Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Omniscient Voice

For some reason in the past few weeks I've run across quite a few references to "omniscient voice" that are incorrect. A couple of these were even in book reviews. The correct term to use would have been multiple third person.

The terms can be confusing because omniscient is a form of third-person--in that it obviously isn't first person. But true omniscient voice sounds very different than the oft-used "close" third person of today. The omniscient voice has a removed quality. It sounds like a god-like narrator sitting above the action, looking down at all the characters. This narrator can see into all characters' minds, but it can also see things a character is unaware of. In a novel written in omniscient voice, this narrator's voice is the most prominent. All scenes are described in this narrator's unique way of talking. It's his word choice, his level of vocabulary, etc. These stories are often more "told" than "shown" since the narrator is telling you, the reader, what is happening in all aspects of the scene.

Omniscient voice was used much more frequently in the classics. Today's more intimate culture (formed by TV and movies and so much more) has led to a more intimate voice form in novels--what is often called "close third person." This is the type of third person in which I write.

In close third person, the reader is fully in the head of one point-of-view character at a time. (Preferably one per scene!) The only more intimate voice is first person. Since the P.O.V. character is "living" the scene, all thoughts, description, and narrative are told in a way that this character would speak and think. You can have a single third POV throughout the book. Most novels have more than one third person POV character. This voice is called "multiple third person."

There is a kind of third person in between close and omniscient. It's a little more removed and formal in tone than close third. Has a little more of a narrative feel. Yet it's not the completely removed tone of omniscient. Omniscient does have a very different tone to it.

If you read a recently written novel with multiple viewpoints, that doesn't mean the book is necessarily written in omniscient voice. Most likely it's not. It's probably multiple third person. We need to be careful of our terminology. Those who understand POV terminology correctly will really be mislead if you erroneously say a book is written in omniscient voice.

If all this isn't quite making sense, come back tomorrow. I'll run a section from one of my books (written in close third), then rewrite it in omniscient voice to show you the difference in tone.


Richard Mabry said...

Mea culpa, BC. I think I recently made this mistake in my blog, commenting on John Grisham's latest book. In several places, he switches within the same scene from one person's POV into another person's head. He does it smoothly, and it doesn't hurt the flow--much--but it still seems better (to me) to have one POV per scene. However, you're quite right. It's not omniscient. It's multiple third person. Thanks for clearing that up. Looking forward to tomorrow's post.

David A. Todd said...

Looking forward to your post tomorrow, Brandilyn.

As a reader, my favorite POV is omniscient. Give me Michener and Wouk any day. I mentioned this at a conference to a Christian fiction author of multiple published books, and he said, "Yeah, you and four other people." A wee minority, I guess.

Anonymous said...

I like that you are addressing this topic. As I work through stories, I am learning about the omniscient and the omniscient third person limited. I just read a book with what I think would be called Multiple first person. I found it very difficult to follow, even though the writer did try to define each change in POV with a chapter. Still, I kept forgeting who the "I" was and had to go back to reread areas of the chapter more than once.

That was very annoying.I look forward to tomorrow's post.


Jeffrey said...

In studying your insights I now realize that the Omniscient POV puts too much distance between the action and the readers' re-action. Also, that with multiple third person, in the hands of the wrong writer, the readers' interest and emotions can become too diluted.

I'm searching for a way to keep the readers' emotions involved with Main Characters, but without having so much going on that the characters just compete for attention, rather than bring the reader into the action.

I'm looking forward to reading about this POV you mentioned:

"There is a kind of third person in between close and omniscient. It's a little more removed and formal in tone than close third. Has a little more of a narrative feel. Yet it's not the completely removed tone of omniscient. Omniscient does have a very different tone to it. "

I don't know that it's what I---for one---am searching for, but I suspect it will be a capstone to the growing pyramid of possibilities, and a good place to jump off from. This is a great website and you are very nice to take the time.

Jeffrey said...

PS: This supplements my earlier post labeled 11:05 PM (I'm in New Mexico, Mountain Standard Time, so add an hour to the label.) I just went back to 2008 and read your comments there, then returned to 2009 and re-read your most recent about POV. This helped me personally, in that I realize now first person is the POV for me. However, are there rules about combining first person with another POV in the novel who is maybe third person removed? I'm still looking for the intimacy of first person combined with another POV to take the reader places the Hero cannot go. It's not close third, or multiple third. I've got a wild 100,000 word omniscient POV draft that needs total rewrite. (Book II in my quadtych.) Thanks.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Jeffrey, it's fine to switch from a first person chapter to a chapter in third person. I did this with all four Hidden Faces books. The third person chapters were in the POV of the bad guy. The rest of the story was told first person by protagonist. You can check my Web site for these books. It might help you to read the first in the series to see how it was done.