One of the most important things to remember about omniscient narration is that although we can show the perspective of many characters we’re not actually in their perspective. As we’ve discussed before there are two main types of omniscient narration:
- Limited omniscient – We use third-person but we’re limited to the perspective of one character at a time.
- Omniscient narration – We use third-person but we’re narrating from the perspective of the authorial voice.
It’s also important to remember that the ‘authorial voice’ doesn’t have to mean the author’s actual voice, we can form our omniscient narrator as we would any other character. They can be completely separate from the story or we can reveal that they were in the story somewhere observing it.
This might sound a bit odd but if you’re having trouble with the omniscient narration try watching The Muppet’s Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens if often regarded as a master of omniscient narration, whatever your views on this in The Muppet’s Christmas Carol Gonzo is cast as Charles Dickens the narrator. Gonzo, and Rizzo, can appear anywhere in the story and there doesn’t need to be a logical reason for them to be there. Gonzo and Rizzo appear outside Scrooge’s office in the present part of the story, but they also appear in the past and the future. Why are they there? How does Gonzo know so much about the characters? What have they got to do with the story at all? None of these questions need answers because Gonzo is our omniscient narrator guiding us through the story and telling us what we need to know.
The tricky part of this style of narration is deciding what the reader needs to know and when they need to know it because we can go anywhere in the story and reveal any character’s thoughts. This can be problematic because we risk giving away the twists or turns of a story, wandering off on unrelated digressions, and giving characters more time on the page than they actually need.
That last one might sound a bit odd but I’m not referring to our main cast. When we have the ability to reveal the thoughts of any of the characters it can be tempting to reveal a lot about characters who don’t have much impact on the story. The inherent problem with this is that the more page time we give a character when they first appear the more likely it is for the reader to expect them to reappear. If we’ve given a character who only appears in one scene several pages devoted to them then readers will continue through the book waiting for them to reappear and be disappointed if they don’t. This doesn’t mean we can’t make them a vibrant character but we have to be careful how much time we spend on fleshing them out. This might sound harsh but too many characters with a lot of unnecessary page time can muddy the waters for the reader, this might be beneficial if we’re trying to complicate things, such as a murder mystery, but if we don’t intend to do it we need to be aware of the possibility.
In a first draft it doesn’t matter how many characters we use or how many of their perspectives we reveal, in editing it’s often easy to spot the extra ones that repeat information or don’t add anything to the story. With omniscient narration it’s often a matter of trial and error figuring out whose thoughts to show and who not to.
NOTE: This article series comes in three parts published between Monday and Wednesday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.