Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Narrative Viewpoint: Third-Person Obsolete

Once upon a time the most common narrative viewpoint was called third-person omniscient. The story was told through the point-of-view of an all-knowing storyteller who played no actual role in the novel except to relay story events. This was the rave back in the nineteenth century and in much of the twentieth century too, used by famous writers such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. In my opinion, however, the time for this narrative viewpoint is long past. It needs to go the way of the manual typewriter. The goose quill pen. And, dare I say, fresh-scraped vellum. These things have no place in today’s writing world.

Leave omniscient narration to divine beings!
Because the omniscient narrator plays no role in the story, this viewpoint is the most detached from the characters who struggle through the novel. An omniscient narrator can reveal any character’s thoughts at any time, constantly jumping from one character’s head to another, telling the reader everything and anything the omniscient narrator feels is important, even if it’s something the characters themselves wouldn’t even know. Bouncing from one character’s mind to another’s, however, can be dizzying and distracting. We never get to know the character intimately like we do with first-person point-of-view or the good version of third-person point-of-view – third-person limited, where shifts in viewpoint never occur until after a scene break or chapter break. (If you need an example, read any chapter from George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.) Instead, we’re stuck with this distant, storytelling narrator. We’re not living the story with the characters, we’re just listening to it.

Third-person point-of-view done right!
One of the paramount rules of writing is: show the reader the story, don’t tell it. Good writing  immerses the reader in the novel. We want to experience the story, not have it lectured to us. Yet telling is inherent in third-person omniscient because the storytelling narrator is doing just that: telling us a story. Even in the hands of a gifted author adept at “showing,” third-person omniscient will never do this as well as third-person limited or first-person point-of-view. So with two superior options available, why oh why would an author these days ever chose a viewpoint that makes showing the story more difficult and the experience less intimate for the reader?

Sometimes third-person omniscient narrators even address the reader directly, as in this passage from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis:

Most of us, I suppose, have a secret country, but for most of us it is only an imaginary country. Edmund and Lucy were luckier than other people in that respect. Their secret country was real. They had already visited it twice; not in a game or a dream but in reality. They had got there of course by Magic, which is the only way of getting to Narnia. And a promise, or very nearly a promise, had been made them in Narnia itself that they would someday get back. You may imagine that they talked about it a good deal, when they got the chance.

Good for 1952; now, not so much.
This may have worked in 1952, but it would drive me crazy today. In fact, the only time this would ever work now is when it’s done intentionally to mimic this archaic style of writing, such as in Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon. Yet as I wrote recently, you probably need to have the gravitas of Stephen King to pull this off. Everyone else should avoid it. Like the plague.

So my suggestion to authors is to stay away from third-person omniscient at all costs. This might not apply to every type of literature, including literary fiction. But in my view, fantasy and historical fiction is best told through the third-person limited or first-person viewpoints. As for third-person omniscient, I have only one word: B-bye.


Anonymous said...

Great post! Good book on the subject of narrative voice and viewpoint is The Rhetoric of Fiction -- difficult and controversial -- but you can skim it for great studies of narrative voice in particular works.

Joseph Finley said...

Thanks for the comment! And thanks for recommending The Rhetoric of Fiction. I'll check it out.