Monday, March 26, 2012

Omniscient Point of View: A Re-Understanding

Writing Excuses recently did a podcast on omniscient point of view, and while I agree with much of what they said, I noticed that the show repeated a central understanding of omniscience that I've come to see as flawed. Because it's so prevalent, I thought I'd write on it.

When I first learned about point of view (POV) back in middle school and high school, I learned that there were three kinds: first person, third person limited, and third person omniscient. (Much later, I would learn about that other skipped person, that poetically favored person, the second, but I won't touch on that for this post.) First and third person limited were fairly clear and familiar, but third omniscient was more difficult to grasp. The way I learned it then and over and over in courses since then was much in line with this definition, found at About: "Third person omniscient is a method of storytelling in which the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters in the story." This definition is usually followed with the disclaimer that writers used to use third person omniscient more commonly, but that it has gone out of fashion. The problem was, I couldn't remember ever seeing it used in the works I read.

I've since continued to read widely in Victorian literature, and I can't think of a case of third person omniscient that adheres to this definition. In fact, the only novel I can think of that does attempt this is Peter Carey's 1999 novel Jack Maggs, and though it's been a while since I read it, my memory is that fairly soon after the opening, it adheres to one limited point of view and then another for sustained periods (becoming more like the floating third mentioned below). It strikes me that novels that truly allow simultaneous insight into all characters' minds are exceedingly rare.

And with good reason. After all, if a reader has insight into all minds at once, we lose some of our ability to engage with the text--that is, we don't get to participate by trying to understand characters' motivations from their actions. We're no longer in the position of the characters, trying to figure out each other from outside information (gestures, dialogue) alone. We're no longer in a human position at all. As the word omniscient suggests, we're put in the position of an all-knowing god, and that's not a position that's familiar or comfortable from which to read. It's also almost impossible for even the finest writer to manage. I've come to understand that third person omniscient, as it's typically defined (simultaneous insight into all characters' thoughts and feelings), is even more rare than second person.

If the traditional definition is not valid, I'd like to propose alternatives that are more common, though still more rare than first person or third person limited. I add a disclaimer that I don't think I'm coining any new terminology here.

Floating third person limited: when the writer deliberately and seamlessly moves us from the thoughts of one character into the thoughts of another.

Virginia Woolf was a master at the floating third person. In Mrs. Dalloway, for example, we'll move from the thoughts of our title character to war veteran Septimus Smith as she gazes at him across a flower shop. Woolf's point of view shifts are not haphazard or jarring, but methodical and intentional. We get a sense of how each character is isolated from the others by the way they fail to intersect at the very moments their points of view collide.  In this way, it's distinct from the point of view errors one might find in a new writer's work, in which we accidentally see or know something the point of view character cannot. With Woolf, it's never a slip-up. We move to the new mind and stay there for some time before moving on.

Writing Excuses refers to this as "head hopping," which is usually a pejorative term for poorly executed writing when the writer doesn't seem able or willing to commit to a point of view. I'd like to draw the distinction that floating third person is an extremely difficult POV to pull off, and only true craftsman tend to manage it well. (I suspect that Writing Excuses writers would back me up on this.)

Omniscient pronouncement: when the writer makes a grand pronouncement that seems beyond the scope of most human knowledge.

This omniscience that is correctly attributed to nineteenth century writers, who were not shy about making a sweeping statement in their work. Charles Dickens's "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times" in Tale of Two Cities or Leo Tolstoy's "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" in Anna Karenina both fit into this category. More recently, and one of the more common examples given on Internet websites, Douglas Adams's narrator in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has knowledge of world history going back to the primordial ooze. Usually, this kind of omniscience enters the book only for short moments before we attach ourselves to a POV character through which our understanding will be filtered.

And yes, this point of view does put the author in a god-like roll, but not so much that it allows multiple characters' thoughts at once.

The Establishing Shot: when a book starts, like a film, with an establishing "shot," that is, a description that of a large setting that then zooms in on a particular set of characters which we will follow.

John Steinbeck's story "The Chrysanthemums" is a great example of this, starting "The high gray-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot." 

(Writing Excuses mentioned Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. Those better read in fantasy than I will have to confirm or disavow this one.)

Shifting third person limited: when the point of view character shifts in clearly defined sections, such as chapters

Charles Dickens's Bleak House shifts between an unknown third person narrator to Esther Summerson in different segments of the novel. George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones and George Eliot's Middlemarch similarly limit each chapter to one third person POV character, but which character that is shifts from chapter to chapter. Murder mystery novelist P. D. James uses this to great effect in most of her novels, as she shifts us into a new mind from chapter to chapter so that readers discover at her novels' ends that they've been in the mind of a murderer and never suspected them. Like the floating point of view, the shifting third person does not allow sloppiness. For the entirety of the chapter, the POV stays strictly limited to the person its writer has established.

While nineteenth century writers were still inventing the novel and, so, didn't have the wealth of craft texts that their work and subsequent writing has generated, by falsely attributing to them a point of view that allows simultaneous insight into all minds, we do them a disservice. I've come to believe they understood narrative tension better than this. While we can find occasional examples in which their point of view does not attach as rigidly to a single character as is now common, I cannot find so many of those examples as to suggest they are any kind of norm. Nineteenth century novelists allowed their readers more involvement in their books than this credits them for. They allowed readers to draw conclusions from the action and dialogue of non-POV characters without insight into their thinking. This restraint offers the pleasure of dramatic irony, in which we readers better read the dialogue of a character than the POV character him/herself.

Novel writing has changed a great deal in the past two hundred years, but perhaps not so much as our current teaching of point of view suggests.


  1. Looking at Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage tonight, I noticed that it obeys the definition of omniscience offered by my teachers, giving insights from multiple characters at the same moment in the opening. I have not read the entire novel. I'd be interested to see how it progresses.

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