The third person is a continuum of narrators based on how much the narrator knows.
Alice LaPlant drew this continuum in The Making of a Story, and it makes sense to me:
Omniscient Direct Observer Godlike Fly on Wall
She explains that at one end you’ve got a narrator who knows everything about the characters, their histories, their present thoughts and feelings, their futures. This godlike narrator has infinite powers to know. On the other end you have a narrator who is limited to the observable facts, a narrator who acts like a reporter and lacks insight and judgment.
Read Hemmingway’s Hills Like White Elephants to understand this POV.
The Omniscient Narrator
The omniscient narrator may be a disembodied intelligence that isn’t part of the story as a character, but separate looking in and observing. 19th century novels often were written with 3rd person omniscient narrators. Classic examples are Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Jane Austen’s novels. More modern examples are, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Lemony Snicket, and Elizabeth Peters in her Amelia Peabody introductions.
The omniscient narrator can tell us what’s happening with any character. It doesn’t matter if are together or separated by time or physicality. This POV could give us the thought of one character in one line and the thought of another character the next sentence—something we call head-hopping when we’re using another POV.
The fully omniscient narrator, who hasn’t been restricted, could literally report anything.
Today, readers don’t want to just be told the story or have the story interrupted with comments, asides, lessons, etc, and the omniscient narrator has fallen in popularity. We won’t see many instances where the omniscient narrator interrupts the story to speak directly to the reader as in Isabel Allende’s Zorro anymore. Where there is a godlike narrator, it carries a distinct voice, never the same voice as the characters, or may have a neutral voice.
Limiting the Omniscient Narrator
According to LaPlant, in short fiction most narrators land somewhere in the middle of the continuum. The POV narrator will be limited in his or her knowledge in some way.
Narrative voice limitations may include:
—limited to the thoughts of the character, but unable to relate the character’s emotion
—able to see emotion, but unaware of backstory
—looks into the subconscious of the character, but can’t relate that to the past
All it really means is you’ve chosen to limit the knowledge of the narrator in some way that will enhance the story. A fully omniscient narrator would not be the best POV for a mystery, or we’d know “who done it” without the pleasure of clues and discovery.
There are a couple of subcategories you may want to use as defined by Beth Hill in The Editor’s Blog, http://theeditorsblog.net.
The narrator is limited to reporting only events and dialogue and description he or she can observe. Readers don’t see inside the characters. They don’t get reports of thoughts or feelings because the narrator isn’t dipping into minds and hearts to show what characters are thinking or feeling.
This is very close to the third-person objective (our next blog entry). The omniscient narrator reports what he sees and hears in his own words, not the words and voice of a character. Hill says, “He can still report what a character looks like from the outside, which a character can’t do. And the omniscient narrator can compare characters or events to other people and things the character herself has no knowledge of, can mention things and places and truths the character has no knowledge of.”
This narrator can see a character, hear his thoughts and know his feelings, but can’t hear the thoughts and feelings of all the characters. POV is limited to one, or several characters. Viewpoint does not switch between characters in the same scene. The narrator stays with the character until the scene is finished.
This omniscient narrator reports what he sees and hears in his own words, not in the words and voice of a character. Character thoughts and feelings are reported in the character’s words. The narrator can report what a character looks like from the outside, which a character can’t do for himself. And the omniscient narrator can refer to events and people and things the character herself has no knowledge of.
Try It Out
Turn a few paragraphs of your own story, or a story you are reading from whatever narration you are using to an omniscient narrator. How does your work change? When you read, notice the narration and identify the POV.
Note: An omniscient voice doesn’t have to be bland or boring. When you’re writing, give this voice attitude—let the narrator comment, judge, and opine.
Coming next: Third person limited vs. omniscient