In this article, guest author, Philip Womack, discusses the omniscient narrator.
When you sit down to write, with that all-important, all-consuming story bursting to get out of your mind and onto the page, you’re facing a multitude of decisions to do with technique and style.
One of the very first things you’ll need to consider, and one of the most important, is which narrative voice to use. Do you want to be intimate, and employ the first person? J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Ryeis a fine example of this at its most gripping and involving, as is Meg Rosoff’sHow I Live Now. Or do you want to adopt something that’s more universal? Most contemporary novelists write in the third person limited, which means that the narrative is limited to what the protagonist knows, and everything is filtered through the protagonist’s viewpoint. Point of view is important and allows the writer to play with perspective. With the rise of post-modernism and other theories that questioned accepted fictional structures, the omniscient narrator fell out of fashion. Novelists began to play games with perception, and the unreliable narrator came to the fore. This can be delivered in the first person or the third person. Ian McEwan’s third person Atonementpresents itself as a straightforward novel, but actually has a sting in the tail, which causes the reader to question all that has gone before; you can contrast this with Kazuo Ishiguro’s first person The Remains of the Day, where the narrator isn’t quite telling us the truth. The omniscient narrator has been used for centuries. Homer’s Iliad, which stands at the very beginning of Western literature, is a fine example of a narrator who knows everything: the gods, the heroes, even the details of individual battles. When you sit down to tell your story, you may find your writing naturally falls into it. It’s what we’ve been brought up on: Once upon a time, there was a little princess… Of course, the narrator / narrative voice isn’t actually omniscient (he/she isn’t God). The effect of it suggests there is a separate entity from the other characters in the book, able to see all of them and even know what’s happening in their hearts and minds. It’s a powerful tool, and if used properly, it can lend an authoritative sheen to your work.
Omniscient narrator: A Definition
The omniscient narrator is (usually) in the third person singular: “When Sebastian walked through the heavy committee room door, a group of people were already there, seated and rustling papers. The light was dim, electricity guttering, their faces obscure. The commander was tapping his fingers on the table-top. Outside, buses clattered down the road, bursting with commuters on their way to work, checking their newspapers, feeling for loose change in their pockets, staring at pigeons, little knowing that what was happening in this tiny room off Whitehall would affect each and every one of them today…” The narrative switches from Sebastian to the people on the buses; but the voice, being omniscient, is able to convince the reader it knows what’s going on. It also allows the narrator to paint a wider picture and create suspense. The omniscient narrative voice is totally in charge of the story: like a director, pointing you towards images and people as it sees fit, acting in the same way as a camera. The omniscient narrator feeds us information about characters and plot in a structured, orderly way to maximise atmosphere, tension and suspense.
What is the omniscient point of view and how to use it to your advantage?
The advantage of an omniscient point of view is that you can write about any aspect of the story you like. Ursula Le Guin, inA Wizard of Earthsea, uses it to great effect: she begins with a description of the island of Gont, rising up above the waves, and then focuses in on the island itself, and a boy, Ged, who is to be the hero of the story. The world that she creates has the texture of myth and truth, in part because of this narrative choice. The narrative voice sounds confident and traditional: it urges the reader to listen. There are problems with the third person omniscient. When you have too many characters in a room together, a writer can start “head-hopping”: that is, switching from one character to another. “John was angry, and said so. Sarah was sad because she wanted to go out. Henry, on the other hand, was pleased.” Too much of this can be fragmented and unconvincing. It can be done well: D H Lawrence is always doing it, for example; and there are many passages in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghastwhich gain their power from head-hopping; but most debut authors are advised to avoid it as much as possible.
You can still use third person omniscient and gain better effects: “John was angry, and said so. Sarah, turning away, continued to apply her lipstick in defiance. Henry threw his car keys onto the table, and sat down.” The main advantage of a third person omniscient narrator is scope. The disadvantage is that you’ve got to make sure that you know everything about the story – you have to be able to understand it and its world inside out, otherwise it can come across as unconvincing.
What is an example of an omniscient narrator?
Charles Dickens’ 19th century novel, A Tale of Two Cities, is a classic example of the technique. It famously begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …” These kind of general, sweeping statements are probably best avoided in your novel (unless you really know your onions). 19th century novelists also have a tendency to step in to comment on the action: George Eliot, in Middlemarch, moves seamlessly between commenting on action and going into people’s thoughts and feelings. The following, from Celeste Ng, in her debut Everything I Never Told You (2014), deploys the omniscient narrator in a more modern fashion: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast. As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks. Driving to work, Lydia’s father nudges the dial toward WXKP, Northwest Ohio’s Best News Source, vexed by the crackles of static. On the stairs, Lydia’s brother yawns, still twined in the tail end of his dream. And in her chair in the corner of the kitchen, Lydia’s sister hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one, waiting for Lydia to appear. It’s she who says, at last, “Lydia’s taking a long time today.” Right from the start, the narrative voice tells you things that the characters are unaware of. The effect of this is to heighten suspense. She switches from character to character, painting a picture of a family going about its business: the father in the car, the brother on the stairs, the sister eating cornflakes. It’s a haunting effect, and it’s something that a third person limited narration couldn’t achieve. The omniscient narrator, then, can offer up plenty of exciting avenues for your writing. But you have toplan especially carefully. Avoid the portentous and the heavy, and aim for clarity, and watch your writing take off.
So, there it is. Everything we needed to know about the omniscient narrator. Have we missed anything? Anything else you’d like to add? Head on over to the Jericho Townhouseand let us know what you think.
About the author
Philip Womack is a published author and JW Editor. If you’d like some detailed feedback on your manuscript from Philip, then check out our editorial services page.
Philip’s critically acclaimed children’s novels include: The Double Axe (2016), The King’s Revenge(2016), The King’s Shadow (2015), The Broken King(2014), The Liberators(2010), and The Other Book(2008). His latest novel, The Arrow of Apollo will be published by Unbound in 2020. Philip is also contributing editor with the Literary Review and writes for a range of publications, including The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Spectator,and The Times Literary Supplement. He teaches at the Royal Holloway University and City University.
You can find more on Philip here and here, and you can follow him on twitter, here.