Sometimes I'm strolling through the writing world, and I'm like what the what is with the writing industry's terms? There are "terms" that mean different things to different writers. Regularly, I feel like there should be more terms for things that happen in writing that don't have names, and the terms we have should be more specific. So then on my blog I have to make up more terms for mechanics (like "micro-concepts"), which I'm sure other people have done too, and that's why some terms are so ambiguous. It's like there needs to be some kind of writing-term dictator to make everything the same across the board.
That's how I feel about omniscient viewpoint. I've heard five different definitions of it, so today I'm going to break them down into five types.
If you start searching online about what omniscient point of view is, you won't have to go far until you get different definitions of it--and consistently the same three, four, or five definitions of it.
To me (probably because this is how I first learned it), omniscient is what I defined in my third-person viewpoint post. But other people might think of the other definitions I've seen.
So here are the five uses/types of omniscient I've found. And again, it will get confusing, because it will seem to contradict what I've said in my other POV posts (particularly my third-person one), because of the ambiguity of some writerly terms, but this is the best way I can break it down for this post. So all I can say is that the way I used the terms for my third-person post were how they worked in that post, and the way I use the terms in this post is how they work in this post.
Really though, terms are just a way of explaining a concept in few words, so what really matters is that you understand the concepts, even if the terminology is inconsistent.
Third-Person Omniscient (What I Call "Close Third-Person")
Some writers consider any third-person writing that includes characters' thoughts or feeling to be omniscient. And really, they're right. This definition basically means we can see into the protagonist's (or maybe other characters') thoughts. In my college classes, people often said Harry Potter was written in third-person omniscient. It's third-person, and we know Harry's thoughts, so there you go.
To me, this definition of omniscient is what I call writing in "close third-person" (a term also used by other writers). It has to do with the point of view penetration spectrum I did a post on here. You can read an example of it in that link, but here is another example from Christopher Poalini's Eragon:
Eragon had to stop his hand from reaching up to feel the tips of his ears. How else will this dragon change my life? Not only has it gotten inside my head, it's altering my body as well!
This "third-person omniscient" definition simply means we have access to thoughts and feeling. Period.
Frankly, though, almost all third-person stories in today's world do that, which is another reason why I don't like to think of this definition as THE definition of omniscient point of view. I feel like it's more useful to use the term elsewhere.
Going off my penetration spectrum the only third-person that isn't considered omniscient by this definition is what I call "distant third-person," which is when the narrator never gets in the characters' heads. Not at all. The Maltese Falcon and a lot of other traditional crime fiction stories are good examples of this.
(I made that term up.) This definition of omniscient means that the narrator (not the viewpoint character) is definitely guiding the reader through the story. The narrator can jump around space and time and even into all the characters' heads (or no heads at all). He (or she) can fly the reader over landscapes when he wants. She can guide you so that you know exactly what is going on in the story. It's like the narrator is a god. She's not restricted to a specific viewpoint character, so she can see into the mind of anyone or everyone in the scene, and then mention things that no one in the scene knows or notices.
Usually this type of narration uses a lot of telling, which I think is why it's hard to pull off in this day and age. J.K. Rowling I believe uses this type of omniscient in The Casual Vacancy.
Really, in this type of omniscient, the narrator may or may not tell characters' thoughts (which is another reason why I like to keep point of view penetration mostly separate from point of view itself, because they really function as two different things). But they almost always do include the thoughts.
Here is an example of the Guiding Omniscient from The Moneychangers by Arthur Hailey. Notice how the narrator, not a viewpoint character is directing the story and notice how it jumps around:
It was on a Tuesday of that week that old Ben Rosselli . . . telephoned a few of his senior executives early in the morning. . . . To each the message was the same: Please be in the Headquarters Tower boardroom at 11 A.M.
Now all except Ben were assembled in the boardroom, twenty or so, talking quietly in groups, waiting. . . .
A voice cut sharply across the talk. "Who authorized that?"
Heads turned. Roscoe Heyward, executive vice-president and comptroller, had addressed a white-coated waiter from the senior officers' dining. The man had come in with decanters of sherry . . . .
Now Alex Vandervoort took two glasses of sherry, passing on to Edwina D'Orsey . . . Edwina saw Heyward glance toward her, disapproving. Well, it made little difference, she thought. Roscoe knew she was a loyalist in the Vandervoort camp.
Let's look at all the characters we jump to as our focus. You could almost say they are viewpoint characters, but we are only in their viewpoint for a few sentences:
It was on a Tuesday of that week that old Ben Rosselli [Focus] . . . telephoned a few of his senior executives early in the morning. . . . To each the message was the same: Please be in the Headquarters Tower boardroom at 11 A.M.
Now all except Ben were assembled in the boardroom, twenty or so, talking quietly in groups, waiting. . . . [No focus character]
A voice cut sharply across the talk. "Who authorized that?"
