I’ve been seeing a lot of debate about point of view in writing. I was wondering what everyone’s thoughts are about omniscient vs limited omniscient. Which do you prefer to read and, if different, which do you prefer to write? Do you think it depends on the genre? For those of you that have been published, has the market shifted either way in the last couple decades?
Sometimes with more limited POVs I feel a little too dissociated from the other characters in the story. It often depends on how decent of a job the author does in really fleshing out those other characters and the character relationships through the limited viewpoint narrator or character. We may be getting a filtered perspective of who the limited narrator thinks the secondary character is but it is better than not getting to know them very well at all. So, for me, I guess I’m saying I don’t necessarily have a preference. The primary difference is whether I’m learning about other characters from their own heads or from the perspective of another character’s observations and thoughts. The overall effect, in this respect, is on relative psychic distance between the reader, the narrator and the secondary characters. I think limited omniscient is going to bring you closer to the narrator and POV character but add some distance between you and the secondary characters. Omniscient sort of puts you equidistant from all of them in a sense.
I would ask this question a little differently. What is the effect that you are looking for in your work? Argent said it pretty well with psychic distance. Some genres are going to lend themselves to a very intimate method of storytelling (looking at you romance) while others may lend themselves to a more distant stance (anything epic comes mind here).
It is my opinion that the more omniscient the POV, the less intimate/broader scope of the story, and the more limited, the more intimate/smaller scope of the story. For example, say you are writing a war story - is the story about the war or about the experiences of a specific person/persons during the war? To put it in terms of log lines - “during a time of war, two people fall in love” versus “two people fall in love during a time of war”. The first lends itself to a more omniscient POV because it focuses on the war first, the latter on a more limited POV because it focuses on the romance/personal experiences first.
I am writing crime/mystery fiction so I keep things limited. The only two heads you get into are the two protagonists and then only one per chapter. I don’t get directly into the heads of the secondary characters or the antagonists. The investigators, and the reader, is on a journey to unravel a mystery and if the reader had a larger view or got into the antagonists’ heads, they would know who is behind everything at the start. By definition, it would no longer be a mystery. It would be more of a thriller, which doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a good book, it just isn’t the book I want to write.
I don’t have a personal preference as to which I’d rather read. On my list of pet peeves, this doesn’t even rank. It is more about execution. A well written book in a genre I don’t normally read is preferable to a poorly written book in a genre I do normally read.
Let me just end by saying that I am an unpublished author. Please take what I have to say with a grain of salt.
Jo, I am a crime/mystery writer with 8 books published in two different parts of the genre. I agree with what you say and do - limited POVs - either one or two - and little omniscience at all. I do have an opinion from me-the-reader, though. I don’t enjoy a lot of omniscience because it leads to head-hopping, one of my basic dislikes. When it’s overdone, I have been known to throw the book down with some vehemence!
I agree with what has been said, that it depends on what you want to achieve but as a personal preference I like to read limited om. I like to know who to root for! Having said that, I enjoy epics like GOT although with so many protagonists and stories it was an effort to care about them all.
I’d be grateful for your thoughts please on this:
In a short story about an exorcism that takes place in a millionaire’s home, it’s written in a ‘limited first person’ POV (so ‘I’ is used, but the viewpoint is that of a detached observer). I think I might have been influenced by the Nick Carroway-type narrator in The Great Gatsby, but also, as a witness myself to the incident, it is disturbing to recount it too closely, even though a writing buddy who has read it prefers that the scenes be approached with more closeness.
@farriz I’m far from an expert but my understanding is that a short story more than other form needs to deliver an impactful emotional experience for the reader. You’re probably going to need to get closer for the reader to experience that with your short story; especially since you’ve had someone who has read it, tell you so. It’ll probably mean the difference between a good short story and a great one.
That a great point, Argent, Thanks … Might I get away with the slightly ‘detached’ mode in novella form, maybe?
I suggest, if you want / need to go with a detached narrator, then it might work to make that narrator’s role part of the story’s appeal.
Maybe the narrator heard the story from his fiancee, for example, one week before their wedding, and doesn’t know whether to believe it – he feels like this huge gulf has opened up between himself and his partner.
Or maybe the narrator lived nearby, and got a call for help during the horrifying events, and didn’t do anything – didn’t even call the police – and is now re-creating events endlessly to try to assuage her guilt.
Would either of those ideas work for this story?
I think the general advice most people would give is:
- Focus is good with POV. Limit the number of characters whose eyes the reader has to see through. What is the minimum number of people the reader needs to comprehend the story?
- A little distance can be a good thing. As Argent says, you can get so close to the protagonist that the reader doesn’t get what is happening. Either an “I” future narrator who can comment (a little, infrequently) on events or a third-person limited narrator who can set the scene, explain transitions etc.
- To me, the true value of omniscient narration is not the ability to read the minds of every character in the story, but rather a storytelling presence on the page, a warmth, the feeling that someone is actually telling the story to me.
- Historical, fantasy, or sci fi epics, of course, like GoT or some of Peter F. Hamilton’s novels, have to ignore this advice! But such massive books are challenging to plot… I am reminded of Brandon Sanderson thanking his multiple editors in the acknowledgements of one recent 1,000 page novel.
I might go with the ‘feeling guilty’ tack actually!
Omniscience is hard to write well. Limited is much easier in my opinion. That has more to do with my skill level than the technique though.
I can see where omniscience might work in a mystery but the story would have to be huge in scope. Maybe something like a international political scandal or something that big. Even then, it would be tricky.
I don’t have as much of an issue with head hopping if it’s done consistently and the author is clear about which head I’m in at that moment. (Pretty sure I’m in the minority here.) Switching out who’s head I’m in half way through when the story has been told through only one person however… Normally it’s things like not delivering on promises, being painfully factually incorrect, and formatting will make put a book down quickly though.