Saturday, December 11, 2010

Omniscient and/or multiple First Person Point of View and Voice

I notice more and more examples now of stories being told in multiple first person point of view. In the AUT Masters of Creative Writing class I mentored and taught on this year there was an excellent example by one of the students, where she used this form to bring out multiple perceptions which gave the story as a whole many possible realities as there was no one voice or perspective a reader could take as some kind of objective truth.

This is not a new form though it’s becoming more prevalent as authors break further away from the traditional omniscient narrator -  a single entity and presence in the story (though not an individualized character in it) who knows and has the power to tell all. Omniscient is one of the oldest Points of View, derived from folk tales and mythology and the work of the Epic Poets. Originally along the lines of:

Oh gather around me men of the land and I shall tell thee a tale of triumph and tragedy.

Or more recently something like:

Spofforth was an irascible boy, as such boys – as we will discover – are want to be.

These openings are really almost a way of saying:

Once upon a time…

The examples (the first two poorly written, by my own hand) above are as much examples of Omniscient Voice as they are Point of View. An omniscient voice feels like a human presence, a perspective, with biases and quirks and foibles and fixations. It’s palpable, not neutral. If you want neutral of voice, go for Third Person Limited (note my post on the work of Kent Haruf.) Not all stories that are omniscient in the scope of their perspective are omniscient of voice. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace with its 500 named (!) characters has to be omniscient point of view by default, because of its sheer size, but the voice is calm, restrained, often quite objective, doesn’t really sound like a palpable overlord presence, but more like the voices of many of the individual characters.

Modern readers by and large seem happier to juggle multiple truths, and try and look for their own truth somewhere in those multiples. This could be because of the influence of other media like cinema where the viewer is right on the edge of the scene, almost with their toes touching the edges of the story’s ocean, and have to find their own way in the scene by the clues laid down by visual symbols, dialogue and the subtext they sense beneath and around the text.

Omniscient narration hasn’t died out altogether and won’t. It’s still popular in magic realist novels, in sagas with great scope of time and place, often in Fantasy works. Satire is a natural home of omniscient, where the narrator’s worldview, usually mirroring the author’s, is critical to the tartness of the story and its context. In satire the author is usually trying to make a point, often ironic, or by using black comedy. The Harry Potter books are an excellent example of contemporary omniscient. Others would be: the work of Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. In Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude there are passages where the narrative perspective shifts into several different characters’ perspectives and thoughts in a single sentence. That’s because the thoughts are never really the characters’, but the narrator’s perception of them. To be honest it can be a basket of handgrenades in the hands of the unwary. Not everyone can do it, not everyone enjoys reading it. Sometimes because the voice ‘nags’, sometimes because the omniscient narrator often goes too far in explaining and leaves no room for the reader to come to their understanding. Omniscient can all too easily slip into:

                And the moral of this story is…
Multiple first person is omniscient’s polar opposite. There is no promise of a master position, or meta-knowledge. Everything is individual perception, brought out in individualized vernacular voice. The reader gains the position (to a degree) of the omniscient narrator only after taking in the totality of the story.  Even then the inherent ambiguity of hearing the ‘truth’ from several biased sources leaves that process of understanding the story’s themes and meanings to the reader. 

Examples of excellent work in multiple first person would be: William Faulkner, ‘As I lay Dying’ written way back in 1930. Graham Swift, ‘Last Orders’ from 1995, Junot Diaz’ ‘The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,’ from 2007, and a fine example from Aotearoa, Lisa Cherrington’s ‘The People Faces,’ from 2004. 
 Things to consider if you’re thinking of trying omniscient.
  • Do you have a single storytelling voice that’s interesting, perhaps idiosyncratic (but not to the point of annoyance) that you can sustain over a large group of characters?
  • Will the master storyteller’s voice actually enhance your story – to the degree that first or third person (limited/subjective) wouldn’t?
  • Are you sure you’re doing it for the good of the story and not just because you want to play God?
Things to consider if you’re thinking of trying multiple first person:

  • Can you find differences in the individual characters’ vernacular voices?
  • Do you want to have potential multiplicity of perception and meaning?
  • Are you comfortable that no one entity will likely possess any degree of objective truth?
Both omniscient and multiple first person can add richness and depth to a story – in very different ways. As an exercise, if you’re backgrounding a short story, say 3000 words, try the first few paragraphs or pages in both omniscient and multiple first person. The obvious difference is that – in terms of character – omniscient is writing from the outside in, multiple first person is from the inside out. See which way serves the story. You’ll discover different things, in different ways. Think of those discoveries from both angles, how it works for you and how you think it’ll work for your reader. 


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