Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Breaking The Rules: Writing Third Person Omniscient

Charlie Jane Anders dispels one of the greatest Rules myths of all - not to write third person omniscient. Instead, she clarifies - write third person omni if you will, but be very careful, and don't muck it up. There is a grand tradition of writing third-person omni, and we lose track of that history at our peril. For years, we've read about the dangers of writing from third-person omniscient, and writers have learned the lesson. However, I wonder if in the process of learning how to write better fiction, we've forgotten how to be great storytellers.
Many of science fiction's greatest novels are written in third-person omniscient. And this should come as no surprise, because nothing lets you depict a complex situation full of people (and creatures) with their own points of view, like a narrator who can view the whole scene from outside.
The reasons not to write third person omniscient are myriad, and they're valid as far as they go. Writing from this perspective is both difficult to pull off and really easy to get gloriously, comically wrong.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try it.Check this passage from the great Douglas Adams. Watch how the point of view shifts between his characters.
The sun was beginning to dry out the mud Arthur lay in.

A shadow moved across him again.

"Hello Arthur," said the shadow.

Arthur looked up and squinting into the sun was startled to see Ford Prefect standing above him.

"Ford! Hello, how are you?"

"Fine," said Ford, "look, are you busy?"

"Am I busy?" exclaimed Arthur. "Well, I've just got all these bulldozers and things to lie in front of because they'll knock my house down if I don't, but other than that . . .well, no not especially, why?"

They don't have sarcasm on Betelgeuse, and Ford Prefect often failed to notice it unless he was concentrating. He said, "Good, is there anywhere we can talk?" 

I grew up reading third person omni. My favorite series growing was Tom Corbett - Space Cadet. Those books were fast-paced, simplistic, and as jumbled as a herd of cats on bathing day. They were also great fun.

In her article, Charlie Jane Anders lists and explains why you might want to reconsider writing a third person omniscient point of view. (She gives great examples of each of these points, so be sure to nip on over and read the full article - it is well worth your time.)
  1. It's easier to be funny with third person omniscient.
  2. It lets you info-dump.
  3. It gives you versatility.
  4. You can have a narrator with a personality.
  5. It lets you tell stories about more than one person.
 The article ends with delightful insight.
"Do not fear omniscience — once you know everything, you will know there is nothing to fear."
Note: I haven't written about head-hopping in this post. We'll get to that in a future post.
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  1. Lots to ponder here. I'm currently working on a fantasy that has the potential to be a huge story. I keep wanting to slip into omniscient POV and keep battling back from it, but maybe the story needs it... I'll have to consider on this.

    The other option is that you have several really short scenes from each character's POV when you have them all together and it's important to know what each is thinking/doing. Which can get choppy at times.

  2. Great points. Close third POVs are so popular right now that we tend to exclude omniscient from even being a viable possibility. But it worked for hundreds of years before we decided to kick it out the door.

    Still, as both a reader and writer, I prefer closer POVs, primarily because it's the characters who still run the show for me. Great concepts and huge plots are wonderful, but, at the end of the day, what I really want is an intimate look into another human being.

  3. I especially agree with points #2 and #4. I used an omniscient narrator in a historical fiction THE ADVENTURES OF ELIZABETH FORTUNE, making certain I kept the narrator as a character. It's one of my better-selling titles. While I was writing, I kept thinking: storyteller, storyteller... The narrator stayed fresh. By having an Omni storyteller I avoided head-hopping, because the narrator told what people were thinking and not each character.
    This isn't easy to pull off, but when it works, it's great.