The Author is Omniscient: An Argument for Honesty

I have flirted with multiple points of view. I love the second person for its exotic directness; the first person for its appearance of unmediated access; the limited third person for its ability to draw the reader into the environment of another. But for fiction writing, I remain an advocate of the omniscient third person, the overreaching narrator who knows and interprets all.

This point of view has experienced a decline in literary fiction (a statement I base purely on my own reading of 20th century literary fiction and not on any sort of statistical study). Some have deemed it arrogant or presumptuous for the authorial voice to assume possession of more than one body in a tale; the first person seems more honest, acknowledges more fully that but a single voice can come from a consciousness, that we cannot fully know the reality of another.  Margaret Atwood’s excellent first-person female narrators (in Bluebeard’s Egg, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin, among others) participate in memoir-style novels. I love these books, but they also expose the dangers of solipsism in first person novels.  After all, one of the great strengths of the novel as opposed to poetry or short stories or numerous other fictional forms is the opportunity offered for many voices to participate in telling the story.

Additionally, I struggle to distinguish my voice from the narrator when I write in first person. It is too easy to let a tale slip into memoir or a Mary Sue scenario.  Third person omniscient forces me to balance the concerns of characters that I might not identify with as fully with those whom I do draw more directly from my own experience.

But why third person omniscient as opposed to third person limited, which restricts focus to the viewpoint of a single character? Well, the author really does create the whole thing,and it seems to me more honest to acknowledge this fact and open up the narrative to the possibility of dramatic irony.  Again drawing on Tess of the d’Urbervilles (which in the course of participating in this blog has shown itself to be my favorite book of all time, a fact I did not know before I was a Confabulator), would the reader be nearly as devastated when she is suffering as a milkmaid in the northern country, away from her family, shunned by Angel, if we did not ALSO know that her love is suffering in Brazil and missing her something fierce? Without our omniscient narrator, we are limited to personal tragedy, closing off the possibilities of societal tragedy and shared suffering.

1 Comment

  • Kevin Wohler says:

    I think omniscient narrator might be easier for certain stories, but I would argue that any book (even Tess of the d’Urbervilles) could be written from a first-person or third-person-limited point of view. It might take some imaginative (or even contrived) story structure to fit in all the same plot elements. The tone of the story might even change. Yet, I think you need look no further than To Kill a Mockingbird to find a book where a single point of view worked perfectly — and was completely honest.

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