Understanding omniscient point of view
What is point of view? (POV)
Point of view (sometimes incorrectly called viewpoint – I’ll explain this later) is simply defined as the perspective of who is telling a story. It relates to how much access to knowledge of the story and characters the narrator has. The point of view you choose affects the boundaries of how much information a narrator can share with the reader. This can take several forms such as omniscient (a god-like narrator who knows all); the limited view of first person (a single character) who can’t know what’s going on in other character’s heads; or third person multiple character viewpoints, which opens up boundaries but risks becoming ‘head hopping’ if not clearly delineated.
There are four types of point of view
- Omniscient: the all-knowing god-like narrator
- First person: ‘I’
- Second person: ‘You’
- Third person: ‘She, he, they, it’
This post will concentrate on omniscient POV
Omniscient Point of View
Traits of an omniscient POV
Omniscient POV is considered god-like or all-knowing because the narrator has access to all aspects of the story, including each character’s knowledge, thoughts, feelings, actions and backstory. This type of narrator can often feel as if they are leaning over your shoulder telling you what’s happening within the story instead of showing you through an intimate character perspective.
Who is the omniscient narrator?
The omniscient narrator can take two forms: omniscient involved narrator or omniscient invisible narrator.
Omniscient involved narrator
This type of narrator makes themselves known to the reader at the outset. They don’t actually appear within the narrative as a character, rather, think of them as an ‘off-stage’ character with a distinct voice, who sits in a virtual armchair beside the reader and recounts the story. This narrator will often interject their opinion on the narrative with use of the ‘I’ pronoun, or addressing the reader with ‘you’ or ‘we’. They want you aware of their presence, to hold your hand and lead you through their story.
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (read an interview with the author on why he chose Death)
- Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
- The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
The Book Thief
This story opens with a poetic but literal introduction by ‘Death’, the omniscient narrator:
Of course, an introduction. A beginning. Where are my manners? I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough …
Throughout the narrative, Death is present to the reader, sharing his contemplations on the duality of human nature and reflecting on the tragedies witnessed. While Death isn’t part of the actual story – he can’t interact with characters as they are alive – he is clearly a strong presence.
Winnie the Pooh
*Various publications of this novel may have different introductions.
The story opens in scene with the narrator describing Christopher Robin coming down the stairs with Edward Bear, who Christopher introduces as ‘Winnie-the-pooh’. The narrator comments:
When I first heard his name, I said, just as you are going to say, ‘But I thought he was a boy?’
Here the narrator has made his presence known with the ‘I’ and is addressing the reader with ‘you’, so he’s making sure you’re aware upfront that he’s the storyteller. However, once the real story commences, the narrator falls away, no longer part of the narrative, but his presence has been established in the reader’s mind as the omniscient voice who knows all.
The Lovely Bones
This is an unusual example as the story is told from the dead, and the narrator, Susie Salmon, is in an alternative world – her own version of Heaven. She opens her story by relating the manner of her death and revealing her killer, then moves into omniscient mode for the main story, where the narrative switches to her watching her family move on in life without her. So while she’s effectively not in the main story, her presence in Heaven acts a ‘frame’ for the narrative. Similar to the previous examples, the narrator boldly introduces herself at the opening:
My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered …
From there, it’s clear the rest of the story is being narrated through Susie’s literal god-like lens, as she has access to every character’s thoughts, feelings and actions. The difference between this book and The Book Thief is that the story revolves around Susie’s disappearance and aftermath for her family, effectively keeping her character as the central feature in her family’s life.
Omniscient Invisible Narrator
The invisible narrator doesn’t make themselves known to the reader. The reader is expected to understand that a voice, separate from the featured characters and definitely not part of the narrative, is telling the story. Some would say this voice is actually the author, rather than a separate character. This may be the case in some instances, but authors can also choose to imagine and create a narrator with a worldview distinct from their own.
So how can we tell if a narrator other than a character is telling the story? We are signalled by characteristics such as:
- A distinct and consistent voice inflecting its own tone and often using literary devices a character wouldn’t use themselves.
- The narrator revealing information that the focus character/s cannot know.
- The narrator telling us what the character/s are thinking and feeling, rather than giving access to the character themselves.
- The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
- Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Here, the story opens with a wide perspective – quite filmic – with the narrator describing the foreboding weather and the suburb in which the main characters live. The narrator uses literary devices such as metaphor to create an unsettling mood. This is a strong indication that the story is omniscient, as it already has a strong voice and we’re not given insight into whose observations these are. Therefore, they must be the narrator’s.
The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through.
Gust after gust of disorder.
… the nasal contention of a leaf blower
The narrator also addresses the reader with a ‘you’, indicating they are speaking to the reader in a storytelling role (although this can also occur in first person POV).
You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.
The reader is then quickly introduced to two of the characters ‘Alfred’ and ‘Enid’, an elderly couple who have been married for an eternity. While we are made aware of their actions, thoughts and feelings, we are never permitted direct access to them – everything is ‘told’ to us by the narrator.
