It can be challenging to tell readers everything they need to know through a character’s point of view, so why not ditch that confinement and use a narrator who knows everything? That’s called omniscient narration, and it’s what we’re talking about today. Joined by returning guest Ariel, we discuss the strengths and weaknesses of omniscient, comment on works using this narrative style, and describe our omniscience pet peeves. We also talk about Discworld, obviously.
Generously transcribed by Lucy. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Chris: You are listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me is…
Chris: … And our special recurring guest, Ariel.
Chris: So this time, by request, we are going to be talking about omniscient POV.
Oren: Hmm. That’s good. Cause omniscient narrators know everything, right? So this should be really easy. We can just, like, say the important stuff. We’ll be good to go.
Chris: So, first of all, we can talk about what is it? Most people know what it is, but it’s good to summarize. Omniscient obviously means all-knowing. So you could think about it as the God perspective, where the idea is that the narrator is looking at all the characters from above and observing them in their natural habitat. [laughs]
Of course, the thing that makes that special is, unlike looking at hamsters in a cage, you also know what is in their thoughts – which is really the distinguishing characteristic, because there is simply no way to know what every character in the story is thinking, without just being an all-knowing being of some sort.
Now that there’s, of course, speculative fiction … sure, there’s a way. I know there’s always going to be those commentaries, “But what if my story is: blank”. Okay, fine.
Oren: “But what if everyone was wearing a psychic helmet at all times and transmitting their thoughts?” Okay, done. All right. I’ve defeated third person, omniscient.
Chris: We could have one of those dystopian, anti-technology stories about, like, “But what if everybody had their minds networked together in some sort of internal web?”. You know, internets, and it was bad.
Oren: What if it was bad?
Chris: That would be one way to think about it. Ariel, do you have any thoughts, or your own description of what omniscient is?
Ariel: So, you talked about omniscient being the God perspective and having the narrator looking down at the scene from above, but it can also be that the narrator is looking back and remembering the scene. The workaround there is that everybody told this person what they were thinking at the time.
Oren: Yeah, that’s one way to achieve omniscient. I define omniscient as more by its practicality, which is that there’s no limits on what the narrator can tell the reader. Whereas in a limited story, in theory, the narrator is only supposed to tell the reader things that the main character knows and experiences.
Chris: I think what Ariel’s talking about is closer to the traditional storyteller role, that I think used to be more common in stories, that has become less common over time, where the idea is you’ve got somebody in person that’s a bard or something, that’s telling the Epic Ballad. And it’s in past tense. And that storyteller is not technically a God being, but somehow perfectly knows everything that happened in this historical ballad. We don’t really question why.
Oren: There’s kind of a gradient. So you can have something like, uh, the book that I’m reading right now – ‘Magnus Chase, and the Sword of Summer’, I think is what it’s called – this is a first person narration, and the concept is that Magnus is telling you the story that has already happened. So sometimes Magnus will make jokes about something that is about to happen, that he knows about that you don’t, but it’s still all from Magnus’s perspective. There’s never a moment where Magnus is like, “… And then my friend Sam thought about how great that bird in the sky looked”, because Magnus wouldn’t know that. And it would be kind of ridiculous to assume that all of his friends would tell him those kinds of very specific details.
Then all the other way, the other end of the gradient, you have, uh, ‘Eiffel Haim’, where half of the story is a first person, omniscient narrator who knows everything about this couple, and their marital disputes, and what each of them is thinking at the time. And you’re like, “Who is this guy? Who is using the ‘I’ pronoun?”, and you eventually find out it’s some dude that they know. It’s just a friend of theirs and I’m like, [sarcastic] “Okay, sure. I believe that you knew all of those things”.
Chris: [laughs] This friend somehow knows every detail of their private marriage issues.
Oren: Right, yeah! This can happen theoretically with any type of narrator pronoun. It actually happens in The Broken Earth series too, which uses second person for big chunks of it. And the conceit there is that another character is telling you – the protagonist – the story, which is why they’re using the second person. Which at least for me also conjured questions of, “How do you know all this? I get that you’re a magic rock person, but are you psychic? I don’t think you’re psychic. I don’t think that was ever established”. It was very confusing to me.
Chris: Sometimes these conventions are a matter of what people are used to. It’s almost like the urban fantasy masquerade where some readers are just like, “Okay, I just take it as a given that people don’t know magic exists”, despite the fact that magic is running rampant through the streets, but other people are like, “This is just super distracting. It’s obvious that magic exists. Why are people continuing to ignore it?”.
