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Is the omniscient narrator obsolete?
Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Thursday, February 27, 2014 2:23 PM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 427

I read a lot of contemporary lit fiction, so I can't help but notice the overwhelming popularity of the "unreliable narrator" conveyed through third-person close or first person narration. The narrative perspective becomes a vehicle for misleading and obfuscating the reader -- to great effects. (Think GONE GIRL, THE OTHER TYPIST, NIGHT FILM, LIFE OF PI, WHERE'D YOU GO BERNADETTE, etc.)


Which is why I was taken aback when I recently started a literary fiction novel that had an omniscient narrator. The constant headhopping was distracting, and the narrator's expert knowledge of the characters' thoughts seemed intrusive and patronizing at the same time. Who is this narrator who has such intimate knowledge of everyone's desires and feelings?! The narrator was acting like a bad ventriloquist: s/he tried to pass on a character's feelings to the reader unfiltered but was in fact putting a lot of distance between the reader and that character.


And then I thought... Is the omniscient narrator poorly written or is the problem somewhere else? I've come to realize that I am so inured to the first-person POV or the third-person close POV (and the two are in fact very similar if you think about it because they are all about subjectivity) that a different mode of narration that is more on the objective side seems strange and throws me off-kilter.


So here's my question: do you feel like the subjective modes of narration (first and third-person close POV) have become so omnipresent that they have made omniscient POV obsolete? How do you feel about the omniscient narrator in general, and do you ever make use of him/her yourself?





BC Coordinator

--edited by Nevena Georgieva on 2/27/2014, 2:35 PM--

LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Thursday, February 27, 2014 7:17 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

I think it might have been just badly written. David Gemmell uses third omniscient in many of his works and it doesn't really bother me. I think a lot of people don't use it because it's very hard to do well. Well written omniscient doesn't feel like head hopping. It flows naturally and is not at all distracting. You may barely notice it beyond simply acknowledging it's existence.

In terms of literary trends though, then it might be out of style. I haven't seen it in many recent works. Like I said, omniscient is hard, and so many people probably don't try any more.

Brandi Larsen
Posted: Wednesday, March 19, 2014 1:58 PM
Joined: 6/18/2012
Posts: 228

I just finished the J.D. Robb title NEW YORK TO DALLAS. She uses the omniscient narrator and I really liked it. It didn't feel like narrative slight-of-hand; instead, it kept the story moving and answered the questions that popped into my head right as I thought them.
Ian Nathaniel Cohen
Posted: Wednesday, March 19, 2014 7:28 PM

I've been meaning to ask a question along these lines myself, given some reviews on BC that I've read (and received).  Having grown up reading a lot of classic literature when the omniscient narrator was commonly used, I actually found it surprising to hear people complain about it and saying I was wrong for using it - it hadn't ever occurred to me this would ever be an issue.

Ian Nathaniel Cohen
Posted: Saturday, April 5, 2014 7:03 PM
Bumping just because I'm eager to hear more perspectives on this.

Mimi Speike
Posted: Sunday, April 6, 2014 2:28 AM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1016

I'm omniscient, I'm intrusive, all of those bad, we're told, things. I have an editor lined up. I'll let you know what she has to say.


This is my style, and it's going nowhere.

Jonathan L
Posted: Sunday, April 6, 2014 5:57 PM
Joined: 4/2/2014
Posts: 14

Personally I do not enjoy first person POV. I don't mind omniscient narrators, but I like the style of the Song of Fire and Ice by George R. R. Martin, in which each chapter is a third person POV, but we only get one characters thoughts at a time. It's also nice because one character's thoughts may in fact be conflicting with another person's thoughts from the previous chapter. The narrator isn't really omniscient, but we also aren't in first person either. It's a fine line and one Martin walks very well. I chose his style of POV for my own novel.
Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Tuesday, April 8, 2014 10:25 PM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 427



I'm reading another novel that has an omniscient POV--but the transition between characters is so fluid that it doesn't bother me at all. 


I think it has a lot to do with the degree of subjectivity (vs. objectivity) with which the narration is rendered. Personally, I tend to like the former. 




