I’m sure that the usual POVs are first, second, third, with some varying terms not consistent among critics: first person inferent, third limited or dramatic, etc etc.

    There doesn’t seem to be any widely accepted set of labels for the various techniques available within “persons”–but here’s what’s more important, and I’m still struggling to learn, there is even less cognizance of the various degrees of depth available within each point-of-view.

    I think where we genre writers get fuzziest is not really paying attention to the degree of distance between reader and characters. There are all kinds of techniques that have been in use since the classics (by which I mean the Greeks) for balancing how much information the reader is given, and how, and from whom.

  10. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 03 Feb 2008 at 10:53 pm

    E.M. Forster has some interesting and catty things to say about the omniscient viewpoing in Aspects of the Novel. Basically he talks about how it’s rather distancing and offputting to the reader to freezeframe the character, take out his heart, parade it around, then pop it back in and have him continue on his merry way as if nothing had happened.

    But as for the varieties, I think that having the narrator pass judgement works better if the narrator is a separate character with his own hang-ups and foibles rather than an omniscient god with whom the reader may very well disagree.

    Tolkien, while I won’t say he didn’t use the omniscient well in the case of the fox that Sherwood mentioned, memorably screwed up the story for me when he took multiple paragraphs describing how they landscaped Snowmane’s Howe in later years, with beautiful ivy growing over the burial mound, at which point the omniscient narrator has abused its privileges of foresight and spoiled the end of the book, since we now know Sam and Frodo will win, because if Sauron wins, there won’t be ivy let alone crabgrass growing on Snowmane’s Howe, not to mention a lack of humans to point it out as a site of historic interest for later-day Middle Earth’s picturesque guidebooks.

  11. Charleson 04 Feb 2008 at 12:08 am

    Kevin -

    When it comes to Snowmane’s resting place it really depends upon your personal view. While you look upon the surviving sanctity of Snowmane’s grave as evidence of the foreshadowing of Sauron’s defeat, one could just as easily look upon it as something meaningless to Sauron.

    If he conquers Middle-earth does that mean he wants to destroy the smallest thing such as this grave? If he had won wouldn’t he have dismissed Theoden?

  12. Marie Brennanon 04 Feb 2008 at 10:35 am

    I tend to see two kinds of omniscient (where by “kinds” I mean “fuzzy ends of a spectrum,” not distinct categories).

    One is the camera-eye omniscient, where you’re not privy to anybody’s thoughts, but rather seeing the big picture as a camera might. It’s very distancing, so I think the only times I use it are when I’m starting a scene, and doing the equivalent of the establishing shot and then zooming in on the action. So it only lasts for a paragraph or so.

    The other is the kind of omniscient where you’re getting everyone’s thoughts. You can do this by way of an external narrative voice, as Sherwood gave examples of; or you can do it in a way that’s more like an extremely serialized third limited. I used that briefly in Doppelganger (for reasons that contain spoilers), and Elizabeth Bear’s got an entire novel of it with Whiskey and Water. The downside there, for my money, was that it interfered with my ability to attach to the characters; while I enjoyed the story, she ended up with so many pov characters, and switched between them so often, that I kept having to detach and reattach.

    If that makes any sense at all.

  13. JanaLee Stockson 04 Feb 2008 at 11:40 am

    I’ve just finished a piece done in the serialized third limited, and found it an interesting experiment, we’ll see if anyone likes it enough to publish it. The thing I found is that it was interesting to figure out what plot points and character points were needed in each chapter and who’s POV brought those out the most strongly. It does make for a longer book since more is being shown rather than just told about or inferred by the POV character in a single character limited third. I don’t know that this is necessarily a problem, but required really tight editing to keep the flow. I think it’s possible that this style can cause the attachment detachment problem that Marie mentioned, but I also found with my critique group that different people would attach to different characters and look forward to the chapters that went back to them, which made the read stronger.

    Food for thought.

