Who Killed the Omniscient Narrator? A Brief History of POV
By David G Brown
Once upon a time, most novels were written in an omniscient third-person perspective. The narrator was sometimes the author and sometimes an unspecified storyteller. Today, omniscience is less common. Let’s look at why that is and what happened along the way.
Point of view is one of an author’s many tools, and as with the rest of our toolkit, there are guidelines but no hard and fast rules. In other words, anything can be done well. In much the same way, point of view takes on its own flavour in the hands of each novelist. As such, some of the terms used to describe POV differ depending on the source.
To make sure we’re starting on the same page, here are the terms I’ll being using:
Omniscience—this is a narrator who discusses the protagonist’s journey from an external perspective. The protagonist is therefore referred to as he or she or they (third person), and the narrator generally has a complete understanding of the events of the story and the players involved. This might even include insight into what characters are thinking. However, the key to omniscience is voice. An omniscient narrator has a distinct way of “speaking” to readers that conveys its own style and personality that is distinct from the protagonist or focal character.
Keep in mind that an omniscient narrator may sometimes shift into first-person (using the pronouns I and me) to share their feelings about the events of the story, and they may sometimes use reader address, which means they speak directly to the reader, using the pronoun you.
A good example of an omniscient narrator is Death in The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak.
First person—in this POV mode, the narrator is acting in the story, usually as the protagonist, so the primary pronoun used is I or me. One of the strengths of first person is that it gives readers direct access to the lived experience of the story, rather than an account from an external perspective. First person can feel confessional, which some authors find helpful in terms of sharpening their protagonist’s voice.
A significant challenge of first person is that it can lend itself to drawn-out explanations and pace-killing speculation. (This is the old show, don’t tell issue that we’ve discussed here and here and here.) Another thing to watch out for is pronoun oversaturation. A story in third person can alternate a character’s name and pronoun, but in first person, you don’t have that luxury, so the author must find other ways to avoid that close repetition.
A good example of a novel with a first-person narrator is The Martian by Andy Weir.
Second person—this is an unusual POV wherein you are the focal character. The narrator tells you what you are doing and thinking. Many readers find this hard to get into, or even annoying. When done well, second person can be very immersive.
One novel that uses second person POV to great effect is Rabbit Ears by Maggie de Vries.
Deep third—this POV mode is sometimes called close third or limited third. The narrator uses he, she, and they pronouns in the same way an omniscient narrator does, but the perspective is directly tied to the focal character. Whereas the omniscient narrator is external to the characters and has a distinct voice, the deep-third narrator is synonymous with the focal character.
To put that another way, deep third is essentially first person with the pronouns swapped. Anything described is necessarily what the focal character sees, hears, feels, smells, or tastes. The exposition flows out of their awareness and is instilled with their voice.
Deep third is the most popular POV mode in contemporary fiction for a good reason—it allows readers to share vicariously in the protagonist’s moment-to-moment experience. A classic example is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
Multi-POV—this POV mode gives readers access to multiple characters’ brains, one at a time. The narrative might shift from one character to the next between scenes or chapters. In almost all cases, the author provides readers with a clear indication in the text that the POV has shifted. The true power of the multi-POV mode is that it allows authors to weave multiple storylines together to create complex plots.
From epic fantasy to historical fiction, the multi-POV novel has wide appeal. However, this storytelling mode comes with its own challenges. Readers will always have their own preferences, and when the story shifts away from a favourite character, their immersion and engagement can sink. As such, it’s important to ensure each POV character is as compelling as possible, each with their own clear, specific, and relatable narrative goal.
George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is a good example of an epic multi-POV plot.
Head-hopping third—this POV mode is like a multi-POV but without the clear delineation of the perspective shifts from one character to the next. The narrator is whichever character the scene is currently filtering through, but the author might jump between characters from one paragraph to the next.
