Monday, 9 February 2015

The Omnisicient Point of View; Can You Be Omnipotent?

out from Midnight Ink Books
available on Amazon and Waterstones

They say, and in my opinion they’re right, that the
 omniscient Point of View (POV) is the hardest
perspective to take as a writer.

It’s oh, so much easier to get inside a head, as I do with my protagonist Sabbie Dare (In the Moors and Unraveled Visions) and write in the first person, or to keep close to that character’s psyche by writing in the ‘limited third person’. But the omniscient has always been there, from the very beginning. It may even be the first real fictional perspective, used by ancient story tellers and used today by writers who want to retell folk stories. Early novels, when they weren’t in diary form, were mostly in the omniscient POV, informing the reader of everything that happens in a god-like manner. Victorian authors, such as Wilkie Collins and Trollop, revelled in it. Children’s authors sometimes return to it – Lemony Snicket’s marvellous 'Series of Unfortunate Events’ being such a recent success. Literary novelists love to have a go, notably Fay Weldon (The Wife’s Revenge) and The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson.  John Fowles used an active, present, author-voice in The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Italo Calvino  And in The Book Thief,  Markus Zusac chose a clever version of the omniscient; the narrator is death itself; I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary.  You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables.  It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible…You will be lying there (I rarely find people standing up).  You will be caked in your own body…a scream will dribble down the air
Are you reading this because you’re  thinking of using this Point of View? Worse; are you struggling with it in the story you’re writing at the moment? Have you turned to writing advice on the internet because you’re wondering if you’ve made a mistake, choosing the omniscient, when there are so many other ways – easier ways – of narrating a story?
POV answers the question: whose voice tells the story – gives us the information we need – tells us what is happening? Does one character control our understanding of events, or do we have an omniscient narrator who gives us facts and insights that the characters themselves do not have? How does the voice or consciousness that acts as the point of view shape our interpretations? What might happen if another point of view took charge?    POV is the hidden camera though which the reader perceives the fact all the story… and I think at this point it would be good to refresh ourselves on the subject of POV generally.
  1. First Person…A character tells their own story – they are the narrator. It is distinguished at all times by the use of the pronoun ‘I’ and the narrator must be in every scene. 
  2. Second Person…the writer addresses a third person at all times, using the pronoun ‘you’. Not a popular choice, but works well in short stories, as in the anthology You, Me and a Bit of We (in which on of my own stories appears)
  3. 3rd person Limited…sometimes called the 3rd person subjective, we only see inside one character’s head. The narrator seems to sit on his shoulder, but it’s fairly clear that the character and the narrator are not absolutely the same. It’s a straightforward POV, but because we are only inside on character’s head at a time we are definitely not allowed to wander into others, or view scenes the narrator is not in.
  4. 3rd person Deep While using the 3rd Person Limited, above, the writers dips deeply into a single person’s head, until we read what David Lodge describes as  Free Indirect Discourse, which is a bit of a mouthful, so I usually refer to this as filterless monologue The convention that the reader is witnessing the narrator’s thoughts gives the narrative a rich, inner feeling of attachment to the narrator. There are no secrets, everything is exposed. In extreme cases, this might be said to be stream of consciousness, 
     a literary POV best served in fairly small doses.
     Filterless monologue is hard to maintain, but that’s less of a worry because you don’t have to maintain it – you can move in and out of this deeper perspective, because the two 3rd Person POV’s are so close in construction that it is possible to allow a single piece of work to move between them at will, without having technically gone outside  the 3rd Person POV…i.e. use of the pronoun ‘he/she’.  
  5. Omniscient….At one end of the range is the god-like perspective, where almost no character is examined closely and there is no ‘dropping down’ into anyone’s consciousness. This is also known as  ‘legitimate authorial standpoint’ and probably the most tricky POV for the 21stC writer. The ‘hovering above the characters’ aspect can feel cold and unaffecting, but allows an ironic overview which achieves a detached, humorous tone.                                                                                                                                 At the other end of the omniscient range is the constant fluctuation between intimate viewpoints, even within the same sentence. Navokovich called this latter approach propelling the reader into a new angle. E.M. Foster called it ‘bouncing’. Excellent for stories in which a richer effect would be created by knowing what several characters think, this gives a ‘lifted’ tone to work.                                                         