    ~J

  14. ebearon 04 Feb 2008 at 12:49 pm

    Actually, Marie, W&W is true omniscient, not serialized 3pl. There’s a narrator throughout, who frequently steps outside of character heads and discusses things none of them could know. The narrator is an unintrusive one, however, who never breaks the fourth wall to address the reader or the story directly.

    Which doesn’t affect your critique of the book, of course, but I felt I should clarify in case anybody is looking for examples of the POV.

  15. Marie Brennanon 04 Feb 2008 at 5:05 pm

    Bear — Hmmm. I know I’ve heard you describe it that way, and I heard that before I read the book, but it didn’t register on me in that fashion; I felt like I was floating from one head to the next. Which might make it an interesting case study regardless, as to why it came across that way.

  16. Kate Elliotton 04 Feb 2008 at 5:41 pm

    Last autumn I took the opening of a story I’d been writing in first person and tried to third person it. As I mentioned on my lj, the oddest part was that when “I” became “she”, the story began to read as omni. I think this was the intrusive narrator element present in first person transferring over, although obviously the story wasn’t written to be in omni.

    The effect was so startling to me that I decided to go back with the first person.

  17. Nicole L.on 06 Feb 2008 at 11:06 pm

    I’m about half way through One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak, which seemed to be in first person when I started it and then briefly slipped into omni/first person (maybe?! is there such a creature?) by narrating things the character couldn’t know … however since I haven’t finished it it’s entirely possible that the story will resolve in such a way that it makes it possible for the first person narrator to know things he couldn’t know.

    I guess my question is: is there such a thing as first person omni or is that a complete contradiction in terms? Was it a slip up or stretching poetic license? It definately threw me out of the story for a minute. Possible scenarios for 1st person-omni: when the main character is dead or is some kind of god-like being?

  18. Nickon 08 Feb 2008 at 5:48 am

    I think what Elizabeth and Marie are contending with here is free indirect narrative style, in which the third person narration takes on or is segued into the character/expected language or psychological landscape of the character involved. A given character would never be expected to use the word ‘confabulation’ so it has no place in the free indirect style taking place at that part of the third person narration which is giving an insight into that character’s point of view.

    If the writer dos not attend to this, then it would in a sense be breaking that ‘fourth wall’ Elizabeth refers to.

    Flaubert in expressing Emma Bovary’s internal life was an absolute master of this aspect of free indirect narrative style, something which can positively load a passage with some marvellous ironies.

  19. Sherwood Smithon 09 Feb 2008 at 2:22 pm

    Like Nich says, Flaubert gives us a first person narrator who is also omniscient: who questions how the cousin can know everything inside of everyone’s minds? Yet he does.

  20. Evan Leatherwoodon 10 Feb 2008 at 6:12 pm

    Hello all. Love the the blog. This is my first comment.

    Excellent question.

    Third omniscient is actually much more common in contemporary writing than people think. It’s just that writers now tend to use a much more restrained version of it than they did in the 19th century. So restrained it can look like some other form of third person.

    Let’s take one my favorite books and I’ll show you what I mean. “Neuromancer” by William Gibson looks, at first glance, to be written in limited third (or, tight third, as it is called here on Deep Genre). That famous first sentence, and the many that sound so like it hover around perceptions that could be known to Case, the streetwise POV character: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. ‘It’s not like I’m using,’ Case heard someone say …”

    Seems like straightforward tight third, right?

    But what happens when, after many (delightful) pages of tight third, we get

    “Somewhere deep in the Sprawl’s ferro-concrete roots, a train drove a column of stale air through a tunnel. The train itself was silent, gliding over its induction cushion, but displaced air made the tunnel sing, bass down into subsonics. Vibration reached the room where he lay and caused dust to rise from the cracks in the dessicated parquet floor.”

    Sure, it’s gorgeous prose but, what? How could Case, who is awakened by the vibration, possibly know all of that? It sort of sounds like Case thinking, but it can’t be. Did the writer just break with the first twenty pages and slide into omni? Not quite.

    You’ve actually been hearing a third person omniscient narrator the whole time, but one who just chooses to spend almost all of the book in tight third, only opening up for big, diorama-like passages once in a while, and never going inside anybody else’s head even then. Go back over the pages that you thought were tight third, and then you realize that the narrative voice is full of things that are too poetic and too cool for Case to think up or notice. Like rosewood doors, the exact personal history of minor characters, or the tailoring of somebody’s shirt cuffs, etc.

    Here’s the trick: The voice, the tone that the 3rd omni narrator uses, is so close to Case that we never really notice the divide, we were just effortlessly carried from wide screen to close up and back without even knowing what was happening. The authorial voice is so close to a character who belongs in the moody, dark world of the novel that the commanding conceit of the omniscient narrator is hardly noticed, but the power of such a narrator is retained by the writer.

    Henry James called this “effaced narration” and often used limited-third-omniscient in his books. Tons of the best writers use it today: John Banville (Kepler), Margaret Atwood (Handmaid’s Tale), John Crowley (The Deep), Cormac McCarthy (The Road).

    The trick is the camouflage (the tone of the narration being one that is close to the characters, or to the feel of the book) and restraint (the omniscient voice chooses one or two characters whose heads we see into and that’s it for the whole novel. Furthermore, the wide-screen omni passages don’t tend to go on too long, nor do they contain info that is out of joint with feel of the book’s world and characters, even if the characters could never know it first-hand: e.g. Gibson’s omni voice is comfy telling us about an eerie train tunnel deep in the earth, but probably not about a kid’s birthday party, even though it could technically choose to do both. One would break the mood, take us too far from Case’s head, the other one is just right).

    Some form of limited third-person omniscient is almost always being used in contemporary fiction, even if it looks like some fuzzy version of limited (tight) third.

  21. Misque Writeron 22 Feb 2008 at 10:24 pm

    Regarding Snowmane’s resting place, I have to agree. I find the error of telling the future before it has happened (“Years later they would all look back on this moment and laugh”) to be much more annoying than omniscient POV per se. I don’t mind omni, but I don’t like the spacetime continuum to be disturbed by the narrator unless time travel is explicitly part of the story.

  22. EECon 19 Aug 2008 at 11:14 am

    Does anyone have any book recommendations on this topic?? Thanks much.

  23. Lindaon 29 Dec 2008 at 4:22 pm

    What are the peculiar problems inherent in third omniscient?

    Head hopping is a big problem for people who want to use omniscient to show what mulitple characters are thinking. They tend to miss a step in between, which is to make a transition (usually very subtle) first.

    I think it is a great viewpoint for a large, complex story for a lot of characters or for a book (many thrillers qualify for this) where getting into the viewpoint character would not be a pleasant experience (the book Perfume comes to mind).

    What books of old or now current have used this pov?

    Here’s a list. Most of these are recent examples, within the last few years.

    Black Magic Woman, by Justin Gustainis (2008)

    The Chase, by Clive Cussler (2007)

    Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowlings (1998)

    Lady Knight, by Tamora Pierce (2004)

    Supersonic Thunder: A Novel of the Jet Age (2006)

    The Vampire of New York, by Lee Hunt (2008)

  24. scotton 12 Jul 2009 at 8:00 pm

    What POV is Lonesome Dove written in?

  25. Kate Elliotton 28 Jul 2009 at 12:31 pm

    Scott,

    I’ve never read Lonesome Dove. It’s definitely third person but glancing at the “look inside this book” feature on amazon I couldn’t tell if it is in third limited (always Augustus’ pov) or a form of omniscient.

  26. responds to old threadson 04 Dec 2012 at 10:32 pm

    I listened to the audiobook of Lonesome Dove and paid particular attention to the POV, though I don’t know how to label it (my curiosity about this is what lead me to this three-year old thread). I believe it’s a third limited. The POV jumps from character to character, the “head hopping” that Linda mentions above, but the transitions are so smooth you almost don’t notice. It’s like Game of Thrones but without the convenient chapter labels. The breaks between characters just happen during the scene.

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