And I think that sometimes comes up with some of these omniscient techniques where, for me, somebody who kept saying that they know other people’s thoughts, and especially if they’re using ‘I’, would just be distracting, “How did you know that?”. Other people might take it as just part of the narration style.
I do want to talk more about the idea of the first person narrator who’s looking back on their life – whether that is something that would be traditionally called omniscient or not? It is very similar to omniscient, but I would personally say it’s not exactly the same. Ariel, I know you’ve referred to that – that first person retelling their life as omniscient before, is that correct?
Ariel: Yeah, through the example of ‘The Lovely Bones’? I think I’ve talked about it on the podcast before where she’s in heaven, and so she can look back at what happened to her, and now she can see what’s happening without her. She can see what’s happening as her family moves on from her death, and what happens to her killer. Things that she wouldn’t be able to know if she were still alive.
Chris: Yeah. In that case, we’ve got a premise where she’s basically a ghost. If she’s up in heaven, they’ve got a pretty good framing premise for explaining why she knows things that a normal human character wouldn’t know.
Oren: So here’s a question, I haven’t read ‘The Lovely Bones’. Does the audience know right away who the narrator is?
Ariel: I think so. It’s been a long time since I read the book. I’ve watched the movie more recently.
Oren: Because I’m not going to say that there’s no situation in which having an omniscient or at least unusually knowledgeable first person narrator wouldn’t work. I’m not going to say that that’s impossible, but I can’t think of one. The closest was in Eiffel Haim. Because the other half of Eiffel had this third person limited, and it’s a great story about an alien who comes to earth in the 1300s and meets a priest. I love it. And I kept expecting that the other part of the book, the reveal was going to be that the narrator was the alien. That was the only reason I could think of to keep it secret, I was like, “Well, clearly when you finally reveal who this is, it’s gonna be important”. And I don’t know if that would’ve made it worth it, but it would at least have been something. But it wasn’t, it was some guy. And so I was like, “Why did you do that? What was the purpose of making this a first person narration?”.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, narrator reveals are unfortunately something that a lot of writers want to do. They don’t usually work out very well because they’re the type of reveal that it doesn’t … it feels like you’re tricking the audience a lot of the time, it’s not a reveal that comes naturally from the story. It comes from withholding things from the audience that people in the story would normally know. And a lot of times, I’m not gonna say never, but a lot of times those types of reveals don’t work out very well.
I think people like to do the first person, omniscient narrator reveal; the issue is that it’s really hard to have a satisfying answer to who is narrating this, who knows everything that’s happening – because they would have to somehow be in the position to know a lot – and also somehow be involved in the story. Otherwise the reveal is just meaningless. But also not be so powerful that they could have just solved all the problems with their special powers.
And I think having a character that is involved in the story, and then later, like for instance, dies like in ‘The Lovely Bones’ and then their abilities change, is one potential way to do that, but it’s definitely a hard to pull off and not something I would usually recommend in a lot of stories.
Oren: So I would say the question for me is if there’s going to be a reveal of the narrator, what you have to be asking is, is not even is the reveal of the narrator cool – ‘cause it could be – but before you even get there, it has to be a question of, is not knowing who the narrator is making the story better, or at least not making it worse. ‘Cause if it’s distracting, if you’re using an ‘I’ pronoun in a story that has no clear narrator, that is a distraction.
Whereas it’s not really a distraction in, what’s it called, ‘Broken Earth’ or at least for the first one, because it’s second person narration, which is a little unusual, but once you get used to the second person narration, there’s not really any implication that the narrator is any one unusual, you just assume that it’s a conceit of the book that it’s written in second person. It does get a little weird towards the end of the second book when the narrator starts saying things that I have no idea what’s happening and it gets super distant. But for the most part, I think those are both fine.
So it was really just a question of, are you distracting the audience? Is what it mostly comes down to.
Ariel: That’s a good question. I could see it being distracting. Like if somebody were to write a story about Hercules from Zeus’s perspective, knowing that Zeus wasn’t present at a lot of Hercules’s amazing feats. It could detract from Hercules’s amazingness. Whereas ‘The Book Thief’ has death as the narrator and it doesn’t detract from the story because it adds that darkness, and it adds a sentimentality at the same time.
Chris: And you know that death is the narrator, right? When you’re reading that one.
Ariel: Yes. I don’t know where it’s revealed, but I think it’s pretty early.
Chris: I think the issue with having ‘I’, but then not explaining who the narrator is, is that you’ve basically opened up a big question that the story isn’t in any way, addressing or even sanctioning, right? You want mysteries to be acknowledged as mysteries. And it’s hard to do that when the mystery comes from wondering who the narrator is.
