Should You Write Third Person Omniscient?

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So yesterday, having written about the benefits of omniscient narration, I thought I’d rewrite a scene from third person close narration, using an omniscient narrator. I figured out the narrator’s identity, his perspective on the characters, and how he came to know the details of the story, and I sat down to see how such a perspective would work.

And I couldn’t get past the first sentence without realizing the differences in distance that so many authors complain about.

It isn’t that omniscient narration can’t be close to a character. (As we saw in my examination of Anna Karenina, it can have moments of very close association). It’s just that the character has less influence on the narration, since it now belongs to the narrator, not the character. Word choice, sentence length, what is and isn’t noticed, and how it’s described all changes with different characters, and when I introduced a narrator, his perspective took over.

Here’s what I was working with yesterday (this paragraph is in third person close narration):

She sat on a balcony off her bedroom, a straitjacket of brick and mortar with barely enough room for her chair. Icy wrought-iron kissed her brain, and she quickly sat upright. She’d forgotten how cold the metal would be. Another reason a girl should have long hair. That’s what her grandfather would say. And her brothers. And Mom. She drew her hood up over her neck, just far enough to protect her skin. She was confined enough without wrapping her head with down and cotton, trading sight for tunnel vision.

Now, I could’ve left this as it was, even if I added a narrator. He could comment on her action and nothing more, but if he doesn’t interact with the story, he might as well not exist. To indicate the presence of a narrator and have the narrator actually work for me and do something, I had to attempt something like this:

In the middle of a dark, cold night, a young woman sat perched on a stone outcropping, dubbed a balcony. Her parents’ house was a grand old house, full of such pretensions, and it’d been named “Everleigh”—doubtless a misspelling of the term “lea” for artistic reasons. The lea had been sold off until a mere handful of acres remained, yet it was an excellent estate, full of beauty and character. But Alaina Valeur couldn’t see it that way. To her, it was a straightjacket of brick and mortar.

Both paragraphs were able to keep the metaphor about the house being a straitjacket, but the first version is more focused on Alaina. We get to her perspective and thoughts without any time spent on description, and when we encounter her surroundings, we do so as her companions. We feel what she feels, and until she notices something—like the coldness of the wrought-iron—it isn’t mentioned.

The second gives a lot more thought to her surroundings, because the narrator is seeing Alaina from the outside. Thus, he sees the balcony, the grand house named Everleigh, and the surrounding grounds, and he comments accordingly. It isn’t until the end of the paragraph that he zooms in and starts examining her mental state. And this is typical of how people interact. We notice other people’s clothes, their surroundings, their posture, and their actions, all in a general moment of sight. Then, and only then, do we start speculating on what they’re thinking and feeling based on our earlier observations.

Because the narrator is a separate entity from the characters, he can introduce all kinds of tidbits of exposition far earlier than otherwise would happen. For example, my narrator could go on to explain what Alaina looks like and what she’s wearing, which I can’t otherwise indicate for some time. Until she interacts with her clothing or notices her own looks, the narration can’t go there.

Unless you change perspectives, that is. I like changing perspective with chapter and scene breaks; it lets me represent a variety of perspectives with the same rules of third person close narration in place. An omniscient narrator can visit person after person, but in third person close narration, I’m locked down to one character, so I have to wait until a scene break to change. Still, this narrative device lets me follow the characters closely, showing the same well-rounded world of the story. I just have to travel in separate scenes, or I’m guilty of “head-hopping.”

Anna Karenina demonstrates the uniformity of omniscient narration. Despite moving from character to character, the tone of the story remains the same. Clothes, the countryside, and descriptions of how other characters look don’t really change. We get more of Vronsky’s perspective and thoughts in his chapters, and more of Anna’s in hers, but it is all delivered through the medium of the narrator. The same sort of syntax and vocabulary are used, no matter who we’re following.

With third person close narration, I have to remember which character I’m dealing with and write accordingly. Some characters will notice clothes and know the names for different garments; others won’t know or care. Some will be very sensitive to sounds or smells, and some characters will be more easily distracted than others. In every case, the narration’s tone will have to change to reflect these differences.

But despite these challenges, I like third person close narration. The narration is an extension of the character we’re following, which lets me indicate a character’s mood and attitude just by my choice of terms. It may require me to see things as the characters see them, actively living in that moment with them, but I feel it lets me and my readers be more involved in the characters’ adventures.

Instead of being as close as thought, we’re closer. In third person close narration, we’ve delved deeper and are as close as perspective and awareness.

 

Guest post contributed by Andrea Lundgren. See more of her great posts on all things writing and from an authors point of view. She offers advice, insider information, and even free ebook offers.

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Image courtesy of Patrick Emerson via Flickr, Creative Commons.

 

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16 thoughts on “Should You Write Third Person Omniscient?”

  1. Thank you, Andrea. It’s really interesting to look at both sides. I prefer getting as close to the characters as possible, so I usually write close third. But Anna Karenina is one of my favorite books. I love how Tolstoy drew me in using omniscient, and I sometimes study it to see how he did that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I definitely like third person close narrative, and never really thought that there were different types of third person before. However, now that I think on it, GRRM uses the third person limited perspective, which gives the author a lot of power of suggestion as you forget the perspective is limited and can be used to manipulate.

    This is an excellent breakdown of perspective. I’ve only written in first person a handful of times. I find it too limiting, but it would be an excellent challenge for me to try more 🙂

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    1. Omniscient narration definitely has its benefits, in situations like that. Personally, I still prefer third person close narration, but the experiment of doing both and comparing the results really helped me solidify the difference between the two options. Glad so many of you enjoyed it!

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  3. Your description of third person close sounds about the same as how I’ve read third person subjective omniscient to be described.
    Or am I off my writer rocker?

    Yes, head hopping can be something to watch for. However, if the writer has a good voice I find it the best way to convey as much necessary information, both scenic and emotional, in the shortest amount of time, alternating between narration and dialogue.

    And yes, I enjoyed the article. Thanks.

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  4. Thank you. This helped me understand the difference. I generally write from the character’s POV, but occasionally use the narrator. I usually head the character change because it’s easier for me and figure my readers would like it, too.

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  5. Ahh. It’s December, and my once third omni novel is now rewritten into third close, and it’s so much better. But third omni still has a warm and fuzzy place in my heart, especially for older works written in that manner.

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  6. In the end you say third person allows you to delve deeper than thought, but I find your examples show the exact opposite. The level of personal involvement in the third person example doesn’t get close to the first person one.

    Liked by 1 person

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