There is “I” and “me” and “you” and “us,” but what voice lurks beyond them? When an author takes on the task of developing his or her narrative voice, invariably he or she chooses what’s familiar. But what about what lies beyond the first-person narration? What happens when a writer wants to stretch a little and try writing something from a different point of view, one that’s possibly not so comfortable?
Two narrative voices come to mind—omniscient and limited omniscient. These two types of narration are very confusing even to accomplished authors. Bear with me as I try to demonstrate the differences, similarities, and the wisdom of attempting these narrative forms.
To help with this task, I’ve chosen some snippets from well-known authors who have written at least some of their novels using the past tense, third-person omniscient and limited omniscient forms, two possible POVs that a new author might consider.
Dean Koontz, in his novel THE HUSBAND, uses the omniscient narrator’s viewpoint throughout his book to create various distances between the reader and his characters. On page 1, we begin with a great example of what can be defined as the pure third-person, omniscient viewpoint:
“A man begins dying at the moment of birth. Most people live in denial of Death’s patient courtship until, late in life and deep in sickness, they become aware of him sitting bedside.”
The first thing one might consider is who is telling the story here. No character has yet been introduced in this opening and the narrator is distant, seemingly all-knowing and almost god-like in this pronouncement. Could it be the author since there’s no one else around except him?
The omniscient narrator can be very profound and his presence deeply felt. This is why authors like this voice. However, the question arises: Who can make a statement of this depth and get away with it? Can even an author as well known as Dean Koontz? Could Joe Unknown Writer? Can anyone get away with making a statement this profound? Will readers buy into this in our skeptical society, this being an authority on the subject of death?
There was a time when authors were revered. They could, and did, get away with using the omniscient viewpoint because most were widely traveled and highly intelligent individuals. They had experiences others only dreamed about, and many readers admired them and lived vicariously through their exploits. Times have changed, however, and now authors are treated like everyone else, as commoners and not as kings of the written word. So, can Joe or Josephine Unpublished Writer be taken seriously enough to use omniscient effectively? Put another way, can authors make all-knowing, god-like pronouncements and get away with it? Wouldn’t they possibly even open themselves to ridicule by their readers and especially by critics? This is one reason why new and yet unestablished authors should be very careful in their use of the omniscient narrator’s voice, as this voice can, at times, be taken as haughty and too authoritative, something a new author should avoid. So if you’re going to open your book in the omniscient, make sure you have a character present first so you can blame it on him or her.
The second example is taken from Tami Hoag’s novel, ASHES TO ASHES. Her opening is also in the omniscient:
“Some killers are born. Some killers are made. And sometimes the origin of desire for homicide is lost in the tangle of roots that make up an ugly childhood and a dangerous youth, so that no one may ever know if the urge was inbred or induced.”
It’s easy to spot who is giving us this information. As with the Dean Koontz example, in this novel’s opening no character has yet been introduced, hence the only one present, so far, is the author. Omniscient narration is always from the author’s viewpoint. Omniscient narration is not a bad way to begin a novel and many authors do this; however, when a new author tries it, he or she might not understand how to move successfully away from the omniscient and into a narrative voice that is closer to his or her characters. Thus, the story might come across as cold and its character or characters hollow and one dimensional. But let’s move on—in closer to the character as he is introduced in this, the next scene from the same book:
“He lifts the body from the back of the Blazer like a roll of old carpet to be discarded. The soles of his boots scuff against the blacktop of the parking area, then fall nearly silent on the dead grass and hard ground.”
Although still in the omniscient viewpoint, the author does many neat things in this paragraph. Like a photographer with a telephoto lens, she zooms in closer to give us and her reader, an image of a character. But she doesn’t want to get too close, so she uses the omniscient point of view to maintain her distance. Along with sight, she now also gives us sound (boot scuffs on pavement) and gives us a location (blacktop and a parking area). Then there’s more sound as the character leaves blacktop and enters grass and earth. This is fantastic writing from a master of her craft. This is what everyone who writes should be working toward, if you’re not already there.
Ms. Hoag goes on to give us wind and fallen leaves, so that we have a sense of season, then she also throws in bare branches and the wind rattling them each against the other so we know it’s later than early fall.
Now we move in closer still, as now as the author builds us a character. We are still in the omniscient, but we are now very close to her character with author still acting as the reporter of the action.
“He knows he falls into the last category of killers. He has spent many hours, days, months, years studying his compulsion and its point of origin. He has never known guilt of remorse. He knows what he is, and he embraces the truth. He believes conscience, rules, laws, serve the individual no practical purpose, and only limit human possibilities.”
This is the author’s antagonist, so we assume this is why she has decided not to fully develop him here. The important aspect of this is that she is bringing the reader decidedly closer to fully engaging in the story.
We move on to chapter 2 where on page 4 the novel’s protagonist emerges. In this first paragraph, we are finally in the third person, limited omniscient point-of-view (POV):
“Why am I always the one in the wrong place at the wrong time?” Kate Conlan muttered to herself. First day back for what had technically been a vacation—a guilt-forced trip to visit her parents in hell’s amusement park (Las Vegas)—she was late for work, had a headache, wanted to strangle a certain sex crimes sergeant for spooking one of her client—a screw up he would pay for with the prosecuting attorney."
As you can see, we are now feeling things only one character can feel. We learn that she’s not happy and that her job (we identify people by where they work and what they do there) seems to have something to do with law enforcement. We also know she’s not feeling well (headache), and that she’s angry. As the author proceeds in this viewpoint, we learn more.
“All that and the fashionably chunky heel on a brand new pair of suede pumps was coming loose, thanks to the stairs in the Fourth Avenue parking ramp.”
Now we know she dresses up for and drives to work. We also get a sense that she’s in a city setting. One sentence—loads of information.
“No one else seemed to notice him prowling the edge of the spacious atrium of the Hennepin County Government Center like a nervous cat. Kate made the guy for late thirties, no more than a couple of inches past her own five-nine, medium-to-slender build.”
The author is steadily building her character. We now get more about Kate. She’s observant, definitely in law enforcement or works close to it, and she’s tall and slim.
“Wound too tight. He’d likely suffered some kind of personal or emotional setback recently—lost his job or his girlfriend. He was either divorced or separated; living on his own, but not homeless. His clothes were rumpled but not castoffs, and his shoes were too good for homeless. He was sweating like a fat man in a sauna, but he kept his coat on as he paced around and around the new piece of sculpture littering the hall—a symbolic piece of pretention from melted-down handguns. He was muttering to himself, one hand handing on to the open front of his heavy canvas jacket. A hunter’s coat. His inner emotion strain tightened the muscles of his face.”
Where is the author? Where is the omniscient voice? Gone. As you can see, all narration is now coming from the character and the character only. She is observing and recording for the reader what she is experiencing, not what the author is experiencing for her. Emotion is coming from her mind. We are seeing what she sees as she sees it through her eyes. We know how she reacts to what she sees from inside, not as an outside observer. This is where an author sits when writing her story—inside her character, looking out upon the world. This is closer than first-person can take a reader because now the reader can feel everything from all five senses, something not readily possible in omniscient or first-person. Now, finally, the character can come alive on the page.