Tuesday, May 3, 2011

In Defense of the Know-It-All

I recently had to read an excerpt of something (an unpublished something, I hasten to add) that had two characters and three points-of-view.  Most of the scene was in the older detective's POV, a sentence or two was in the younger detective's POV, and in two places I got the omniscient narrator.  Wow, I thought -- you don't see many of them around any more.

The omniscient narrator is your parent reading you a bedtime story:  "Once upon a time..."  It's a kindly, compassionate soul with no role of his (or her) own in the story, but with the ability to see everything that's going on, and the wisdom to know which bits you -- the reader -- need and want to know.

It's also almost universally decried in romance novels these days.  Avoriana, over at The Indigo Menace, didn't finish a Joan Wolf Regency, The London Season, because, "The tone was like a fable or Roald Dahl."  Now I'll have to reread The London Season to see if what Avoriana means is that the book was written with an omniscient narrator.  (Incidentally, it could be she was talking about something totally different.  I'm just guessing here.)

I recently loaned my copy of Mira Stables' Lissa to Janet W., who didn't like it much and dutifully sent it back.  I must not have felt very tidy last week because it was still lying around when I was snatching up books for a trip.  So I reread it.  It's one of the best examples of the omniscient narrator I can imagine, mostly because Stables was clearly committed to maintaining that measured distance from all the characters.  She describes precisely what's happening and, in the same careful voice, what everyone's feeling.

Yes, that narrative distance blunts the emotional force of the book.  In a conventional romance, it would seem stuffy and old-fashioned.  But in a Regency romance -- particularly one with a plot that requires some suspension of disbelief -- it's perfect.  With the currently popular deep POV, Lissa would have seemed implausible and overwrought.

Here's the plot:  Lissa Wayburn is the foster-daughter of a middle-class widow in a village.  Everyone knows that Lissa's different and they assume that she's the base-born daughter of a member of the nobility.  She's 16 when the book starts; ready to go into service.  But she's not quite right to be a parlor maid and soon enough she's back on her foster mother's doorstep.

Our hero is Jervase, Viscount Stapleford, heir to the marquisate of Wrelf.  The current marquis is Jervase's grandfather, and as the book starts, he's tearing into Jervase for a regrettable taste in politics (all that republican nonsense from the Colonies and the Continent) and women.  Jervase accepts his punishment: banishment to Stapleford Place, where his sister, Lady Mary, is currently immured.

Lady Mary is a bit younger than Lissa, but the association seems to improve Mary's mood so much that Jervase encourages it and even engages Lissa as a companion for his sister.

Here's where the omniscient narrator becomes extremely useful.  We trust the storytelling, which means we believe what we're told about the characters.  Lissa is painfully good.  Not priggish but actually a good person, one who wants to help and feels quite acutely the risk that her presence could hurt the viscount.  In deep POV, she'd be intolerable -- not to mention unbelievable.  But she makes the perfect heroine for a fairy tale.

Our know-it-all narrator also helps out with the rather complicated plot, most of which happened before the book begins and is explained at the end.  What's between the covers is actually fairly simple:  Boy meets girl, feels kindly towards her, wants to help her out, in the course of which he falls in love.  Girl meets boy, has a crush on him, sees that perhaps her situation might hurt him, and worries what to do.  Boy can't marry girl without upsetting his grandfather; girl can't dishonor her foster mother by accepting a carte blanche.

Of course, by the end of the book it will be revealed that Lissa isn't a nobleman's by-blow.  Again, in deep POV the explanation would be ludicrous.  But the mellow certainty of our kindly narrator ensures our trust.

In the end, I would argue that we have a charming love story.  Angsty?  Not especially -- emotional fervency is lost or blunted with omniscient narration.  But for a story like this, a story where all the characters are different from each other and from us, the omniscient narrator does a nice job indeed of telling us what happened once upon a time.


  1. I miss the omniscient narrator. I agree, there are books where it just works. That being said, I'm not sure how I would react to an omniscient narrator p.o.v. mixing with characters' p.o.v.

  2. Switching POV back and forth is pretty horrible, I'll tell you. It was a bit of fiction someone's working on in my critique group -- a novel within a novel, so it was presented as "Chapter One" as written by the real book's protagonist. I couldn't tell -- maybe the protagonist is a lousy writer and the head-hopping was evidence of that...?

  3. You're right, the point of view must have been third person omniscient. I couldn't put my finger on what gave me that sense of distance from the story. I just knew that something was different that I wasn't expecting. I really felt held at arm's length, and like someone was reporting events to me instead of me experiencing them as I read. I felt like I was watching the characters as marionette dolls. I'm not used to it.

  4. Since I am a Victorianist, I love 3rd person omniscient--or maybe it's the other way around. It can have many different tones/"personalities"/voices, so avoriana might find a different omniscient narrator worked for her.

    I think my love of this narrative POV is why "head-hopping" doesn't bother me that much. Most 19th century omniscient narrators move in and out of different characters' points of view and report their thoughts. Pride and Prejudice is a good example. The first sentence, among others, is clearly the narrator's voice, we mainly see Elizabeth's thoughts/POV, but in a few passages we do get Darcy's. I've got to try that Joan Wolf now and see what I think.

  5. Avoriana - I get it, and that distance can feel very jarring after the immersion of deep POV (also called limited third person POV) where we're really supposed to see/hear/know/feel only what the POV characters sees/hears/knows/feels.

    It's not that one way is right and one way is wrong -- although a contemporary romance in third person omniscient would seem rather odd -- but the distance gained with omniscience can seem particularly odd after the intensity of being in someone's head/body.

    Liz -- I do think historical fiction, and in particular the shorter form romances set in 19th century England, is a good place for omniscient narration. But wouldn't paranormals be equally well served with omniscience? Because what I realized when I thought about Lissa was that the omniscience kept me from thinking too much about all the ways in which Lissa and Jervase weren't creatures of the 21st century. Believe me, that's a compliment!

    Well, I'm not a huge fan of the fangs-and-fur genres, but maybe I would like them more if I wasn't expected to be inside the head of a completely alien species!


Hi. This is a moribund blog, so it gets spammed from time to time. Please feel free to comment, but know that your comment may take a few hours to appear simply as a result of the spam blocking in place.