Oren: You just, you keep wondering if you missed something. It’s like, “Did it identify who this narrator was earlier? And I just didn’t notice?”.
Chris: Whereas having the narrator be death, that sounds like it would really add a lot of novelty to the story.
Ariel: Oh man, it’s so beautifully done.
Chris: And it’s not really … it’s certainly intriguing, but it’s not like you’re left wondering who the narrator is, and whether you missed something, because you know! It’s just a very interesting choice. So that, yeah, that definitely sounds very fascinating.
Oren: All right. So should we talk about some of the more general advantages or disadvantages of omniscient, beyond our big thing about having a first person omniscient narrator? [laughs]
Chris: Yeah. Ariel, why don’t you start us off?
Ariel: Yeah, because first person is … it’s very unusual to encounter first person, omniscient. I would say that the advantage of omniscient is that you literally know everything, right? [laughs] It’s not tied to a particular place, or if events are happening, two years ago, you don’t have to remember. There’s no justification for why the character has to know that thing. It’s just, yeah, the narrator knows it.
Chris: It’s nice to not have to think of an excuse for the protagonist to think about something before you can tell your audience. [laughs] You can just say it. So yeah, no, that’s really good.
I think a similar one to, ‘you can say anything’ is it’s also easier to not say anything. It goes both ways where it’s, you know, I do find it really irritating when we’re in a limited viewpoint, you’re on board with a protagonist … and then suddenly there’s an obvious piece of information motivating the protagonist that you’re not privy to. And you’re waiting around for the narrator to deign to tell you. And I feel like that happens when, when people try to have their cake and eat it too, they do limited, but then they want to hold you in suspense instead of keeping you in the shoes of the POV character. But with omniscient, you’re distant, but you can easily just not reveal what that threatening monster looks like.
This was … when I did a critique of ‘I Am Number Four’ – which definitely has its flaws – but having the prologue show the Big Bad, omniscient allowed there to be a monster chasing the main character – it wasn’t really a point of view character – and for us, never to know what that monster looked like, it never … it didn’t ever feel weird.
Oren: And I would say that if you’re going to use omniscient, that sort of perspective play is really important, because when you use omniscient, you’re giving up a major advantage of limited, which is that the story is much more personal.
The characters are much more identifiable in limited and the reader gets way more invested in the characters personal journey more easily. So, when you’re giving that up, you need to get something from it. Beyond simply the convenience of being able to tell the audience things when you want to tell them things.
But yeah, playing around with “the character knows something, but the reader doesn’t” and we’ll see, we’ll play with that a little bit, and we can go the other way around – now, the reader knows something that the character doesn’t, and you can get some great dramatic irony, which we’ve done an entire podcast on, out of that. And it’s particularly good for humor. The stories that I always point to when anyone asks for an example are always Discworld and Hitchhiker’s Guide, technically there must be others, but those are the two that always come to my mind.
Chris: Yeah. I think that some good phrases for thinking about this are like, “Little, did he know”. It’s a classic sign of omniscient where you’re going to tell the audience something that the characters don’t know.
And then on the ‘verse you have something like, “And what she saw haunted her for the rest of her life”. End chapter. [laughs] There’s the other type of teaser, which is like, “Oh, she saw something, but you’re not going to know what that is yet”. Again, if you try to stay more distant than that just feels a lot more natural. It doesn’t feel like the narrator is playing tricks on you.
Oren: Oh, fun fact, about omniscient, if you look up the goodreads list of books that use omniscient, you will find entries such as ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’. Which is not a novel, it is a play. [laughing] I don’t know how it got on that list. I just think that ‘Books that use this narration style’ has an item that is both not a book and does not use that omniscient style, is this kind of a funny thing?
Chris: Okay. So I would just say that Oren talked about the fact that it doesn’t have you immersed in the character as much, so it’s going to reduce attachment, it’s going to reduce tension. So, to make up for it omniscient needs a lot more novelty.
And so the really great omniscient narrators out there – like ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ is, I think, a really good example of omniscient done well – the narrator just narrates the story in a way that’s really entertaining and makes jokes and references and stuff like that. And that makes up for the distance. I think Tolkien was really good at writing omniscient; at the same time, I don’t think his story was a good match. Even though he was real skilled at it.
Oren: I actually agree. I think a big part of the reason why so many people find ‘Lord of the Rings’ impenetrable is because of the narration style that Tolkien chose. He’ll go off on tangents and they’re well-written tangents, but they’re still tangents. As much as I actually enjoyed ‘Lord of the Rings’, there’s a reason why a lot of modern readers don’t want to go back to it. And I think that’s part of it.
