Third-person omniscient can be your friend

The optional book I chose on the urban/multicultural list for my recent YA Lit class was Andy Mulligan’s Trash, which I read in a couple of hours over one Shabbos. I loved the story itself (a mystery involving political corruption which three young slum boys get drawn into), but I found the narration itself beyond annoying.

There are a total of EIGHT first-person narrators through the book, three of whom only get one chapter each. I already forget who one of those narrators, Grace, even was. A couple of the last chapters even bop around between three or four of the narrators! And the hand-offs and identifications at the start of each chapter felt very awkward and silly. “Me again!” “Now me!” “My turn!” “Still me.” “I’m handing it over to Name now.” “This is Name.”

Overall, I found it rather sad evidence of the decline of third-person omniscient in modern literature, at least in the English-speaking world. Either we now have an entire generation of writers who genuinely have no clue how to write third-person omniscient because they’ve never read it or written it, or a lot of writers these days have written it off as old-fashioned and unnecessary. This was so clearly a book that would’ve worked very well in third-person omniscient, but no, it could only be first-person, split up EIGHT ways. Seriously, not every book NEEDS to be first-person!

I’ve certainly read books that worked very well with different narrators or POV characters, or that had sections that were alternately first- and third-person. But that always seemed like a conscious decision that worked well with how the book was structured and written, not something done to go along with a trend. I’ve honestly reached a point where I genuinely wonder if so many writers these days are only using first-person present tense and/or alternating narrators because they feel it’s expected, no matter how ill-suited that might be to their particular story.

I love third-person omniscient, and couldn’t imagine not writing in it. It lets me fully get to know all of my characters, not just one or two, and to easily slip into anyone’s mind instead of being limited in scope. This isn’t to be confused with so-called “head-hopping.” You’re not doing third-person omniscient properly if you’re constantly bopping from character to character in every other line or paragraph. But it does mean you can explore everyone’s thoughts and motivations, instead of leaving things a mystery or not properly understood.

It also seems very old-fashioned to be a completely omniscient narrator in God mode, saying things like “the stupid woman” or “he idiotically believed the lie.” That’s not letting the reader use his or her own judgment or imagination as to motivations and consequences. It also doesn’t mean giving away spoilers or pivotal plot points (coughthebookthiefcough), like “Little did she know she would never get married, but that she would die six months before her wedding” or “In three months, all these characters you’ve just met are going to die!”

The way I structure third-person omniscient is to have one uniting storyline and set of characters, and gradually tie in the various subplots and secondary characters with the main events and people. That way, you can spend a chapter or scene away from the main action, building towards the coming-together of everyone and everything. Bopping around among three or more narrators or POV characters, one chapter at a time, isn’t something I’m a fan of. Those kinds of books feel disjointed and schizophrenic to me.

It’s easier, in my experience, to give each character a distinctive personality and voice in third-person omniscient. It’s much harder to do that with EIGHT, I repeat, EIGHT competing first-person narrators. First-person is tricky enough to do well already (contrary to a current belief that it’s somehow easier), but you really have to nail it to pull off multiple narrators.

I’m always excited when I find a current book that’s third-person omniscient, or even just third-person period. I really hope there’s a movement back towards the tried and true default of the past. There’s a reason it was considered the literary default till very recently, just as there was a reason most literature was in the past tense and present tense was only used very selectively.

4 comments on “Third-person omniscient can be your friend

  1. Julie Luek says:

    I read the prize winning and widely acclaimed “A Visit From the Good Squad” with the same frustration. As a deliberate technique every point of view was offered–first,third, even second. While the book had some beautiful writing and was culturally reflective, the changes in POV were, yes, disjointed. I finished the book but never felt connected to the story or characters. There are some interesting trends out there.

  2. I have never tried first person, nor do I want to try. I don’t want to be in my character’s head THAT much.

  3. My first book is multiple third person, the second single first person, the third will be back to multiple third. I found with omniscient it was hard to keep track of who I was using at the time. I think it depends on the book and the purpose of the story.

  4. I’ve tried a little bit of everything and I like it all. It really just depends on the book. I read a little bit of everything. :)

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