Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Omniscient Viewpoint

Here’s an interesting post by Ann Leckie about omniscient viewpoint.

The other day, while I was reading a (published) work of fiction, I came across a passage that seemed to me was a result of the author being determined to write the piece in 3rd person limited, but wanting very badly to do something that would have benefited very much from the piece being in omniscient POV. Instead, the author had kluged together an awkward workaround.

Yes, I can imagine the kind of thing Leckie means. So can you all, I’m sure.

This part, however, took me a bit by surprise:

I would have been a bit less dismayed to see such a thing if it had not been for the context of the way new writers are nearly always taught about POV. I’ve not infrequently seen advice to avoid omni altogether, either because it’s difficult and therefore only for experts, or because readers aren’t used to it, or because editors won’t or don’t buy works using that POV. Specific advice for handling POV is nearly always advice for handling 3rd person limited, though it’s often articulated only as advice for handling POV, period.

No doubt this is true somewhere, for some new writers, but I wish Leckie had said exactly what she was thinking of when she write this indictment. What did she mean, “new writers are nearly always taught”? Are “most” new writers “taught,” as such? Taught by whom? Do most new writers go through MFA programs these days? I’m thinking of genre authors here. Certainly no one taught me anything about writing, except the authors of the books I read. Orson Scott Card’s book, Character and Viewpoint, is good and potentially useful, I guess, except that I don’t think books about writing are actually all that helpful. Interesting, yes. Helpful, not so much. And he doesn’t declare that limited third is the only real way to go. Are all the more recent books of writing advice making such a claim? Maybe they are, I don’t know.

Anyway, this took me by surprise because we see so much genre fiction written in the first person these days, which is not acknowledged at all in the linked article. First is way more common today than it was thirty years ago, it seems to me. Including of course the first-person-present, which I think is pretty difficult to do well, but it’s certainly not rare these days. I wonder if Leckie is not reading much UF/paranormal/YA, because it seems to me that she could not write about the ubiquity of limited third person if she was reading widely in those areas, where first is at least as common as third.

It especially surprised me because her own Ancillary trilogy is written in the first person, I do wonder why she didn’t address that, but limited the options under discussion to limited third versus omniscient. But leave that aside.

It’s true that in many discussions about viewpoint, third-person headhopping omniscient is conflated with true omniscient. I can think of a couple of books that used head-hopping third really well, which — as Leckie indicates — can be very difficult to pull off. I’m thinking of Judith Riley’s Margaret of Ashbury trilogy here. But true omniscient? That would be something like The Book Thief, with a narrator who is standing outside the action and seeing everything. I really enjoyed The Lovely Bones, as I recall.

Here’s Leckie’s conclusion about how to write omniscient well:

But it’s really very simple. Omniscient always has a narrator . . . the story is always being told from the POV of that narrator, who just happens to know a whole lot about the circumstances of the story, for whatever reason. They’re telling you the story, commenting on it, judging it, maybe even making snarky remarks about it. But the story is being filtered through the perceptions of that narrator.

True? Mostly true? What are a couple more recent SFF novels written in omniscient? Remembering that omniscient is not the same as headhopping third person, does anyone have an example of a story written in true omniscient? Does it stick to the above rule about having a narrator (named and personified or not)?

I guess the number of possible pov techniques gets pretty long if you try to break them all down. Like this:

First person present — like Divergent, say.
First person past — a lot of paranormal/UF/cozy mysteries
First person past with a frame story — The Taltos series by Stephen Brust
Limited third person — a lot of genre fiction, including all of mine so far
Close third person — CJ Cherryh writes in a particularly close third person, I think, and it seems distinct from a more typical limited third to me.
Head-hopping third — very rarely done well, where you may dip into different characters’ heads in one chapter, or even one scene. Judith Riley.
Omniscient — The Lovely Bones

Do we see any present-tense narratives in any pov other than first?

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7 Comments Omniscient Viewpoint

  1. Elaine T

    Wrede has some excellent things to say about POV complete with examples …. (rummaging around her site I come up with several pages of hits for viewpoint)… on the second there’s a discussion of omniscient . OK… She says she’s heard complaints about LOTR ( an example everyone should know) ..
    I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me that the Patrick O’Brian books, or Lord of the Rings, use a viewpoint that “floats” or “jumps around”, or how often someone’s said that Larry McMurty’s Lonesome Dove is multiple viewpoint, or that Georgette Heyer does a lot of head-hopping, when all of them are simply very good examples of omniscient viewpoint. The trouble is that they look so different from each other that people don’t recognize them as having the same type of viewpoint. Folks can identify them as third-person, but they misidentify what sub-type of third person, and every bit of evidence that should tell them it’s omniscient is taken instead as evidence that the writer isn’t doing a good job of tight-third or multiple viewpoint or whichever subtype the particular reader has decided the author is using. They aren’t bad tight-third or bad multiple viewpoint. They’re perfectly good omniscient.

