Whose Point Of View Is It, Anyway? by @EdenBaylee

An author friend and I have been writing stories together for years, and our collaborations are usually seamless. We agree on so much, but there is one thing we don't agree on. 

I’m all for having a different point of view, but what if we have a different point of view about … point of view, also known as PoV? 

Establishing point of view for a story isn’t easy since there are many to choose from: first person, second person, third person limited, and third person omniscient. 

Point of view filters everything in a story. There are pros and cons for each choice. Where I differ from my friend is in the use of third person omniscient.  

He likes it, and I don’t. Simple as that. 

We’ve managed to write some fabulous stories together, so this difference may be a matter of personal preference and nothing more. Regardless, I thought it'd be interesting to explore the omniscient PoV more closely. 

First of all, what is it? 

An omniscient narrator is one that is all-knowing. Its perspective is often compared to a god’s-eye view because the PoV can show anything it wants the reader to see, dipping into characters’ heads as needed to reveal what’s happening in the story at any given time. This includes information the characters may not be aware of themselves. 

There are definitely benefits to telling a story using the omniscient voice. 

PROS

Flexible storytelling 
An omniscient voice isn’t limited to what the main character knows. Because the narrator is literally all-knowing, there is much more flexibility when it comes to telling your story. You can tell readers anything they need to know to move the plot forward even if the character doesn’t know about it yet. 

Quick transitions 
If you’re writing a story with action moving quickly between scenes, an omniscient narrator can do this much faster than limited third-person PoV. No need for awkward explanations or clumsily jumping between characters. 

Get to know multiple characters 
You can enter the minds of multiple characters and explore their emotions and relationships. Even if you choose to focus on one main character, you’re not limited by what that one character can see or do at any one time. 

Epic storytelling 
If you’re telling a story with lots of characters that span many years and cover distant lands, then omniscient PoV is the way to go. It’s popular in the science fiction and fantasy genres, where a lot of world building is required—think The Lord of the Rings series. 

What are the drawbacks to omniscient PoV?

CONS

Distance from the characters 
The omniscient PoV naturally distances the reader from the characters because an “otherworldly” voice is telling the story. Information is always filtered through this narrator, and we are simply watching from afar. 

Telling vs. showing 
The omniscient narrator tends toward telling action and emotion rather than showing it. It’s not an immersive experience for the reader. 

Too much telling 
When you know everything, it’s easy to tell far too much, which can lead to massive and boring info dumps. Worse yet, too much telling can dissipate conflict and remove that page-turning tension. 

Tendency to head-hop 
Omniscient can be difficult to write without descending into “head-hopping.” Though this PoV is able to share different characters’ thoughts and feelings, it must be done through a consistent and uniform narrative voice, and not in any of the unique and personal voices of the characters. Head-hopping occurs when the narrative jumps from one character’s voice to another without a break in between. 


Third person omniscient is probably the oldest narrative form of recorded storytelling. It was used by Homer and Shakespeare, and is ingrained in the mythology of many societies. If a writer wants to create a “Once upon a time” type of story, then it's the PoV to use.

In the end though, what's important is you choose the right PoV for your story and stick with it. 

How about you? Do you write with an omniscient narrator?

Please feel free to share, I'd love to hear from you! 

eden

Comments

Susan Price said…
I've been accused of 'head hopping' so perhaps I use the omniscient, though it's not something I aim at -- I think it's best suited to a sort of 'Oh what fools these mortals be' attitude: a looking down at these silly little ants and their scurrying about.

But don't we all use the TPO, all the time, really? We all know what all of our characters are thinking, even if we don't share it with the reader. We know what's going to happen to them. We deliberately make them light-hearted when we know damn well the world is going to fall on their head over the page. We just choose to hide a lot from the reader.

