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Third Person Omniscient Point of View

Omniscient point of view is most associated with nineteenth century novels. Omniscience, of course, means “all knowing,” and the third person narrator of these novels assumes godlike powers…

  • They know everything about the characters and can enter the minds of any one of them, whenever they choose.
  • If they wish, they can enter the minds of the cat on the windowsill and the spider in the corner, too.
  • They know everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen, and they have complete freedom to move through time in any direction.
  • They also have complete freedom to move through space – and so they can move from one room to another (and back again) in the middle of a scene, or to the other side of town, or even to the other side of the world one hundred years ago.

When using the omniscient viewpoint, then, anything goes.

Okay, I’ve exaggerated the things that an omniscient narrator would be likely to do (particularly today in the twenty-first century). But the point is that they would have the freedom to do all of these things if they wished. As Nancy Kress said…

Writers are gods. We get to create entire worlds, populate them, and even…destroy them. Of course, writers can do this in any viewpoint, but omniscient point of view adds another layer to the process.

Of course, a very similar effect to omniscience can be achieved with a more conventional 3rd person Multiple Viewpoint Novel.

After all, I have already called the neutral narrator of such a novel “godlike” – and this neutral, godlike narrator can slip in and out of the bodies and minds of any number of viewpoint characters as they tell the story.

So the question I must answer is this…

What Sets a 3rd Person “Omniscient” Narrator Apart?

The answer, as I have hinted, is that an omniscient narrator’s voice can be far from neutral, and they can be as visible and as in-your-face to the readers as they like.

(For more on this idea of a “standard” 3rd person narrator using a neutral voice, please review the article explaining the logic of Third Person Narratives.)

In Pride and Prejudice, when Jane Austen writes, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” she (or more precisely, the novel’s omniscient narrator) isn’t exactly holding back with the attitude and the opinions.

The neutral narrator of a standard third person novel could never write a sentence like that.

Not only can omniscient narrators share their attitudes and opinions and comments with the readers, they can actually address the readers directly. I have made up the following lines, but they are typical of what you would find in a nineteenth century novel…

So you see, dear reader, Charles was now in a dire predicament.

In case you were wondering what has become of poor Alice, fear not, for we will soon meet her again in London Town.

Why would anyone want to write a novel in this way, or why would any reader want to read it? Simply because the opinionated narrator’s telling of the story can be as entertaining as the story itself.

It is like reading the reviews of critics in the newspaper…

  • Part of our interest obviously stems from wanting to know more about the thing they are reviewing – a film, a restaurant, whatever.
  • But partly we are interested in the manner in which they write the review (which, in the case of critics, can be waspish to say the least!)

Does Omniscient Point of View Have a Place Today?

Yes – but not much of one. It has virtually disappeared, in fact, as readers’ tastes have changed – though that shouldn’t put you off using it.

If nineteenth century omniscient point of view novels are your thing and you think you can write a twenty-first century version, go for it. Just be aware of two things…

  1. It is an technically demanding viewpoint to use. If the sign of a beginner is to mishandle point of view, you will really have to know what you are doing if you want to write a third person omniscient novel and not look amateurish.
  2. Giving omniscience a modern twist is imperative. And the way to do that is to use the narrator far more subtly than did your nineteenth century counterparts.

To see how contemporary writers have brought the third person omniscient viewpoint up to date, try Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy or John Irving’s A Widow For One Year. Here are four brief extracts from A Widow For One Year

That her parents had expected her to be a third son was not the reason Ruth Cole became a writer; a more likely source of her imagination was that she grew up in a house where the photographs of her dead brothers were a stronger presence than any “presence” she detected in either her mother or her father.

And this is where Eddie, the unlucky young man with the inadequate lamp shade, enters the story.

Many a faithful wife has tolerated, even accepted, the painful betrayals of a philandering husband; in Marion’s case, she put up with Ted because she could see for herself how inconsequential his many women were to him.

Poor Eddie O’Hare. To be in public with his father always caused him complete mortification.

I hope you can see that sentences such as these could never have been written by a “neutral, invisible, non-opinionated” narrator in a standard third person novel. But to get a real feel for how the omniscient point of view is used today, you will need to read the whole novel, and others like them.

The greatest advantage of using the third person omniscient point of view is the total freedom that it offers a writer. In inexperienced hands, that total freedom is also the viewpoint’s greatest drawback.

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