Many readers find this POV mode difficult to read. It’s easy to be pulled out of the story when you are left to wonder whose head you’re currently inhabiting. While a few authors get away with head-hopping, this is more often a narrative issue that is smoothed out in a manuscript’s development. In other words, this is the most difficult POV mode to get right, and even if you think you’ve got it right, many readers are still likely to disagree.
Omniscience: the dominant point of view until 1900
An omniscient narrator makes sense—a storyteller who tells a story. This goes back to the bardic tradition of oral storytelling. Once paper and ink got involved, the bard became a novelist.
First person narratives have been around for a long time, but they were much less common. Perhaps this was simply because storytellers collected or inherited most of their stories; they were less likely to find themselves in the midst of an epic tale. But first-person narratives existed in the earliest incarnations of the novel, even as early as Petronius’ Satyricon in the first century CE.
Second person, still an uncommon and often maligned POV, arose somewhat later, perhaps originating with La Morte by Balthasar de Bonnecorse in 1666.
Today, while first person is still not the dominant POV, it sits comfortably in second place. More importantly, first person is responsible for the POV revolution that has occurred since 1900. Specifically, first person has helped old-school omniscience morph into something new.
The Origins of the “Deep” Third Person Perspective
One of the strengths of first person is the insight it provides into a protagonist’s experience, both sensory and psychological. Not only do readers get to follow their hero step by step through the physical world, they also have constant access to the protagonist’s emotions, desires, and even direct thoughts. This depth of interiority allows authors to build powerful internal conflicts.
That’s not to say old-school omniscience didn’t give us some of the same cognitive insights, but it did so with more distance, and with a voice that belonged to the know-it-all narrator. Also, the narrator’s insights weren’t restricted to one focal character per scene. “Head hopping” was fairly common; there was no reason an omniscient narrator wouldn’t know what multiple characters were thinking about after all.
In one sense, this gave authors more flexibility within each scene, but the omniscient mode offers less of a deep personal and experiential connection.
The “deep” third person POV was the end result. It combines the strengths of omniscience and first person. Readers still get a story about someone rather than from someone, but they also get the deeper character connection and voice that is a hallmark of first-person narration.
Characteristics of Deep Third Person
In deep third, the narrative voice belongs to the focal character. Every scene filters through their sensory awareness and cognition. As noted above, anything described is necessarily what they see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. The asides made in exposition belong to their analysis. Any metaphors they use give readers further insight into their character.
According to Bookfox, over the last five years, deep third is now the dominant narrative mode, accounting for nearly 70% of major novel award winners. Commercial fiction is closer to a 50-50 split between deep third and first person.
The History of the Multi-POV Novel
Multi-POV novels have been around for longer than a singular point of view, simply because omniscient narrators used to move in and out of the minds of various characters. It used to be the norm when introducing a new character to reveal their appearance along with snippets of their interiority. For example, check out Tom Jones (1749), Cecilia (1780), or Sense and Sensibility (1811).
However, with the rise of deep third, the shifting between perspectives grew harder for readers to swallow. Head hopping became jarring. The answer was a series of “POV locked” scenes that belong to a rotating cast of focal characters (usually co-protagonists).
That being said, perspective switching between scenes or chapters isn’t new. One of the earliest English novels, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson (1740) is told through letters written by Pamela as well as replies from her parents. This epistolary format had its heyday, and the structure offers a similar threaded narrative as in a contemporary multi-POV novel.
Is Deep Third Here to Stay?
Probably! These days an omniscient narrator is difficult to pull off. In order to justify an omniscient POV for modern readers, the story must call for it, and the narrator’s identity will usually have a specific anchor in the narrative.
[As mentioned above, Death as the narrator in The Book Thief is a great example.]
Omniscience isn’t a lost art. But readers have evolved and so have novelists. Deep third affords a more intimate connection with the protagonist, or in the case of a multi-POV novel, with several.
A story worth reading is a story worth experiencing. Getting into a character’s head to follow them as they strive and struggle toward a climax allows readers a truly vicarious and empathetic experience.