Three Rules for Writing Omniscient POV that Doesn’t Suck
Every piece of fiction ever written was written from the omniscient point of view (“POV”). Most are not written in the omniscient POV, but let’s face it, we all write from it. I’m reviewing a manuscript right now, written in first person with a blind protagonist, which presents some interesting POV issues. That does not change the fact that the writer knows exactly what’s going on, regardless of whether her protag can see it (which, after Chapter Three, she can’t). The tricky part for the author is controlling the influx of information so the reader never becomes aware of something her protagonist isn’t aware of.
In other words, it’s just like writing anything else.
Why I write in omniscient POV
Writing somewhat (by which I mean really fucking) sarcastic satire, omniscient POV is almost a must for me. If I try to write in third person, I have to saddle my poor POV character, which is my protagonist about 80% of the time, with all of the snark and sarcasm. That presents a few problems:
First, I don’t want my protagonist to be an asshole. If he’s the one finding every angle to describe a situation satirically, that’s pretty much his fate. If it’s clear that a narrator is talking about what’s going on, the protagonist can still be a decent, loveable guy or girl, without having to sacrifice any snark.
Second, there are times the protagonist isn’t going to be the POV character. That’s true whether I’m writing in third or omni. If I were writing in third person, I’d have a tough choice. Even if I was willing to let my protagonist be the asshole, I either have to go through select portions of my manuscript (i.e., anywhere anyone else was the POV character) in a straight, non-satirical way—which may or may not work depending on the particular story, scene, characters—or I’d have to start filling a stable of characters with the same satirical perspective on the events. In other words, start blurring the line and have less distinct characters. Writing in omni, the distinct narrator can watch those scenes for the reader, provide the satirical perspective, and allow the character to just be herself; a distinct, unique character with her own perspective.
Third, my particular brand of satire is a variant of the “One Sane Man” trope. Meaning, I have a narrator talking about a normal person thrown into nonsensical events (the way our society is largely comprised of nonsense) and trying to earnestly understand what’s going on. I can’t pretend the reader doesn’t understand I’m describing nonsense without alienating the reader. If I afford my protagonist a grand, bird’s-eye view of the situation, there’s nothing left to work out. In other words, my narrative arc looks like the Bonneville Salt Flats.
By virtue of my genre, writing style, and desire for my protagonist not to be an asshole, I have little choice but to write from an omniscient POV. That’s not a particularly popular POV, though, and I think I know why. After a year of drafting and nearly that editing and revising, I think I can safely say writing omniscient POV that doesn’t suck is really fucking hard.
My manuscript currently has the nonironic file extension ‘final24.’ It’s named that because it’s my twenty fourth goddam version of the first document I had the hubris to name ‘final’ after several rounds of edits. Ten fucking months ago. If you’ll accept the assumption that it doesn’t suck (or, if not, at least assume Terry Pratchett and J.K. Rowling know what the hell they’re doing), here’s what I’ve learned about…
How to write omni that doesn’t suck.
First, foremost, most importantly, and above all, it doesn’t look like it’s omniscient. It looks like limited third virtually all the time. Granted, limited third with a more distinctive narrator’s voice than most limited third, but limited third nonetheless. So much so that two of my three critique partners read the entire thing thinking it was written in limited third. That wasn’t an accident.
If there is a way to keep from breaking limited third to make my satirical point, I do that instead. If I can filter something through a POV character instead of telling another person’s thoughts, or bring something the POV character couldn’t know into the narrative through conversation or some other way, I do that. To the point that my original manuscript, which had a different ending that required much less POV change, could almost legitimately be called third person.
People commenting on things written in omni (for example, Harry Potter or Terry Pratchett’s stuff) often say they were written in limited third. Nathan Bransford, for example, says:
One of the classic third person limited narratives is the Harry Potter series, and Rowling strays from Harry’s perspective in only a tiny few rare instances.
I recently read Going Postal by Terry Pratchett, and found precisely the same thing. There are only a handful of POV characters, and he seldom strays from their thoughts, or something the POV character is at least capable of viewing, in his narrative. Though the narrator’s tone is distinct, and commentary about the things the POV characters can see may slip in through that, nearly everything that moves the story forward happens in a way that is indistinguishable from limited third.
Nathan’s blog is a valuable tool and his insights and experience are incredibly helpful (as you could probably tell from me linking to it, which I don’t do often). That said, I don’t hesitate for a second to say Harry Potter was written in something other than limited third. “Limited third that only strays from the POV character’s perspective in a tiny few rare instances” is the definition of omniscient POV that doesn’t suck.
Writing in omni presents pitfalls aplenty. Head hopping can be maddening for the reader (even if the writer must know what is in every character’s head). Cheating with knowledge of what will happen, blurring the line between what the narrator knows and what the POV knows, erasing the clean lines that distinguish each character as a complete, rounded person, and about a thousand other things can lead to a nightmare of a manuscript. Writing as close to limited third as possible guards against those things better than anything else.
The second rule for writing omniscient POV that doesn’t suck, and this rule is also extremely important, is that there is no fucking second rule. Good omniscient POV is the closest thing a writer can get to limited third given the nature of the narrative without doing damage to the narrative. You can embrace the fact that you’re writing from omniscient POV, since all writers always are, but the decision to write a section where it becomes clear to the reader (i.e., writing in omniscient POV) is much more delicate. It’s a cross between seasoning with habanero sauce and using a nuclear weapon.
Applying the rule, you’ll see that omniscient is virtually never warranted in a thriller, for example, where information slowly being discovered and developed by the protagonist is key. So, applying the “only use it as an absolute last resort, nuclear option” rule, you sure as hell wouldn’t want to write that kind of book in anything but first or tight, tight limited third.
Fantasy is an area where omniscient is much more prevalent. I’m no expert in that genre, but it intuitively makes sense to me. For starters, fantasy writers need to do a lot of worldbuilding that will happen much more efficiently from a clearly removed narrator. Having taken that step in distance away from tight limited third, the story itself should decide how tightly the narrator zooms in on a character or two – even to the point of zooming in so tight the narrator effectively disappears as a separate voice.
In satire, by contrast, the scope usually starts closely focused on a character and pans back as the situation she’s in becomes more fucked up. To the extent I found myself needing to create situations early in the narrative that required the distanced narrative voice, just so it wouldn’t come as a surprise when it was necessary to really turn it on a third of the way into the story. That was one of the key tings I had to work out piecing this narrative together. For omni not to suck, you have to use it as little as the narrative absolutely requires. To keep it from looking like I just got sloppy with limited third, I had to introduce that voice early. The result was that I had to write in a situation that absolutely required a drop of habanero sauce, so the reader wouldn’t be surprised when things got hot later.
Finally, the third rule for writing omniscient POV that doesn’t suck: