Omniscient POV


I have been thinking about Point of View (POV) lately in writing, not because I struggle with POV per se, although I do face some challenges with narrative distance, but because there seems to be somewhat of a revival in the use of Omniscient POV. The Omniscient POV was more commonly employed in Jane Austen’s day when a narrator with access to all the characters’ thoughts would tell the story.  However I have two books on my bedside table currently – Freedom by Jonathan Franzen and Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger, both of which seem to employ the Omniscient POV.  My question was do they? And if so, does this mean that Omniscient POV is undergoing a revival?

Point of View

As most writers know, there are four major types of POV with variations within some of them – First Person (using “I”), Second Person (using “you” – not commonly used), Third Person Limited and Third Person Omniscient. Note that some authors will use more than one type of POV i.e.  switching back and forth between a First Person narrative and a Third Person narrative based on the particular character.

The Third Person POV is where the writer utilizes the familiar “he said/she said” to tell the story. Third Person Limited is where the reader can only see the thoughts of the POV character/narrator and can only know what that person knows. Third Person Limited is the most commonly employed POV in much modern writing.

Many authors write from the Third Person Limited POV of several characters and will alternate between those characters in different chapters or scenes – but with only one POV character at a time.  This is also called Multiple Points of View.  When you are in the POV of one character (in a particular chapter or scene), you cannot see the thoughts of the other characters, or know what the other characters know. Note that it is possible to switch between or among Third Person Limited POVs from paragraph to paragraph but this is very challenging to accomplish without creating significant confusion.

In Third Person Omniscient, the writer allows the reader to see into the minds of many or all of the characters. This can be effective if done skillfully, but can also be very muddled if not. It tends to create more distance between the characters and the readers as we are not viewing the story intimately through the eyes of one or two characters that we know, but rather usually an unidentified narrator.  However this is not necessarily the case. It is generally frowned upon in writing circles in part because it is so hard to do well – if a writer is doing so, unless they are a famous author, it is generally assumed that they do not understand POV. It is often suggested that to effectively use omniscient POV, writers must move back and forth between characters with some degree of expected interval i.e. do not spend four pages writing from inside the head of one character and then suddenly shift to another character for a few sentences. Likewise, it is suggested that the writer must hold the characters at slightly greater arms length than in Third Person Limited.

Narrative Distance

Writers also must make decisions regarding narrative distance, which is a component of Point of View. A component of narrative distance is the degree to which the writing is in the objective or subjective mode.  In a subjective mode or story with less narrative distance, we see the character’s thoughts and internal reactions to situations and events. In an objective mode or story with more narrative distance, we see the story more through a ‘camera’ lens, viewing the action but not the thoughts.

With greater narrative distance, the writer must convey the characters’ feelings, even those of the POV character, with actions rather than a description of their internal thoughts. This is often thought to be desirable as it is more akin to the mantra of “show don’t tell,” but overdone, it can become wooden and impersonal.  At the same time, an endless barrage of a character’s internal feelings can become quickly boring, although may skilled modern writers use this approach to great effect.  In practice, it is more of a continuum. Most writers vary their narrative distance from scene to scene or paragraph to paragraph, zooming the camera in when necessary to reveal thoughts of their POV character and then back out to show action.  More on narrative distance next week because there are some other aspects of it. 

Getting back to my original question – are Franzen and Niffenegger’s latest novels written from the Omniscient POV?  According to reviewers, Franzen does use an omniscient POV briefly at the beginning in Freedom, although it is ‘implicit’  or ‘borderline’ – but then returns to a more conventional Third Person Limited for the remainder of the book shifting among the characters from section to section. Niffenegger uses an omniscient POV in Her Fearful Symmetry, slipping in and out of characters from paragraph to paragraph (rather than within the paragraph), usually leading off the paragraph with the character’s name, allowing the reader to keep the thoughts of various characters organized.

Addendum - Since writing this piece, I have picked up Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott. It also employs an omniscient POV within chapters switching from one character to another from paragraph to paragraph in a quite effective manner. I mentioned the sliding POV in Niffenegger's book to my book club and they had not noticed.

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