By Bonnie Stanard
Most of us in workshop choose to narrate our stories either from first person or third person limited, but I’m attempting an omniscient point of view (POV) with an historical fiction story.
When we talk about an omniscient narrator, there’s quite a difference between writers of the 21st Century and those of the 19th century. It has to do with the distance the narrator establishes between himself and his story.
While omniscient narrators such as Dickens, Hardy, and Twain wrote with the confidence of a reporter, the progression has moved away from perceived “facts” and toward the articulation of our interior being. This approach to telling a story was ushered in by James Joyce’s groundbreaking Ulysses and was made accessible by Virginia Wolfe’s novels.
The closing of this distance between narrator and character evolved in tandem with a changing cultural climate. The unity of traditions of the 19th century has been eroded by the coming of modern science and technology, which have in turn brought into question parameters of every sort. Once we thought time and motion had exactitude, that the real world was stable. Since Einstein, we’ve discovered the fluidity of reality. Even things like age, sex, and morality have become relative. Readers are suspect of the facts of other people, be they artists, preachers, politicians or novelists.
As the complexity of daily life adds to our ambivalence, writers have pushed ever closer to the workings of human thought and consciousness. This includes narrators of omniscient, first person, and third limited POV.
An aside on POV: if a writer doesn’t understand the role of a narrator, it is obvious in his work. The most common error is “head hopping” which is blindly telling a story in buckshot fashion. That is to say, the writer doesn’t know who his narrator is.
CHAOS AND TECHNOLOGY
Two last thoughts on why narrators are changing. Over 80 per cent of Americans live in urban areas. The average reader no longer lives or works near nature. The urban experience has ushered in congestion and chaos, which have driven narrators to focus inward.
At the same time, the novelist’s portrayal of our physical surroundings has been usurped by ubiquitous visual media. Narrators of contemporary fiction who describe typical settings are competing with images we see on television and computers. You can guess where that leaves the writer.
Regardless of how beleaguered we are by our environment; or how much scenery we see on the screen; or how much dialogue we hear in movies and television, there’s little communication of the interior life of humans. This is where writers can be important.