Omniscient Point of View: Benefits and Pitfalls
Often called the god-perspective, omniscient is the all-knowing point of view. Here the narrator knows and sees everything each of the characters is thinking, feeling, doing, etc. On the same point of view spectrum as third person, omniscient uses “he,” “she,” “they,” “his,” “her,” and “their” pronouns. Neil Gaiman uses this point of view in Norse Mythology. The story “Mirmir’s Head and Odin’s Eye” has the lines:
But when Mimir was not with him, Hoenir seemed unable to come to a decision, and the Vanir soon tired of this. They took their revenge, not on Hoenir but on Mimir: they cut off Mimir’s head and sent it to Odin. Odin was not angry (46-47).
Here Gaiman is not in any single character’s point of view. Instead, a narrator is telling the story to the reader and revealing what all of the characters are thinking and feeling, making the narrator all-knowing; therefore Gaiman is using omniscient point of view.
Pros of Omniscient Point of View
Thoughts from All
One of the most useful aspects of omniscient point of view is the author’s ability to show the reader what all of the characters are doing, thinking, and feeling. The author is able to tell a story larger than any one character and doesn’t have to pick a central character to act as a lens for the story. This means events can take place the main character is unaware of, but the reader gets to see. By giving the reader knowledge about the other characters, their motivation, and events in the story, the author creates dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is when the reader thinks something like “No, don’t go in there!” because they know the monster is waiting behind the door. The horror genre is known for this.
Backstory Made Easy
Another similar advantage to omniscient is the ease of world-building and backstory presentation. Because the narrator knows all, they can simply tell the reader the necessary backstory for a certain character or zoom out and show the world before zooming back in on the central characters. Writers don’t have to go into a flashback or invent situations where characters need to explain aspects of the world to each other in order to reveal needed information. They can just say it. Stephen King often uses the omniscient perspective to show the town featured in his horror stories. This is one way he makes his settings characters in their own right. His novel Carrie begins with a newspaper article followed by the town’s perspective:
No one was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow. On the surface, all the girls in the shower room were shocked, thrilled, ashamed, or simply glad that the white bitch had taken it in the mouth again . . . What none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic (3-4).
Here King uses omniscient point of view to show how the town and other girls felt about rocks falling on Carrie’s house and reveal that Carrie has special abilities. By using this perspective, King is able to reveal a lot of information upfront without going into a scene to demonstrate it.
Omniscient point of view really lets the author’s voice shine. Because the story isn’t filtered through a character, the writer is able to use their full vocabulary, syntax skill, and mastery of the craft. They are not limited by the knowledge and abilities of their central character.
Cons for Omniscient Point of View
Distance and Clarity
Many of the cons of omniscient point of view stem from the distance it creates between the reader and the story and make it one of the more difficult points of view to pull off. Because the narrator is all-knowing, they can see into every character’s head. By showing too many characters’ thoughts and emotions back-to-back, the piece becomes head-hoppy. Gaiman head-hops in the earlier example by telling the reader what the Vanir thought (being tired of Hoenir’s incompetence) and how Odin felt (anger). I believe he pulled it off; however, head hopping must be kept to a minimum to avoid confusing the reader.
If the reader no longer knows who is thinking what and is uncertain which character they should care about, they become confused. A branding instructor once told me when people are given too many options, they become confused, and confused people choose none of the options. If there are too many characters for a reader to care about, they will choose to care about none. Even in omniscient point of view, there must be a focal point, a main character.
Writers can swing too far the other way in omniscient pieces. If they don’t show enough of the character’s inner thoughts and emotions, readers might again wonder why and who they should care about. They will feel too removed from the story and wonder whose story it is. At this point the reader may think the story is boring and stop reading. In these ways, the distance of omniscient point of view is its greatest weakness.
An Editor’s thoughts on Omniscient Point of View
Omniscient is the oldest point of view. It was used by Homer, Shakespeare, and other famous authors. It is ingrained in the mythology and fables of many societies, so it is often associated with story-telling. If a writer wishes to create the feeling of “once upon a time” type stories, omniscient is an excellent point of view. Modern stories using omniscient include Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, many of Stephen King’s novels like Carrie, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, and Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine.
In modern literature, omniscient point of view is rarely used. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres employ it more often than other genres for its world building and dramatic irony advantages. I find omniscient most successful when it isn’t the sole point of view. If your story is about a greater world, would benefit from an all-knowing narrator and dramatic irony, and needs your authorial voice, omniscient point of view may be the best choice to Ignite Your Ink.
What are some stories you’ve come across that use omniscient point of view? What are your thoughts on its pros and cons? Let me know in the comments and subscribe to Ignite Your Ink for a free chart comparing the points of view.
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Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.