Heads turned. Roscoe Heyward [Focus], executive vice-president and comptroller, had addressed a white-coated waiter from the senior officers' dining. The man had come in with decanters of sherry . . . .
Now Alex Vandervoort [Focus] took two glasses of sherry, passing on to Edwina D'Orsey . . . Edwina saw [Focus] Heyward glance toward her, disapproving. Well, it made little difference, she thought. Roscoe knew she was a loyalist in the Vandervoort camp.
Again, this term is one I'm pretty sure I made up, but I've been using it in my head for over five years. This kind of omniscient could probably work as a subcategory of the "Guided Omniscient," but the prose can have such a different feel that I just decided to make it its own category.
To me, this kind of omniscience happens when the narrator is actually (or nearly) a character in the story, a character in her own right, but behaves like the god-like Guided Omniscient Narrator. They are not the protagonist. They are the one telling the story, but they are also a character in the story. This is like The Book Thief, where Death is the narrator of the story, but he's also a person and a player in the story. Death can go all over the place--he offers a god-like point of view.
I feel the same way about The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. Lemony Snicket is very much the narrator of the story, but he can tell you all the thoughts of all three main characters and then some. He can tell you how the story ends when you are only on chapter three. He can make allusions to the past or future or even tell jokes or a personal story as he pleases. What's interesting is that he's also an off-screen character in the plot. He is a player of that world, not just the storyteller.
This kind of omniscient narrator may have no problem breaking the fourth wall. She may address the reader directly, or even make fun of the protagonist, which I've see done before.
Here is a Lemony Snicket example:
I only tell you that the story goes this way because you are about to become acquainted with rude, violent, filthy Carmelita Spats, and if you can't stand reading about her, you had best put this book down and read something else, because it only get worse from here. . . .
"Get out of my way, you cakesniffers!" said a rude, violent, and filthy little girl, shoving the Baudelaire orphans as she dashed by. . . .
Shyness is a curious thing, because like quicksand, it can strike people at any time, and also like quicksand, it usually makes its victims look down.
This is a definition of omniscient that I've only seen recently, but I've seen it in several different places, so I'll include it here (again, I made up the term).
This type of omniscient is somewhat the opposite of what I call the First-person Omniscient. The definition I've heard is that this one is simply like writing in third-person, but you keep the narrator's voice the same throughout. Of course, that part overlaps with the Guided Omniscient and the First-person Omniscient--the former will likely, mostly, have the same voice throughout and the latter should always have the same voice throughout.
Some people might be thinking, well, isn't that everything?
No. Some third-person stories are written in very, very close viewpoint with multiple viewpoint characters, and so the prose take on the voice of the character whose viewpoint we are in at the time.
An example of the Invisible Omniscient would be The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, where the prose have the same, consistent voice of the narrator throughout, rather than taking on the voice of Lyra.
Like the Third-Person Omniscient category, this category, to me, really has to do more with point of view penetration and the points your narrator is at on that spectrum than in does point of view itself.
So, for example, in The Golden Compass, the narrator might take us to Points 1, 2, or 3, on the spectrum, but never Point 4.
Also with The Golden Compass, the narrator doesn't necessarily flit about, from place to place or character head to character head. The narrator might stay with the same character the whole time.
To some, the narration in The Golden Compass is the definition of omniscient.
Here is an example:
Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. The three great tables that ran the length of the hall were laid already, the silver and the glass catching what little light there was, and the long benches were pulled out ready for the guests. . . .The places here were laid with gold, not silver, and the fourteen seats were not oak benches but mahogany chairs with velvet cushions.
Lyra stopped beside the Master's chair and flicked the biggest glass gently with a fingernail. The sound rang clearly through the hall.
"You're not taking this seriously," whispered her dæmon. "Behave yourself."
Her dæmon's name was Pantalaimon, and he was currently in the form of a moth, a dark brown one so as not to show up in the darkness of the hall.
Third-Person Omniscient (II) (What I Call "Third-Person, Multiple Viewpoints")
Oi! In preparing for this post, I found a fifth definition of omniscient viewpoint, again, going by the term "Third-Person Omniscient." This one states that third-person omniscient simply means that the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters, as opposed to third-person limited, where the narrator only knows the thoughts and feelings of one character.
In my mind, Third-Person Omniscient (II) is really just "third-person with multiple viewpoints," like I stated here.
But I guess an example of this definition would be Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy, which has multiple viewpoint characters with all levels of the character penetration spectrum.
So those are the five definitions of omniscient I've run into. And if you ever thought omniscient was one thing and someone said it was another, it's probably because we have so many different meanings for the same term--you may have been both right. The insanity! Where is that writing-term dictator we all need? And please don't tell me there is another definition of it out there somewhere. What definition do you think of when you hear "omniscient"?