Friday, May 07, 2010

The Perils of Omniscient

So I’ve been wallowing in a reading-fest of late and having a grand old time of it. However, I have discovered, or perhaps re-discovered, something as I read, and that is: Omniscient is harder than hell to pull off, unless you’re British or Australian.

The thing is, I do like the omniscient POV, it hearkens back to the Once Upon a Time voice of childhood fairy tales, and I’m just enough of a writing/reading nerd that I don’t mind the author inserting themselves into the reading process. And yet…

And yet so often stories written in omniscient lose something in the process—some spark of life or suspension of disbelief. I can’t quite put my finger on it, which is why I’m blogging about it—trying to figure it out. The last three books with an omniscient voice that I’ve tried to read, I’ve ended up not finishing. There is just too much voice and not enough story or character.

I think what it boils down to is, while I like the chatty, observational tone of omniscient, it begins to wear on me when used for an entire book. Which is odd, I realized, because I do love those exact same elements in a first person voice. In fact, I think a first person voice can feel very flat without at least some of that.

But what omniscient does is remove the reader from the story, it separates me from the emotions, feelings, and experiences of the character by one degree, and that one degree can be crucial to the bonding and empathizing necessary for me to become absorbed by a story.

Omniscient, by its very nature—a present or invisible narrator telling us the story—is telling rather than showing. I don’t ever get to lose myself in that character because the narrator is keeping me at arm’s length.

Also, omniscient lends itself to overwriting.

Omniscient is also what a lot of beginning writers default to when they first start out because they don’t understand point of view, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

I think one of the techniques to getting around that distance problem is to telescope with omniscient—to not insert the narrator all the time, but only in judicious doses. Other times, let it feel more like third person.

Another technique is to just have a fabulous, fabulous omniscient voice that really ADDS to the story, that gives the reader something but not at the cost of some other vital element of story, such as creating an emotional connection.

Also, a dry wit never hurts. Or an archness of tone.

Some omniscient books that I think worked:

Soulless by Gail Carriger
Sabriel by Garth Nix
Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
Code Orange by Caroline Cooney
Sherry Thomas--she opens  with about two pages of omniscient, then moves into third person for the rest of the book.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
The Lemony Snicket books (although I could only read those in small doses due to the very elaborate voice.)

I'll add more as I think of them. What about you? Do you have any examples you can think of?


Deva Fagan said...

My experience with omniscient has been much the same as you describe -- a lot of the time I find it distancing, but when it is well done I love it for exactly that story-telling quality.

It's funny -- I was just listening to my current audiobook (House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones, which has that same omni-storytelling feel, as do a number of her books) and thinking about how I would like to try writing something in that "style" sometime myself. I've avoided it because one of my own weaknesses as an author has been flat/distant characters (I only really figured that out when I tried writing in first person for the first time, which consequently resulted in my first published novel).

Icarus said...

As I was reading I kept thinking of Vladimir Nabokov.

The omniscient narrator in King, Queen, Knave just froths with his mysanthropic regard for his characters, and it prevents you from feeling any sympathy for them, but that seems to be his goal. So, the narrative voice works perfectly for his purpose, but he is using it for the opposite goal that you have in mind. Using his powers for evil, I suppose. :)

Lia Keyes said...

Philip Pullman's HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy uses one of the most masterful omniscient voices I've ever read and was the right choice for the epic scale of his story.

On a very different scale, Jane Austen makes omniscient highly personal in EMMA!

Harry Potter was only omniscient for the first chapter, and sometimes for the opening of certain chapters. The rest of the time it was a close 3rd POV so we only knew what Harry knew for much of the time.

Barefoot Liz said...

I loved the book Sabriel!

Robin L said...

You guys are all (mostly) proving my point! Most of these recommendations are British authors. :-)

Deva you are very wise and self aware to recognize that omniscient might not work for you b/c of your own inherent style issues. I'm impressed!

Icarus, that is a terrific point about Nabokov's omniscient doing exactly what he wanted it to. Now I want to go check out that book.

Lisa, Phillip Pullman is a terrific example of excellent omniscient, and again, British. :-) I'm telling you, you Brits are omniscient geniuses! And yes, Rowling does use that telescoping technique to great effect.

Liz, SABRIEL is one of my all time favorite books. Love it a LOT.

Anonymous said...

Omniscient really needs a particular voice, like it flying in and out of characters thoughts. Or, of course, notes like: "Actually, this was NOT the correct answer, but it worked well enough." or at the end, "How do I know? I'm her daughter."

Ms. Yingling said...

I don't think the difference is as great as you feel. For instance, I couldn't remember if Theodosia was using the first person voice or not. The first person voice seems to me more suited to modern, realistic fiction, but when it is well-done can be suitable for anything. I don't think the omniscient voice is distancing, but is no doubt harder to write.