Friday, December 30, 2016

Fashion Statements and the Omniscient POV

A popular post from June 2009

by Annette Lyon

Anne Shirley longed to wear puffed sleeves.

In high school, I wore pegged jeans and shoulder pads.

And a century and a half ago, Dickens wrote in the omniscient point of view.

Fashions change, and the literary world is no different. Today, it's very difficult to write in an omniscient POV and get published. There are several reasons for this.

Frankly, a good omniscient POV is really hard to do well. It sounds easy, because yes, "omniscient" means that the narrator knows what's going on in each character's mind.

But here's the giant caveat: that does not mean that the narrator can hop around between their heads willy nilly. There has to be a purpose for when we go from one person's viewpoint to the next person's, a stylistic reason for showing the contrast between this person's feelings and that one's, even if it's within the same line.

The most common excuse beginning writers use when they're criticized for a poor point of view is, "But I'm using an omniscient POV."

Chances are that no, you're not. You're just being sloppy.

A real omniscient narrator has its own personality and feel. There's a distinct reason and purpose for telling the story in that way, more so today than in Dickens' time.

In today's publishing world, the most common place you'll see this type of POV is in epic-style fantasy, where the scope is large and sweeping. But even in many of those works, you'll get third person POV, such as with Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books, which are definitely written in third person.

A contemporary example of an omniscient POV that works is Lemony Snicket's 13-volume The Series of Unfortunate Events, wherein the narrator has such a distinct personality that he even breaks the "fourth wall" and talks directly to the reader at times. He pontificates on his own opinion of the events as well as what other characters think about them. It's done very much tongue-in-cheek and deliberately over-the-top. And every bit is intentional and smart.

A somewhat older (and serious) book that has an omniscient POV is James A. Michener's The Source. It was published in the 1960s, when the omniscient POV was already going out of style. The POV really works in this book, and for that matter, there's really no other POV that Michener could have used for it. For starters, the book covers literally thousands of years, so he couldn't have picked two or three POV characters to carry the plot.

Another big issue with The Source is that because the stories and themes covered over the centuries in the book reflect on one another, an omniscient narrator is needed to gently draw lines between them for the reader. The result: a brilliant read that must have been painstakingly written.

The entire point of this post? In general, pick a third person POV (how close or distant is up to you, as is how many POV characters, but I wouldn't go for more than 3-5), or first person. Each of those POVs has its own pros and cons.

But unless you have a really, really good reason for using the omniscient POV, resist the urge. There's a very good chance your story won't come across as a brilliant Michener work (the guy won a Pulitzer, for crying out loud). Instead, you'll likely look like an amateur who head hops and doesn't know what it means to maintain a decent POV.


Amanda said...

Hmm. In my english and creative writing courses in college, they taught that omniscient meant third person POV that knows everything about every character, whereas third person limited is when the narrator knows what's in a limited number of characters' heads, but not the rest. We weren't taught that the narrator having its own personality had anything to do with it, though.

Amber Lynae said...

POV has been the main thing holding my story back... knowing the story and knowing from which characters POV need to be used to get it told are two different things. I really need a good lesson in the different POVs and the proper ways to transition between characters. Any suggestions?

L.T. Elliot said...

HOORAY! Thank you for being brave enough to say this. Head-hopping makes me insane. It's the biggest turn off of all time. I put down a book faster for that than any other reason. I hate trying to figure out whose head I'm in.

Although, I will admit, I love Lemony Snicket's series. (Which goes to show that I didn't have a hard time!)

Annette Lyon said...

Amanda, Omniscient doesn't necessarily have to have its own personality--but that's very much another trend we're seeing pop up in contemporary lit. Another example is Brandon Sanderson's Alcatraz series.

Annette Lyon said...

Amber Lynae, Maybe one of us will cover that soon!

L.T. I loved the Snicket books too, and they're easy to follow because they're DONE WELL.

Kimberly said...

I'm currently in the process of taking a sloppily written attempt at omniscience and morphing it into a more tightly focused third person point of view.

It is PAINFUL dealing with this mess. So yes, fabulous advice as always.

Heather B. Moore said...

Another good example is a book that I just read--the NY Times Bestseller LOVE WALKED IN by Marisa de los Santos. There are two main characters. The adult character is written in 1st person Omniscient POV and the 11-year old is written in 3rd person. It would be a good study for those of you who want to compare both POV's in the same novel.

Terresa said...

Excellent thoughts. In my WIP, I've been a bit sloppy & need to go back and re-read & stick to one point of view.

Thanks, as always, for your thoughts!

Anonymous said...

In what POV is Lonesome Dove written?
Thank you.

Annette Lyon said...

Someone else will have to answer that one--I haven't read it.

susana said...

Such a nice post thanks for sharing...
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