What is an omniscient narrator? Narrative examples and tips

What is an omniscient narrator - tips and examples from Now Novel

‘Narration’ means ‘the action or process of telling a story’ (OED). There are many choices for how you narrate a story. For example, whose viewpoint is the focus? Or is the narrator a detached omniscient narrator, simply recording events like a CCTV camera?

Read examples of omniscient narration along with tips for using this style of narrative:

Defining the omniscient narrator

Ursula le Guin quote on omniscient narratorsThe word ‘omniscient’ means ‘all-knowing’, from the latin omnia meaning ‘all’ and scientia, meaning ‘knowledge’. There is a long tradition of deities in stories being ‘all-knowing’. The Gods of the ancient Greeks, for example, or the Gods of modern religions.

Ursula le Guin prefers to call the omniscient narrator the ‘involved author’ in Steering the Craft:

‘Involved author is the most openly, obviously manipulative of the points of view. But the voice of the narrator who knows the whole story, tells it because it is important, and is profoundly involved with all the characters, cannot be dismissed as old-fashioned or uncool. It’s not only the oldest and the most widely used storytelling voice, it’s also the most versatile, flexible, and complex of the points of view—and probably, at this point, the most difficult for the writer.’ (p. 87)

Omniscient narration differs from first person or ‘limited third person’ narration. An omniscient narrator can tell or show the reader what each character thinks and feels in a scene, freely, because she/he/it is not one of them.

So how do you use omniscient narration effectively?

1: Compare and contrast characters’ personalities using the omniscient narrator

Because the omniscient narrator is not an actor in the story, you may move between and contrast characters’ private feelings.

The classic novel Middlemarch (1872) by George Eliot is a good source of examples. The book’s omniscient narration shows how to characterize well even without the immediate intimacy of first person POV.

In the chosen example, the two central characters, sisters Dorothea and Celia Brooke, divide their late mother’s jewelry. Using omniscient third person, Eliot contrasts Celia’s more materialistic nature with Dorothea’s pious, idealistic one.

Celia wants specific jewelry but kindly offers the items to Dorothea. Yet Dorothea refuses most of the items, except for a ring and bracelet. The elder sister tries ‘to justify her delight in the colors’ spiritually. The scene continues:

“Shall you wear them in company?” said Celia, who was watching her with real curiosity as to what she would do.

‘Dorothea glanced quickly at her sister. […] “Perhaps,” she said, rather haughtily. “I cannot tell to what level I may sink.”

‘Celia blushed, and was unhappy: she saw that she had offended her sister, and dared not say even anything pretty about the gift of the ornaments which she put back into the box and carried away. Dorothea too was unhappy […] questioning the purity of her own feeling and speech in the scene which had ended with that little explosion.’

Eliot tells us directly that both sisters are unhappy. This isn’t the kind of ‘telling’ we should rewrite to show more, though. It shows both sisters’ feelings and deepens their characterization.

Eliot shows us via omniscient narration how different the two sisters are. While Celia thinks about the emotional, interpersonal effects of her actions, Dorothea focuses on her own ideals (‘purity’ and spiritual perfection) and whether or not she honours them.

2: Using omniscient narration to show readers your fictional world’s history

Omniscient narration also lets you give a broader, objective slice of your world’s history.

In Reedsy’s helpful post on omniscient narration, they discuss Sir Terry Pratchett’s use. Pratchett’s Discworld fantasy series uses a historian-like omniscient narrator. Here, Pratchett describes Discworld’s city Ankh Morpork in the first book, The Colour of Magic (1983):

‘The twin city of proud Ankh and pestilent Morpork, of which all the other cities of time and space are, as it were, mere reflections, has stood many assualts in its long and crowded history and has always risen to flourish again. So the fire and its subsequent flood, which destroyed everything left that was not flammable and added a particularly noisome flux to the survivors’ problems, did not mark its end. Rather it was a fiery punctuation mark, a coal-like comma, or salamander semicolon, in a continuing story.’

This backstory quickly shifts to describe the present, when a mysterious character arrives on a cargo ship, seen by a beggar at the docks:

‘[The ship] carried a cargo of pink pearls, milk-nuts, pumice, some official letters for the Patrician of Ankh, and a man.

‘It was the man who engaged the attention of Blind Hugh, one of the beggars on early duty at Pearl Dock. He nudged Cripple Wa in the ribs, and pointed wordlessly.’ (pp. 7-8)

Omniscient narration enables Pratchett to move quickly between a bird’s eye view of the city’s history and the present time of the story, showing the city’s comings and goings through a large cast of secondary characters.

Move between focal points – setting and character – using omniscient narration this way to show broader details of life in a city or society.

3: Use multiple points of view in omniscient narration to increase tension

Cover of War and Peace by Leo TolstoyAnother useful element of omniscient narration is how it may increase dramatic tension. An omniscient narrator, like a swivelling CCTV camera, can show, in turn, each character’s reaction to a dramatic event.

For example, here, in Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869), the narrator describes the character Pierre visiting his father. We’ve just read that Pierre was expelled from the city of St. Petersburg for tying a policeman to a bear:

‘Though he expected that the story of his escapade would be already known in Moscow and that the ladies about his father – who were never favourably disposed towards him – would have used it to turn the count against him, he nevertheless on the day of his arrival went to his father’s part of the house.