Chris: Yeah. I think a lot of new writers are attracted to omniscient because it has this … because you can see everything, it has this almost larger scope feel. Right? Of a bigger world and being able to bring in all parts of the world. But I think Tolkien is a good example of why an epic scale story probably shouldn’t have omniscient, because his story was really about making the world feel big and wondrous in comparison to the life of the little hobbit, and having you narrate from the little hobbit’s perspective would have actually done a better job of that than the omniscient point of view. And again, it was a serious, tense story for the most part.
Oren: Yeah. It’s also worth noting that despite what you might think from the movies, the book very rarely cuts between places like you would expect it to. Which is, again, one of the advantages of omniscient is that you can tell a big, holistic story of characters in different places, doing different things without switching POV characters each chapter. But Tolkien doesn’t do that very often.
I was actually really surprised that in book two, like first we do everything with the rest of the fellowship, and then we do everything with the hobbits. There’s no back and forth, that surprised me. I didn’t realize that was going to happen. And it just feels like a waste of omniscient.
Ariel: I’ll throw out a good example of omniscient, and I really believe that this author chose omniscient as a way to fit the age group for the audience. Because some terrible things happen in the book and they wanted to keep it light and hilarious. Lemony Snicket.
Chris: Oh, yes!
Ariel: ‘Series of Unfortunate Events’.
Chris: Right. That’s a very interesting example because it’s this kind of dark humor. But the reduction of tension in that case would have been very much on purpose. ‘Cause you don’t want to be as miserable as the characters are.
Chris: That’s a fantastic example. For anybody who’s not familiar with ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’. It is. It is definitely interesting. [laughs]
Chris: Yeah! But it’s about these children who just go from one bad circumstance to another. And it’s supposed to be funny. Maybe not everybody finds it funny, but it’s narrated by somebody who is actually a researcher? Is he like a researcher? Do you know what technically Lemony Snicket is supposed to be in the context of the story?
Ariel: I don’t know!
Oren: Well, in the TV series, on Netflix, they made it so that he’s looking up the story of these kids. And he’s telling you, like, “Ah! Be prepared for the bad thing that’s about to happen! It’s real bad!”. I don’t remember if they did this in the book, but it – actually, I don’t know, I never read the book – but in the TV show, one of the ways that they made it not seem so horribly bleak, even though horribly bleak things are happening, is that the kids basically have superpowers. Like the kids are extremely capable. And so, you feel fairly confident that they can get out of this situation. You know, if worst comes to worst, the baby will manifest another power because the baby can basically do anything. [laughs]
Chris: Yeah. But, in this case, the Netflix show did decide to actually bring in Lemony Snicket and have him talk. Which, a lot of times when you move from a book to a visual adaptation, you don’t have a voiceover, for instance, but the Netflix series does, and I think that’s a tribute to how entertaining the omniscient narration would be in the story. ‘Cause that’s what good omniscient narration is. Valuable enough. The wording and narration was valuable enough in itself that they didn’t want to let that go. They felt it was important to keep it in, even in a TV show format.
And again, that trade-off, where we have lower tension and we’re less in the character’s shoes, but we have higher novelty, is great if you want a light story, if you want bad things to happen, but you don’t want your audience to feel bad.
Oren: Yeah. I noticed that in the Discworld movies, uh, the two that are good anyway in ‘Hogswatch’ and ‘Going Postal’ … That they don’t have a voiceover for the narration, but they do have two characters, Death and Lord Vetinari, that very often we will cut to, and have them explain something and, you know, they’re both voiced by very charismatic actors. So we’re like, “Yeah, okay. I’ll just have a scene where I listen to Vetinari talk about the postal service and the situation that it’s in. That’s good”.
Chris: [laughs] Let’s see. What’s some other examples of omniscient? Anything you want to talk about?
Oren: Yeah. Well, one thing that I noticed is that most of the issues that I see with omniscient are from manuscripts that I’ve worked on. I almost never see them in published works, most published stories that use omniscient use it fairly well. The only exceptions I can think of are ‘Eiffel Haim’, and then some weird stuff towards the end of the second book of ‘Broken Earth’, which is again, not too bad, it’s just a little obnoxious.
So, my suspicion is that this is the sort of thing that agents and publishers are really on the lookout for. There are certain problems that agents and publishers don’t really seem to care about, but I think they care a lot about misplaced narration, if for no other reason than the modern style is for limited, so you have to have a really good reason to use omniscient in order to justify getting that published, assuming you’re going the traditional publishing route.