Because the Omniscient offers a complete range of vision over the narration, the narrator must know everything. You have all the power; you can shift in time and space at whim from character to character, inside thoughts, feelings and motives. It’s your choice as writer what glimpses the the reader will have into any character’s head.                                                                                                                        All this is devilishly difficult to achieve well – most of the examples of omniscient I see as a tutor are errors of judgement on the writer’s part; they’ve moved outside their chosen POV without realizing it. Julia Bell warns that you should avoid ‘headhopping’…An uncontrolled third-person point of view is something I encounter all the time in creative writing workshops, sometimes accompanied by a grumpy writer…every character in the room gets a POV – even the dog. This is just bad writing…
  6. 3rd Person Wide-ranging. One way of achieving the effect of an omniscient viewpoint is to approach it casually. By taking a step away from the intimacy of the limited and deep 3rd Person, described above but staying mostly with one character, you’ll gain a more flexible canvas to work on. In this format, a single character is often still the central point of the narration, but the author can tell us what goes on outside their range of vision, even moving into scenes they don’t inhabit. This is used a lot in books where a narrator tells almost all the story themselves, except for some limited scenes – J K Rowling uses it all the time in the Harry Potter books; few readers notice there are scenes that are not in Harry’s 3rd Person POV.               This ‘take’ on the Omniscient allows you to further experiment with style and can be a lot of fun as you move back from being right inside a single head, but it needs professional handling or it can lose its ‘thread’ and become muddled – the writer must be absolutely sure they understand, and are in control, of their perspectives, especially knowing how to tackle ‘chill’ of the Omniscient, because once you move away from that central narrator, you’re not offering the reader the one thing they’re craving; that deep intimacy with a single character they identify with.                                                                                              
  7. Plural Viewpoints…the ‘we’ form (2nd person plural) and the ‘they’ form (3rd person plural) are not often used in fiction. For a start they are fiendishly difficult to maintain successfully. But Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is written from the perspective of a group of boys who grow up fascinated by the Lisbon family and their five daughters, we do not get the sense of one person narrating on behalf of a group.  Instead, a strong collective voice comes through; it could be any one of the boys, or they could even be taking it in turns to narrate…We climbed up to the tree house the way we always had, stepping in the knothole, then on the nailed board, then on two bent nails, before grasping the frayed rope and pulling ourselves through the trapdoor…The oblong window we’d cut with a handsaw years ago still looked onto the front of the Lisbon house.  Next to it were five spotted photographs of the Lisbon girls, pinned with rusty tacks
  8. Multi-viewpoint…This is a popular format, where all the changes of viewpoint are at specific moments in the text; usually the changeover of scene, chapter, etc. Perspectives can also be alternated with other points of view.This is not an Omniscient POV; most multi-viewpoint books don’t touch the Omniscient, they simply move through different viewpoints.  Margaret Atwood uses this technique in The Edible Woman.  To reflect her protagonist’s growing sense of detachment, Atwood starts the novel in first person, switches to third part way through, and changes back to first for the last section of the book. ; i.e. write your chosen piece mostly in a wide-ranging 3rd person, becoming authorial on necessary occasions.
So, how do you choose the right POV? Luckily there is no reason (other than it is somewhat time consuming) why you cannot change POV at the end of a first draft.Almost by definition the reader will perceive the POV character as the most important in a scene and will remain sympathetic to that character. This is a crucial point when deciding which POV to use, especially if you’ve chosen multi-viewpoint. 
You might like to ask some of the following questions about the project you are undertaking at the moment:
  • What do you want the reader to know, and therefore, who is the best character to reveal these things…or not?
  • Whose voice would tell the story in the most gripping manner?
  • Which voice gives us the crucial information we need to understand what is happening? 
  • Do you want only one character to control our understanding of events, or would it be preferable to have an omniscient narrator furnishing facts and insights that the characters themselves do not have? 
  • Do you need a second perspective to allow the reader to see things a single POV will not cover?

I’d be interested in any of your ideas, experiences or comments on this post, and the struggle writers have with POV. Do let me know through the comment box, please!

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