[…]

‘Pierre was received as if he were a corpse or a leper. The eldest princess paused in her reading and silently stared at him with frightened eyes; the second assumed precisely the same expression; while the youngest, the one with the mole, who was of a cheerful and lively disposition, bent over her frame to hide a smile probably evoked by the amusing scene she foresaw.’ (pp. 55-56)

Tolstoy increases the tension of Pierre’s return by first telling us about the frosty reception he expects. After this, Tolstoy shows the response of each character without favouring one specific viewpoint.

This builds tension and suspense since we wonder how each character will react to Pierre’s return. Like Tolstoy, use the omniscient narrator’s ability to describe what each character is feeling to build anticipation and suspense.

4: Use omniscient narration to give readers a more objective view

In a story in first person point of view, we believe what the narrator interprets (unless we find out they’re an unreliable narrator). Omniscient narration, by comparison, is often more objective. Without a character-meets-narrator telling us what events mean, we’re freer to make up our own minds.

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (1850), for example, the narrator does not explicitly condone or condemn the adultery of Hester Prynne, the protagonist.

In the book, puritan society shuns Hester for having a child out of wedlock. Hester has to wear a red ‘A’ over her dress to shame her for her adultery.

Hawthorne tells the novel using the involved author. Showing us multiple characters’ words and deeds, he allows us to draw our own conclusions. We see the hypocrisy of a society that demands ‘decency’ but makes vicious, indecent spectacles out of its wrongdoers.

Here, for example, Hawthorne describes the general response to Hester and its psychological toll on her, without explicitly condemning either:

‘Hester Prynne set forth towards the place appointed for her punishment. A crowd of eager and curious schoolboys, understanding little of the matter in hand, except that it gave them a half-holiday, ran before her progress, turning their heads continually to stare into her face and at the winking baby in her arms, and at the ignominious letter on her breast.

‘It was no great distance, in those days, from the prison door to the market-place. Measured by the prisoner’s experience, however, it might be […] agony from every footstep of those that thronged to see her, as if her heart had been flung into the street for them all to spurn and trample upon.’

Instead of focusing solely on Hester’s experience, Hawthorne shuttles back and forth between her psychological state and the vulgar public ogling at her shaming.

By showing the attitudes and emotions of the society that ostracizes Hester, alongside Hester’s own suffering, Hawthorne shows both sides. This approach enables us to have a more objective awareness of the situation, not only Hester’s ‘wrongdoing’ but also the way group punishment commits its own lusts and wrongs.

Tips for choosing between limited and omniscient point of view

When should you use limited and when should you use omniscient?

As the above examples show, omniscient narration is useful because you can:

  • Show multiple characters’ thoughts in a scene or chapter without privileging one viewpoint
  • Compare and contrast characters’ personalities and emotions
  • Use omniscient narration to create interesting backstory for your world
  • Use omniscient narration to build tension and give readers greater freedom to interpret individual characters’ actions

Because limited third person narration limits available information to what the viewpoint character knows, it’s useful for stories when the gulf between characters’ personal interpretations and feelings are important.

For example, in a novel like A Home at the End of the World (1990) by Michael Cunningham, alternating chapters told (in limited third person) share the viewpoints of each character in a love triangle. No character/narrator has direct access to what the others are thinking or feeling. Cunningham shows us his characters’ loneliness and desire as they try to understand each others’ situations and choices.

Omniscient third person, by contrast, gives you the freedom to move between historical, long time and the present time of individual characters’ experiences, even within a single page. Use this type of narration to show multiple characters’ experiences of a single event or scene, or use it to give the reader impartial, ‘historian-like’ backstory.

Writing a multi-character novel? Sketch character details using the helpful prompts in the ‘Character’ section of our Idea Finder tool.

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  • Barth Anderson

    Dear Now Novel. Issues of Third Person very much on my mind. Stop. Creepy timing on this blog post. Stop. Thinking very much about Vonnegut’s almost “cosmic narrator” in his particular use of third person. Stop. It’s like you’re crawling inside my head. STOP! Sincerely, ~barth

    • Guilty as charged! Thanks, Barth. Will read up some Vonnegut examples, thanks for the suggestion.

  • Jai Want

    I am very glad to see this blog. https://goo.gl/qmBFbV

  • The Heroes of Hope

    Hi I love your article on omniscient narration of often found the narrations to be lacking since they take they don’t give enough focus on the other characters. But I have to ask I am currently having some uncertainties on how to proceed with omniscient narration. I fear that I cannot keep things hidden if I were to use omniscient narration so I have to ask is it okay for me to choose when to tell the story from one perspective only?

    • Hi Heroes. There’s nothing to say you can’t change POV in the course of your story. Just try not to do it a lot within individual chapters and scenes as it can become unclear who the viewpoint character is. Of course a writer like Virginia Woolf does shift POV regularly but she used limited third person thus it’s clear whose character’s perspective we’re reading at a given moment. Perhaps read some of her work for an idea of how to make POV changes clear. I’d also really recommend Ursula K Le Guin’s section on POV in her book ‘Steering the Craft’ – it’s very thorough.

      • The Heroes of Hope

        I see thank you I just worry that if I focus on character point of view too much it would be redundant to try and use omniscient narration. But if I were to describe the setting, what is going in the setting, or the appearance. I should probably avoid using one characters point of view am I right?

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