I think you're right, Eden, that TPO does require a lot of skill in handling the narrative voice. Would it be true to say that First Person requires more skill in handling plot?
Peter Leyland said…
This is very interesting Eden, an issue I am dealing with in memoir writing. Who’s story is this? Did it really happen this way or is the memory clouded by time? I am trying autobiographical narrative research for a book I’d like to write about Leaning on Literature, not academic. It’s fascinating the way authors like the omniscient Eliot, or Dickens (to name only two) use 3rd or Ist person to tell their stories. There is so much in your blog you should run a course on it - maybe you do? Anyway lots to think about. Thanks.
Sandra Horn said…
Very interesting! I struggle with PoV and always hope it might not matter if I switch around, but other members of my writing group are very hot on it, so perhaps I should knuckle down and treat it seriously. Thank you, Eden.
I like closed third person* but with multiple points of view, so you can move about and see what more than one of them is thinking. I always change points of view with a new chapter, though, not randomly in the middle of scenes, although I must say that can be made to work in certain kinds of narrative.

*if that's what it's called!

I've used 1st person with multiple POVs for one series but I don't think it works as well for me.
Interesting discussion!
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Susan, thanks for your comment!

Head hopping is complicated, especially so in omniscient, but not limited to this POV. It can also happen in first, second and third person limited.

Head-hopping is something that happens to the READER, as opposed to what the WRITER knows. As you say, writers know everything about their characters and what they want to reveal or hide, but it's how the author delivers this knowledge to the reader that can result in head hopping.

To be clear, head-hopping is not merely a switch in viewpoint character. It's when that switch occurs mid-sentence or mid-paragraph or mid-scene. It also happens when a first person narration suddenly flips to third person. The result is the reader can suffer a 'whiplash' of sorts!

As an example, head hopping has occurred when one moment you're enjoying Bob's viewpoint (seeing the world through his eyes, his experiences and expectations), then suddenly, you're watching the world through Mary's eyes. You can change viewpoints, but it is easiest on the reader when it's done during a chapter or scene break. This allows the reader time to acclimatize to an upcoming change.

What you don't want to do is force the reader to switch focus abruptly. It's this sudden change that can jar a reader's enjoyment of the story and pull them right out of it.

As for first person POV, the main drawback usually has to do with a limited viewpoint because the reader can only see what the main character sees. If you're writing a plot-heavy mystery in which you need to drop clues for the reader that the character cannot see or perceive, then you're better off with third-person. In first person, if the character doesn’t know it or perceive it, then it doesn’t exist, so this could definitely be a challenge for plot.

Hope this answers your question. :)

eden



Eden Baylee said…
Hi Peter!

Congratulations on writing your memoir. :) Unlike fiction, in memoir, you are the main character, so memoir is almost always written in first person. In fiction, the author can use unreliable narrators (narrators who are lying or have inaccurate perceptions), but this isn't available in memoir.

As you say, time can affect your recollection of memories, but the expectation from readers is you are being as honest as possible in each moment of your story. Remember A MILLION LITTLE PIECES by James Frey? It was initially promoted as a memoir, but he later admitted many of the events described in the book never happened. It shattered his credibility and branded his book as literary forgery.

In my research, it does appear that omniscient is not as marketable as 1st or 3rd person limited. So although many of the classics used omniscient, traditional publishers today now discourage it. Readers like being immersed in the character’s experience, and omniscient doesn't allow for this.

I don't teach on writing, but thanks for the compliment!

Hope you're keeping well,
eden
Eden Baylee said…
Ha Sandra,

Some people are zealots about head hopping and getting POV right!

Head hopping can be very tricky and it's not always easy to recognize. I'm still learning all the time too. :)

Thanks for reading and commenting,
eden

Eden Baylee said…
Hi Cecilia,

I think you are referring to *third person limited*. This "limited" part can mean the narrator is restricted to ONE character’s perspective through the entirety of the novel, or as in your case, the narrator changes from chapter to chapter (or is divided by section, or via some other easily definable chunk). This is also called third person "multiple limited" or third person "shifting POV".


As for first person with multiple POVs, I agree it can be challenging. The key with first person is that your character's voice has to come through. If you write multiple first persons, they all have to sound different, which means you need to write each one in a distinct manner. This would involve more than just starting a chapter with the character's name. There must also be other ways to distinguish who's speaking.

William Faulkner's AS I LAY DYING is an example of this. The novel is a series of monologues of 15 characters. Worth a read!

Really appreciate your comment,

eden

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