Against omniscience

As I’ve said on more than one occasion, my preferred point of view, from a writing standpoint, is the third person. For Nocturne, I experimented with a first-person narration, and I have to admit that I did like it. It was fun, and I might try it again sometime. But the third makes up the majority of my writing, as I’m sure it does for most authors.

Specifically, for me, this is a “limited” third-person perspective: the narration has no knowledge outside that of the character in focus. Others might prefer the omniscient narrator, but I don’t particularly care for it (again, speaking only for my writing). Why? It’s hard to say, but I’ll give it a shot.

First and foremost, I do like to be challenged. That’s why I went with the first-person perspective for Nocturne, and it’s why I have no fewer than five current serials in various stages of development at the moment. Writing from a limited point of view is a challenge, because you have to consider how much a specific character knows. They won’t be able to read others’ thoughts (unless that’s the kind of story you’re writing), and they can only guess at emotional responses.

That brings me to the second point: the unreliable narrator. To be honest, it’s a bit of a crude rhetorical device, but it can serve a purpose when used judiciously. But you really can’t pull it off with an omniscient perspective. I mean, you can try, but I’m not sure it can be believable. If it’s clear that the unspecified narrator knows what lurks within the hearts of all the characters, how can that narrator then turn around and say, “Oh, no, I must have misremembered,” or words to that effect? That’s not unreliable—it’s outright lying!

Next on the list is kind of a combination of the previous two points. Writing from the character’s perspective, even if outside his thoughts, gives me a focus. It lets me tailor the narration to that specific character. Maybe they aren’t unreliable, but they do have their own lens through which they view the world. Here, I’ve written enough to provide examples. Some aren’t published yet, but that’s okay. They will be.

  • Kellis (Nocturne): Kellis is basically a fantasy cop. Her thoughts run along those lines, and narration follows along behind. Her chapters talk a lot about crime, discipline, order, etc.

  • Alex (Chronicles of the Otherworld): Alex is a nerd, geek, or whatever your favorite term is. (Basically, he’s me.) He’s also very rational, so his narration tends to focus on science and hard facts, rarely delving into speculation, but often argument.

  • Jarra (Lair of the Wizards): Being only eight years old at the start of the story, Jarra is tricky to write, but also unbelievably fun. Her parents are always referred to as “Mom” and “Dad”, she uses lots of emphasis on words, and the inner voice that is her narration is not above pouting.

  • Tod (Linear Cycle, Part 6: The Final Sacrifice): Tod lost his family, then watched as one of his last friends turned into a zombie, while her sister essentially killed herself in response. He’s deeply troubled, and he’s 17 years old. He’s going to be angsty, emotional, irrational, and I tried to make the writing reflect that.

With an omniscient perspective, I don’t think I could have pulled these off. My writing style simply depends on being closer to the characters than that perspective allows.

On the other hand, I have to admit that it does provide opportunities that my limited style doesn’t. For one, it’s really hard for me to do quick “flashes”, changing focus back and forth between characters. That’s why my writing tends to either have one POV (the Linear Cycle stories) or one per chapter (pretty much everything else). I did manage a few scene-break swaps in Before I Wake, and the finale for Chronicles of the Otherworld uses those exclusively, but inside a scene? Can’t do it.

Similarly, limited perspective is, well, limited. The same factors I spun as advantages above can become disadvantages in certain stories. Maybe you do need to show the inner thoughts of more than one character at a time. Maybe the story works better if it’s told by an all-seeing narrator. I don’t know, as I really don’t write that sort of fiction. I realize that’s a bit of selection bias: since I don’t write omniscient, what I write doesn’t make use of its advantages.

That’s just my personal style, though. Until last year, I didn’t think I could write something in the first person, either. I proved myself wrong, didn’t I? (Well, even Nocturne isn’t completely first-person.) So maybe I just need to try it out, and maybe I will at some point in the future. (Hey, that might be something for November!) Until that day, I don’t mind working within my limitations. They’re not that bad.

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