month we began our discussion of the three types of third person POV—as
I label them: close, removed, and omniscient. We looked at the first
two, close and removed, with an example of each. If you missed that
article, I suggest you read it first here.
Remember that close third puts
us completely in the character’s head, while removed third places some
psychic distance between the reader and the action. In omniscient we’ll
see that distance stretched even further.
3. Omniscient third
person. This POV pulls the narrative voice way
back, inserting the greatest amount of psychic distance between the
reader and the action. This is the old classics modus operandi,
a la Dickens and the like. Readers don’t feel that they’re in the
characters’ heads at all. It feels more like hovering near the ceiling,
looking down to watch the action. As a result, the author’s narrative
voice has full control, all the time. In the classics age, this POV
also resulted in a very formal, stiff-sounding use of words.
Today, true omniscient POV is
very hard to pull off. The novelist must have a very strong narrative
voice—one that can carry the entire book—for everything that happens is
told in this voice. This voice can see everything happening at once
(hence the term omniscient). Like God, this voice
knows the actions of people in separate places and knows the thoughts
of every character at any given time. The voice may segue from one
character’s thoughts to another in the same scene, perhaps even the
same paragraph. But that emotional distance remains constant.
The biggest pitfall with
omniscient these days, since we’re not used to seeing it much, is that
a novelist will try to write in this POV but end up writing poorly done
close third person. In other words, the novelist will burrow into the
characters’ heads (a la close third), but then “head-hop” from one
character’s thoughts to another. Head-hopping does not make omniscient
POV. Head-hopping makes headaches, as the reader is pulled from one
close encounter to the next. Again, what makes true omniscient POV is
the emotional distance, not moving from one
character’s thoughts to another’s.
Ann Patchett is a contemporary
author who writes in stunning omniscient. Here is the opening to her
award-winning novel, Bel Canto. You’ll immediately
hear the author’s strong narrative voice and feel the complete removal
from the characters, as the author’s narrative—not the characters’
voices—tells you the story.
the lights went off the
accompanist kissed her. Maybe he had been turning towards her just
before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands. There
must have been some movement, a gesture, because every person in the
living room would later remember a kiss. They did not see
a kiss, that would have been impossible. The darkness that came on them
was startling and complete. Not only was everyone there certain of a
kiss, they claimed they could identify the type of kiss: it was strong
and passionate, and it took her by surprise. They were all looking
right at her when the lights went out. They were still applauding,
on his or her feet, still in the fullest throes of hands slapping
together, elbows up. Not one person had come anywhere close to tiring.
The Italians and the French were yelling, “Brava! Brava!”
and the Japanese turned away from them. Would
he have kissed her
that had the room been lit? Was his mind so full of her that in the
very instant of darkness he reached for her, did he think so quickly?
Or was it that they wanted her too, all of the men and women in the
room, and so they imagined it collectively. They were so taken by the
beauty of her voice that they wanted to cover her mouth with their
mouth, drink in. Maybe music could be transferred, devoured, owned.
What would it mean to kiss the lips that had held such a sound?
of them had loved her for
years. They had every recording she had ever made. They kept a notebook
and wrote down every place they had seen her, listing the music, the
names of the cast, the conductor. There were others there that night
who had not heard her name, who would have said, if asked, that opera
was a collection of nonsensical cat screechings, that they would much
rather pass three hours in a dentist’s chair. These were the ones who
wept openly now, the ones who had been so mistaken.
The best way to study these
various kinds of third person POV is to read, read, read. Pay attention
to how the author handles each character. The POV, if done well, should
be apparent on the very first page of the novel. Then watch yourself as
you write. Are you writing close third? Be sure each character’s scenes
are told in that character’s voice. And be careful not to head-hop
(segue from one character’s mind to another in the same scene). Are you
trying to write removed third, or even true omniscient? Make sure your
author’s voice is strong enough to carry it off.
When I was learning how to write
fiction, I read novels extensively, with pen in hand. I’d mark up the
book, noting such things as foreshadow, subtexting, symbolism—and
particularly point of view. Learning correct POV was one of my first
major steps. And I learned it—that is, truly began to absorb the
details of each POV—through reading.
from Getting Into
Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn