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How common is the omniscient narrator these days? - Input Junkie
March 9th, 2010
08:55 am

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How common is the omniscient narrator these days?
From an essay about post-modernism:
One rarely sees the universal, omniscient narrator any more; one expects to ride the "novel" inside one of the character's heads.

I've noticed that getting inside the character's heads is more common-- first person is typical for urban fantasy-- but has third person omniscient actually become rare?

I don't know if there's an important difference between being inside one character's head, or in many characters' heads, as in Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire.

Link from haikujaguar.

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From:twistedchick
Date:March 9th, 2010 02:03 pm (UTC)
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There's an important difference in terms of focus -- if you view action only from one character, you only see what that character sees. Bren Cameron in CJ Cherryh's Foreigner series is a good example -- it's told in third person but you only see what he sees, and sometimes you know a lot more from what he misses.

The sterling example of multiple character viewpoint is Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, in which every chapter is from a different character's viewpoint, including that of the corpse. It can be really good or it can be schizo, depending on the author.

True universal omnicient viewpoint is always third-person, remote and doesn't get into anyone's head for any length of time. It's looking at the whole scene. It isn't sequential single-person viewpoint, but more distant than that. And, no, I haven't seen it done in SF in a while. A good example in an older style is Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter.
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From:nancylebov
Date:March 9th, 2010 02:13 pm (UTC)
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If you want no repeats multiple character viewpoint in sf, there's Sturgeon's Godbody.
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From:rm
Date:March 9th, 2010 02:08 pm (UTC)
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Third omniscient has become so rare that when I do it in short stories people go "I noticed your viewpoint kept switching -- oh wait! I forgot about third omniscient. REALLY?"
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From:redneckgaijin
Date:March 9th, 2010 02:16 pm (UTC)
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I find third-person limited much more interesting. Third-person omniscient seems a little lazy in comparison.
From:twistedchick
Date:March 9th, 2010 02:25 pm (UTC)
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It only seems lazy until you try writing it well.
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From:malkingrey
Date:March 9th, 2010 02:42 pm (UTC)
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I know that Sherwood Smith, in her Inda series, has been working with true omniscient POV (as opposed to multiple-third, which is relatively common in sweeping epic stories.)
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From:ritaxis
Date:March 9th, 2010 02:44 pm (UTC)
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Rushdie.
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From:richardthinks
Date:March 9th, 2010 03:19 pm (UTC)
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So I'm reading kids' books with my kids these days, and Lemony Snicket has started a trend of chatty omniscient narrators that I strongly dislike. This Book Is Not Good For You (by "Pseudonymous Bosch," alas) has a paranoid narrator who accuses the reader of trying to poison him/her, but who is omniscient within the overtly fictional narrative.

Snicket/Daniel Handler, BTW, apparently wrote an "incest opera", which mixed Jewish mythology with modern sexuality. And he's a fan of C. S. Lewis. Not sure what to make of that.
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From:houseboatonstyx
Date:March 9th, 2010 04:51 pm (UTC)
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Yay for Snicket! Great trend.

Of course it's not really new to kids coming from Lewis, Tolkien, Pullman (not chatty) -- and Terry Pratchett (very chatty!).

The more chatty, the more complicated grammar you can sneak in.
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From:richardthinks
Date:March 10th, 2010 04:15 pm (UTC)
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you know, I don't have anything against chatty narrators per se: George MacDonald Frazer and Laurence Sterne are brilliant at it. I guess I just don't like Snicket's voice.
That said, apparently his commentary track on the SOUE movie DVD is hilarious.
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From:green_knight
Date:March 10th, 2010 09:51 pm (UTC)
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Omniscient means that the narrator - implicit or explicit - knows things the characters don't and puts them on the page, often with comment. Good omniscient is a joy to read; sloppy omniscient comes across as headhopping (though genre Romance seems not to mind it at all).

Many tight viewpoints ('multiple third') doth not omni make.

There's also first person omniscient, which happens in the form of 'as someone told me later, back at the ranch' - it's first person, but told after the fact, and putting in events the character didn't know at the time, or including 'I was stupid enough to believe this at the time' etc.

Personally I feel that doing omni well is difficult - you need to build the narrating personality, at least in your own head, and keep it consistent - and there's more to keep in mind. It's probably best suited to writers who have a very strong voice.
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From:houseboatonstyx
Date:March 10th, 2010 11:30 pm (UTC)
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Hm. 'Strong' is not the first word I'd have chosen for Emma Lathen's omni voice, or Arthur Ransome's, or L. Frank Baum's, or Manning Coles'.

Solid prose, sound -- but certainly not loud or distinctive.
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From:nancylebov
Date:March 11th, 2010 01:47 pm (UTC)
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Is there a useful distinction between "first person omniscient" and "first person better-informed"? It's possible for a narrator to get more information than they had during the action of the story without knowing everything relevant.
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From:green_knight
Date:March 11th, 2010 09:45 pm (UTC)
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That is a hair I will not split ;-)

I think there's a definitive continuum there, exactly how much the narrator knows, but I feel that the kind of first person who looks back on events, and who knows things that they could not have known in the moment is closer to omnniscient than it is to tight third/in-the-moment first, where you only put on the page things the viewpoint character knows.

'Omniscient' does not mean 'knows everything'. Well, it does if you take it literally, but not literarily - again, there's a spectrum. I use the term mainly to distinguish it from tight third (whether singular or multiple) - as soon as you describe events or give a non-POV character's thoughts, you have omni. You may have only a few diversions (the famous fox in LOTR), or the omniscient narrator may be able to delve into the minds of everything and everybody. It may be a narrator with a frame story whose knowledge it limited - or it may be a truly god-like voice that knows, potentially, _everything_.

And I think at this point the whole thing gets diverse enough that trying to classify it is probably pretty futile.
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From:houseboatonstyx
Date:March 12th, 2010 01:53 am (UTC)
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Well, an example of 'first person better informed' would be Darley's first two volumes of THE AXEXANDRIA QUARTET (ie JUSTINE and BALTHAZAR). When he got more information about what had been going on, he retold the story incorporating it.

Iirc the third volume, without Darley as narrator, just a conventional third person voice, was regular omni.

At the moment I can't think of a good example of first person omni (ie all told looking back from the very end point) though I'm sure there are some.

I think it's a useful distinction, but there are a lot of points along that continuum.
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