f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Playing God—The Omniscient Narrator and Authorial Presence (Part 5 of series)

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

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Playing God—The Omniscient Narrator and Authorial Presence (Part 5 of series)

Our final POV to be discussed is full third-person omniscience. The prime example that always sticks out in my head for this point-of-view is Crime and Punishment. A sprawling book in the first place, the book flits from character to character (often within given scenes) and turns it into a reading experience quite unlike what we’re used to today.

“On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge.”
This is the opening to Dostoevsky's novel. The voice we hear in our head in not the young man’s (Raskelnikov), but an unseen narrator’s, whose perspective is never revealed as a presence within the book itself, but always remains outside, relating the actions to us. This omniscient narrator (as someone commented yesterday) can certainly have their own distinct voice separate from all the characters they talk about and this voice is developed, as always, by the things that are “said” and the way the narrator “says” them.

Philip Pullman in his HIS DARK MATERIALS series, a youth fantasy trilogy that’s rather spiteful toward faith, introduces one of the more judgmental narrators I’ve read in a while, casting aspersions on characters with an arrogance and authority that I suppose might come if one is omniscient.

The question in some circumstances is whether an omniscient narrator equals the authorial voice. I’m never one to take hard-and-fast lines, but for the most part I think an equation can be made. I would never allow that it’s a one-for-one substitution but I think most authors writing omniscient novels are doing so because it affords them the control and authority over their characters.

One interesting twist on this question is the notion of an authorial narrator. Read this:

“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
I’m sure you all recognize this as Dicken’s Christmas Carol. In the second-paragraph we have the narrative-“I” that indicates a first-person POV, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Instead, we’ve got the presence of an author who is reminding us that (in the case) he is telling the story. The rest of the book, for the most part, is third-person omniscient (since the narrator doesn’t actually participate in the events of the story) but you have a much more distinct sense of the author participating in the telling of the story. (In cinema, we’d be shown a man with a large book, who opens to a story which we then enter.)

On the other side of this coin is a book like Empire Falls by Richard Russo. The narrator’s voice in this omniscient novel is almost always confined to characters’ perspectives so that you have far less a sense of authorial presence. Comments made yesterday regarding a Canadian author intimate the same thing. These are author’s who use the omniscience to set scenes rather than become viable “characters” themselves.

Why omniscience?

I said yesterday that it’s a fairly straightforward point-of-view to write, and for the most part that is true, however it’s not easy at all. It takes a grand amount of control and confidence. Essentially you are setting yourself up as narrator. It’s your storytelling, your decisions that lead us through the narrative. It’s a Masters-level point-of-view and one that a novelist as talented as Russo didn’t even attempt until he had four novels under his belt. Here's a wonderful interview with Russo, one of my favorite novelists, that addresses this point.

Authorial presence is a different story. It seems to be an older style of point-of-view and tends to suit stories that are so obviously stories or morals. A Christmas Carol is a perfect example.

So that’s a few days worth of point-of-views. Tomorrow we’ll look at all the ways you can twist the guidelines and rules. Friday we’ll talk a little about how you should select the point-of-view you’ll use in your novel.