Chris: Yeah. There definitely is a problem with omniscient being used too often by people who are writing their first novel. Because it is more challenging. You’re weakening some of the basic foundations of the piece, and you have to have a higher word craft skill to get that to pay off with more novelty. So it’s just a bad choice for somebody who’s doing their first big project. But I think the freedom is just very tempting for people. And so what we see is a lot of omniscient, where they’re just not getting the benefit of omniscient, but they are suffering the downsides.
Oren: Yeah. And for at least some of these authors it’s honestly, because no one ever explained to them what the narration styles are and what they’re for. I’ve had a number of clients who, when I’ve asked about their narration style, they didn’t really know what they were doing. And that’s just a sign of a need for a greater education system that writers can learn from. Then maybe we could get that in high school English, I would have liked to have been taught the different narration styles when I was in high school. That would have been very helpful.
Ariel: Yeah. As a reader, I’m really permissive of omniscient. I couldn’t think of any examples of bad use of omniscient, because it’s a style that my brain just doesn’t really cling to. I’m just comfortable with it. What I’m not okay with … I’ll sit through all kinds of the downfalls of omniscient, like info dumps, and even some monotone narration where everything just sort of feels the same throughout the entire book … But I won’t put up with limited point of views that slip into omniscient.
Oren: Yeah. Yeah, those are bad.
Ariel: If you want to portray everything about the entire world. Okay. But if you want to be in limited, don’t slip into omniscient by showing us, even for a second, something that that point of view character can’t know, like what’s happening on the other side of the door, or what they look like without a mirror, right?
Oren: Yeah. That’s a slightly more common problem. I noticed that in the first Culture book, in ‘Consider Phlebas’. Chris was talking about how it’s annoying, when in ‘Phlebas’ the character’s seeing something, but we don’t know what it is. And then the character is reacting to that. And in an omniscient story, that would be fine. But this is also a story where there are sections where we just get the protagonists unfiltered thoughts, without any tags or anything, which could work in a very close narration. But when you go from that kind of extreme closeup, to distant, where I don’t even know what the main character is running from, then it’s like, “Why, why are you doing this to me?”.
Chris: Yeah. Most of ‘Consider Phlebas’ is my biggest pet peeve, which is a distant, limited where you have neither the intimacy of a limited POV, nor the freedom and information of omniscient. [laughs] And it’s just like, I don’t know if the movie point of view is maybe what this comes from? People feel like they’re writing a film or something? But ‘Consider Phlebas’ does a lot of that, where we’re always sticking around with the main character. We don’t get to see things he doesn’t see, but at the same time, we don’t know what he’s thinking a lot of the time or where he’s coming from or what’s motivating him. And I don’t think that it’s a good combination or is really beneficial in any way.
I will make one potential exception, which is Harry Potter. Harry Potter is interesting because it has omniscient portions and it has distant, limited portions. And I think Rowling is actually good at writing that kind of novelty and is perhaps just a better match for omniscient writing than limited writing, which I would not say for most writers. She does slip up though, in her limited portions where she’s supposed to be writing from Harry’s point of view, she will slip up and accidentally share things that he’s not supposed to know.
Oren: Or reverse where there are one or two things where Harry will do something and we don’t find out about it for another couple of paragraphs.
Chris: Yeah. But I do think, I don’t know, maybe Harry Potter would be better written either just fully in omniscient, or in a more intimate, close limited instead of distant limited, but at the same time … Rowling, has an entertaining enough voice, that it’s possible that by being distant, she’s benefiting from a little bit more intimacy from Harry’s viewpoint while still being just far enough away that she can be entertaining in her own voice, without it feeling weird because it doesn’t match Harry’s voice. It’s possible that she’s actually getting that benefit.
I don’t know, if I saw chapter of Harry Potter written in a different … I might think that was better, but I can’t say that this is bad. Whereas normally distant, limited is just annoying to me.
Oren: All right. Well, we are just about out of time. Ariel, since you are the guest, is there anything that you wanted to cover that we have not had time for?
Ariel: No, I think that’s it that I had.
Oren: All right. Well then, I think that I will call this episode of the Mythcreants podcast to a close. But first I want to thank our two main sponsors. First is Kathy Ferguson who was on the podcast last week, actually. And second is Ayman Jaber, and you can see his work at thefantasywarrior.com, and without the two of them, we could not do this. So thank you very much. And for those who are at home, if anything, we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment at mythcreants.com.
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