I love Martin's narrative style! Don't know where you're in the series (I'm done with books 1--3 so no spoilers!), but I love how he plays with perspective in Jaime's story. We just detest him in the beginning because of what he does at Winterfell, but then in Book 3, for the very first time, we become privy to his thoughts and realize that even though he has deep flaws, he's not such a monster after all. Need to catch up so I can watch the new season!

--edited by Nevena Georgieva on 4/8/2014, 10:25 PM--

Lucy Silag - Book Country Community Manager
Posted: Wednesday, April 9, 2014 9:44 AM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1356

Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Monday, May 5, 2014 9:04 PM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 427

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Tuesday, June 17, 2014 1:14 AM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 194

Readers vary in their preferences--so no one POV choice will be best for every reader--but by thinking about keeping the reader oriented to person, place, time, and emotional status, checking in on those, most POV choices can work.   (Given good basic writing ability....)   If the goal is to produce a story that grabs the reader, drags the reader in and doesn't let go until the end...keeping the reader clear about enough of what's happening is essential.  Readers generally accept brief insertions of plain narrative (including from omniscient POV) if that's the quickest way to get from Point A to Point B, and if they trust that the writer isn't hiding something.   (Readers do not, in my experience, like "Gotcha" ploys...they distrust those points in a story where the writer might hide the machinery to spring something on them later.)   Some readers (I'm one of them) like a variety of styles, and will accept the "cooler" less intense or intimate style of a whole book written in omniscient POV for its other virtues...the simplicity and efficiency of appearing to reveal everything all the time.  (Though of course the writer doesn't reveal everything all the time...but it seems like it...and the reader can feel capable and intelligent, rather than confused and worried that he's missed something.


Omniscient POV doesn't require head-hopping--if correctly established, it simply allows the reader to know things the protagonist doesn't (yet), without needing another POV to "see/hear/smell" them.   

Posted: Monday, July 7, 2014 9:31 PM
Joined: 11/27/2013
Posts: 4

It was brought to my attention awhile back that I write in 3rd person limited omniscient. It is how I have always written and read many books with the same. I find 1st person kind of too tight knit and leaves too many questions unanswered. The tricky part is switching the POVs without jarring the reader. I like to know what the players in the story are thinking, not just one brain. Sticking with it and getting my manuscript ready for publishing this year. Will see how it is received.
Posted: Wednesday, August 26, 2015 11:36 AM
Joined: 8/21/2015
Posts: 15

I think the problem with an omniscient narrator is that it can easily seem like the author is pulling the strings and "playing" the characters. It's therefore slightly easier to "sell" your story to the reader as believable and real with a limited perspective which is what were accustomed to in the real world.


I think the reason the ominiscient narrator has gone out of fashion is actually cultural. The novel has simply developed into a form where a believable flowing story is paramount, and this development is stronger in the American novel that in the Europen. In the European continental literary fiction tradition omniscient narrators and philosophical digressions are more common. Kundera is for me the best modern writer using an omniscient narrator. But indeed, many people feel that he manipulates his characters too much and digresses onto philosophy, subjugating ideas to story. It happens to be a style I personally like, because I feel that literature is intended to explore ideas and not as an end in itself. But that's a harder sell in bookshops.


My latest story: Sepp

--edited by Momo on 8/26/2015, 12:34 PM--

Posted: Tuesday, October 6, 2015 10:30 PM
Joined: 9/27/2015
Posts: 5

I'm a month and a half late for this conversation, but I'm drawn to it because one of my readers pointed out a POV problem with my latest novel.  I write in 3rd person, ominiciently, after a fashion.  He said he found it distracting to be in the heads of more than the protagonist's.  He said I could switch POV at a break in the story and explore that person's thoughts.  That was not my goal.  I insert minimal thoughts for other characters and focus on the protagonist.  I write what I like to read, the way I like to read it.  When I was a kid I would always skip long passages of description to see what anyone and everyone was thinking.


My first reader for my book liked the POV in my story the way it was.  I realize we need to write clearly, tell a good story etc.  But to me writing is from my soul, and while I work to do a good job, bottom line I need to please me first, and if someone else doesn't like it, that's okay.  I'm a storyteller, doing it my way, most of the time.


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