f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Limited Omniscience—The Oxymoron at the Heart of a Lot of Stories (Part 4 of series)

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Limited Omniscience—The Oxymoron at the Heart of a Lot of Stories (Part 4 of series)

You know how God could control our lives like puppets but doesn’t? Yeah, this next narrative point-of-view isn’t like that at all. Instead, it’s a willful choice by an author to limit all narrative to the thoughts, feelings, and perspective of a single character. If you’d asked me which is the most popular of the point-of-views I’d have guessed this one, but on second-thought I’m beginning to doubt myself.

I guess it’s all how you define limited—and there isn’t any absolute right answer at the moment.

The most completely limited third person point-of-views exist only from the perspective of a single character. I though there’d be more, but I’m currently not coming up with too many. Lying Awake, I believe, is told from a single character’s perspective. This book is as well.

The problem, I guess, is that most novels are too complicated or wide-ranging to limit to a single perspective. Usually, authors add a second, third, or even fifth and sixth narrator to the mix. At what point does the omniscience stop being limited?

The answer to that question isn’t all that important. What’s more important are the rules you set up as an author and the wholesale adherence you follow in your book.

To whit:

In The Passion of Reverend Nash the narrative of the book is split about 60-40 between Jordanna and her sister. The narrative sections, however, are divided so that in a single chapter you’re in one sister’s perspective or the other. Liars and Saints takes the same tact, however, increases the number of narrators from 2 to about 8 or so.

So why bother with limiting the omniscience within a certain narrative section? Why not just go fully omniscient?

The reason, I think, again comes down to “voice.” If you pick up Lying Awake you don’t “hear” a narrator. Instead, you enter the mind, thoughts, and perspective of a middle-aged nun suffering terrible headaches in her pursuit of the perfect poem. When you read Reverend Nash you’re taken and back and forth between the distinct and almost quarreling voices of two sisters who’ve grown exasperated with each other in a time of deepest stress. Even with the multiple narrators of Liars and Saints, the author is talented enough to create distinct voices that we remember throughout their multiple appearances in the novel. (Indeed, we even transpose their voice onto dialogue spoken by them in another character’s narrative chapter.)

Full omniscience, which we’ll get to tomorrow, can sometimes take on too much of an outside authorial presence that you may want to avoid.

As a general rule, I’ve found that limited omniscience is the hardest for developing writers to get their head around. First-person and third-person omniscient are both very straight-forward. In limited point-of-view you need to be constantly aware of those very limits mentioned in the name of the point of view.

For instance, there’s something like this:

“‘They’re coming, Alan! They’re coming!’” she screamed. But Alan didn’t hear her. He was already out the door.
Well, if Alan’s already out the door, how did we hear her screaming? Right, we were told by an omniscient narrator. Errors like this, no offense, are the hallmark of amateur writing. Point-of-view is a foundational tool for any writer and if numerous problems show up early on, it’s a flashing red light to editors. There’s little chance you can write an entire novel if you don’t understand point-of-view.

The second common error (and one that I think often fails to even be edited out of published books) is lax limitations for exposition. Characters often think things in the name of exposition that they would never actually think if the were real. An off-the-cuff example:

Wendy walked in the room and sat next to Mark. As always she smelled of lilacs and roses. He ran a hand through his brown hair and thought of what to say next.
There’s a single word in that paragraph that shouldn’t be allowed in a third-person limited point-of-view. That word is “brown.” We aren’t in the habit of thinking of ourselves with adjectival terms. This makes physical description of your lead characters a tricky issue. (And it’s why you’ll see a lot of mirrors of reflections in windows in first chapters of third person limited books. Because that allows a legitimate opportunity for describing what is seen.)

There’s a lot more to be said about this point-of-view but I think it’ll come up again in other places so I’m going to hold off. I think it’s a wonderful perspective to use and I highly recommend it, however, it’s not as easy as it might seem when starting out. There needs to be a clear cut reason for every bit of narrative and exposition that comes across the page. This will help keep the voice sharp and the book tight.