Alfred’s first mention comes with the continuation of scene setting where the narrator is describing various smells:
… the smell of the gasoline with which Alfred Lambert had cleaned the paintbrush from his morning painting of the wicker love seat.
Here, the narrator is using one of the five senses (smell) to create the scene and is inviting the reader to imagine the prevalent gasoline smell, rather than Alfred the character introducing the smell himself through thought or action. This keeps the reader at a distance, rather than providing a more direct and intimate experience through Alfred’s POV.
If the omniscient narrator were to drop into Alfred’s head, it might look like this:
… the smell of the gasoline with which Alfred Lambert had cleaned the paintbrush from his morning painting of the wicker love seat was still strong. Aware that Enid might come down any moment, he contemplated how to remedy it. Whatever he did, he would need to act quickly. He couldn’t bear her complaints today.
Here the narrator has given us access to Alfred’s thoughts, but they are being ‘told’ to us indirectly. ‘He contemplated’ is telling us that he’s thinking. ‘Whatever he did …’, is a thought, but all is delivered through the filter of the narrator.
If we were to look at this through first person or third person point of view, it might look like this:
I sniffed. Ugh, the gasoline stench was still as bad as it was this morning. I leaned to open a window before Enid came down and started complaining. How the heck do I fix this?
Here we are given a direct thought from the character themselves: ‘How do I fix this?’
Alfred sniffed, screwing up his nose at the stench of gasoline, still strong from this morning’s painting session. I need to do something about that before Enid notices it, he thought. I can’t bear the thought of her complaints today.
Here were are given access to his thoughts and it’s delivered in present tense (direct thought is delivered in present tense, and indirect thought is delivered in past tense). This signals third person POV direct thought, rather than being delivered as the omniscient narrator’s viewpoint character.
As you can see, first person and third person POV gives much closer access to the character and their thoughts, so the reader feels as if the character is relating their story rather than a narrator.
Where the Crawdads Sing
This book is an excellent example of how using an omniscient narrator is useful for creating tension in a group scene, effectively providing a multiple character viewpoint in a nutshell.
In this courtroom excerpt, Kya is about to learn if she has been found guilty, which will result in her spending the rest of her life in jail or receiving the death penalty.
Judge Sims looked at Kya. ‘Would the defendant please rise for the reading of the verdict.’ Tom touched Kya’s arm, then guided her up. Tate placed his hand on the railing as close to Kya as he could get. Jumpin’ lifted Mabel’s hand and held it. No one in the room had ever experienced this collective heart pounding, this shared lack of breath. Eyes shifted, hands sweated.
Let’s examine two things closely.
The actions: We have four characters each performing an action: Judge Sims, Tom, Tate and Jumpin’. To determine if this scene is omniscient, we would need to ask who is observing all these actions. Not Kya, as she has stood to face the judge and jury. The person reporting all the actions can only be the narrator.
The insight: ‘No one in the room had ever experienced …’ This knowledge is a collective insight – the narrator even uses the word ‘collective’ clueing us in that they are reporting everyone’s feelings at the same time. It’s not possible for any one character to know what everyone else has or hasn’t experienced or how they are feeling in the moment. So again, we know it’s omniscient. Furthermore, Tate’s action includes an insight: ‘his hand as close to Kya as he could get’. We are not in Tate’s POV here, so it can only be the omniscient narrator’s.
Head hopping and viewpoint
All POVs have their place in literature, but omniscient is much harder for authors to tackle as they often fall into the trap of head hopping. Head hopping is a term to describe what happens when a narrator switches in and out of too many individual viewpoint characters’ heads in succession.
‘Too many’ means more than one at a time.
‘Viewpoint character’ means the focus character the narrator is concentrating on in a given moment (a scene or chapter), and whose thoughts the reader is being given access to via the narrator.
Head hopping is jarring to the reader and can cause confusion as to which viewpoint character or POV they are with. For a reader to get truly involved in a story, they need to care about, or at least be interested in, the viewpoint character. For that to occur, they need to connect with the character. It’s hard to do that if they are constantly thrown into other character’s POV.
Head hopping also brings with it the risk of each character sounding the same instead of the narrator taking the time to develop a unique voice for each character. This can cause a lack of clarity in the narrative.
While it may be beneficial to a plot line for a reader to have access to multiple characters’ thoughts and knowledge, when the reader is asked to identify with multiple POVs at the same time, they get whiplash from trying to ascertain which character should get their focus.
Some talented literary writers are able to shift through multiple POVs without jarring the reader. But it takes skill, and you need to know and understand the rules before breaking them.
The easiest way to prevent head hopping – especially in genre fiction, which relies on character connection rather than the beauty of the writing – is to delineate when the viewpoint character changes by either giving them their own chapters or by using a white space line break to indicate either a change of scene or change of perspective.