    Not recent examples but they’ll do. Outside of SF/F also Dunnett’s work which can be an example of pure omniscent handled different ways: Lymond’s series has omniscent without a particular narrative POV commenting or judging, while the Niccolos have a rather snarky judgmental one.

    I think CJC’s FORTRESS – especially the first – is written in omniscient without a narrator – but it looks mostly like 3rd. Still sometimes we pull out and get stuff no one would know. Most of those bits, though, are at the beginning. So it may be that it starts as omniscient and tightens down to multiple 3rd. I can’t think of any recent SF/F I’ve read that was omniscient, although GGK’s new one might well be, his others seem to be. It’s very handy for getting across a lot in little space.

    I’ve certainly seen a lot on the ‘net about POV and none of it likes ‘headhopping’.

  2. Pete Mack

    Not SF/F, but W.E.B. Griffin, in his two major military soap operas, does one of my favorite use of viewpoints. He is mostly third person limited, and sticks to the same viewpoint for long stretches of time, particularly early in the early books where he is focusing on characterization. But he uses unreliable narration, to more or less subtle degrees. He is particularly unsubtle about it when his characters are drunk, which they frequently are. (I suspect this is an accurate depiction of much of the army, at least until very recent years.) But he can be very subtle indeed, where you may not notice the unreliability unless you are actually at least a bit familiar with army doctrine. (Rereading his books a few times is enough to make you familiar enough.)
    At the same time, he also will occasionally veer into omniscient viewpoint. Sometimes he does this via quotes from history books; other times he does it by writing as if quoting a history book.

    I’m in the middle of my first reread in years, and am enjoying it immensely.

  3. Phineas

    L.E. Modesitt sometimes writes in third person present tense. For example, his Magi’i of Cyador and Scion of Cyador are both third person present tense. The Spellsong Cycle is written in past tense for all the chapters that feature the main POV character, but the few chapters written from another POV are in third person present.

  4. Elaine T

    REturning after thinking some more – The Teen has occasionally sent me something to read (usually a fanfic) written in 2nd person present. Sometimes I can read them, sometimes it’s way too jarring. So like everything else, if the writer can make it work, it works.

    I went to the library yesterday and skimmed through Judith Merkle Riley’s books, and decided they’re simply omniscient (by Wrede’s definitions), and Dickens likewise. And I decided I flatly disagree with the assertion that writing omniscient means there must be an implied narrator.

    When I was poking around Wrede’s posts on viewpoint I noticed one where she discusses old ways of looking at the subject.
    By this interpretation, there are really only two basic viewpoints: from outside the story, which is synonymous with omniscient, and from inside the story (i.e., seen through the eyes of a character), which covers everything else.. Which may be a way to bring clarity to such a discussion. Or, since no one is used to thinking about it that way, making the fog worse. :-)

    And is multiple a POV really, or a structure? i remember Jo Walton discussing how she wrote her multiple POV Cuchulain story by strict rotation of the POV characters. Thinking about (what I remember of) what she said it was more about the scaffolding than the POV.

  5. Mary

    And, of course, if you really want unusual, there’s always epistolary.

    But I tend to third-person with varying degrees of closeness — and numbers of points of view — and I do remember reading encouragement to use it in how-to-write books.

  6. Rachel

    Very interesting comments. I actually like Patricia Wrede’s comment about narrators “inside the story” versus “outside the story” — that’s a helpful way to look at it — but I disagree that “inside the story” adequately covers both first and third person.

    First and third are quite different in a bunch of ways, ranging from the mechanics of how you handle verb tenses, to the need for the writer to decide *when* the first person story is being told and to whom, to the greater feeling of immersion in (imo) third person narratives.

    I have another book of Riley’s on my TBR pile now, and I hope she did the same complicated pov with that as the Margaret of Ashbury trilogy because I want to look carefully at how she handles pov and whether I agree that it’s omniscient or not.

  7. SarahZ

    The Book Thief is narrated by Death, which I’d categorize as named omniscient viewpoint. The Lemony Snicket books are like that too, I think (but it’s been a while, so not totally sure).

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