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?