What killed omniscient POV?

Today's post is inspired by a conversation I had with Simon Larter and Jordan McCollum in the comments of Subtle Narration in the Graveyard Book.

Omniscient viewpoint, where the narrator can access the thoughts in every character's head, was popular in older literature. Nowadays, however, most books are written in a limited viewpoint, confined to the thoughts of one or a few characters. (Just to complicate things, limited POV with multiple narrators is also called Limited Omniscient, but for the purposes of this article, I'm just referring to the godlike omniscient narrator).

So lets speculate. What do you think killed omniscient point of view?

A few possibilities from our discussion:

1. It's a natural progression. The visual arts progressed from 2D cartoonlike ancient and medieval drawings to realistic 3D images as artists learned from the ones who came before them. Perhaps similarly, the art of storytelling has progressed from omniscient viewpoint to a more realistic limited viewpoint. (Jason Black has an interesting post on a similar idea.)

2. Changing societal norms. In How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James Frey says that society was important in Victorian times. Therefore, it was important to know everybody's thoughts in order to get society's viewpoint. Is limited POV on the rise now because society's role is less important?

3.Individualism - This is related to point two. Perhaps a rise in individualistic culture makes modern readers want to identify with one person at a time.

4. Freud - Is it the rise of Freudian thought and the desire to know the various motivations, conscious and subconscious, within an individual?

5. Just random chance - Or maybe we're overthinking things, and limited POV is popular for the same reason bellbottoms were popular in the seventies and crocs were popular a few years ago.

What do you think? Are there any literature folks who know of research on this?


  1. I'm not sure that it's dead, exactly, though it seems to emerge more frequently in something called "free indirect" narration which can include some third person omniscience.

    But I think you hit on the major points--it's an issue of fashion, style, and influence. A lot of young adult and children's fantastic literature use it and it's one of the dominant modes in epic novels.

    There are some that will argue that what we considered third person omniscient is rarely that--free indirect is the more usual mode when not using first person narration. Some argue that Austen--thought of, traditionally as employing an omniscient point of view--was actually developing a free-indirect style.

    Limited POV I think is also an extension of a shift in consciousness which values subjectivity over objectivity, pluralism over homogenity.

    I'd argue that the most dominant mode is actually free indirect and that includes omniscient point of view.

  2. Society seems attracted to experiencing things. Reading limited pov is more like experiencing thoughts, feelings, and action along with a character.

  3. I'd say that an omniscient POV is very difficult to get right unless you already possess some skill as a writer.

    Also, I think to a degree we've become conditioned to deep-third so that stepping out of that can be quite jarring.

    Just as some don't like first-person narratives, the same cuts for omniscient, and authors either have the knack for it... or they don't.

    That being said, I must admit struggling with Frank Herbert's DUNE because I didn't want to know what everyone was thinking. I got used to it about a quarter of the way in, but not without a fair amount of kicking and screaming on my part.

  4. A couple other thoughts I'd add to the mix, as you mention less importance on how society as a whole is thinking and functioning, people have (of course) also become much more focused on the self. This obviously means wanting to focus on the self, the protagonist, but there's also something to be said for reader proxy, wanting the individual experience of diving into a character's viewpoint. Omniscient just doesn't offer that same experience of diving into a story and being the centre of the action.

    Likewise I think we should also look at the influence of film culture on the novel. Even if a film takes a more omniscient role in storytelling, there's still a title character and central focus, and I think readers at large tend to picture themselves in that central way in their lives now, so we expect that same experience in fiction, immersed in the star character and being inside the central focus.

  5. I'm wondering if the spread of genre fiction had anything to do with it. Since the conventions of mystery writing, horror, sci-fi, and fantasy often dictate a single, deep-3rd or close-3rd person POV (outside of deliberate epics), 3rd omniscient might have become relegated to lit fic.

    Of course, a combination of factors is likely what has led to the shift. However, I'd lean toward Freudian/post-modern solipsism as a larger factor than the others--we're so used to being inside ourselves and self-analyzing that in fiction we tend to play that out, even if only in our characters.

    Intriguing topic, good lady! Thanks for the brain-food this afternoon.

  6. I think a lot of it has to do with fashion and pendulum swings. What was old will be new again. It will interesting to see how this trend will change with time :)

  7. Doesn't the transition from nineteenth century all-knowing narrator to twentieth/twenty-first century unreliable narrator reflect the historical collapse of the idea of absolute knowledge, and the rise of epistemological relativism? A development that we experience day-to-day in the disputes between religious fundamentalists of various hues, and the rest of society. Today any 'serious' writer adopting an omniscient point-of-view would be interpreted as being satirical in some way.

    Cheers, Martin

  8. I think it's about living vicariously.

    Fiction is inherently escapism. It's the chance, for a few hours, not to have to deal with your own life. It's the fun of living someone else's life for a while.

    Omniscient POV works against those motives for reading fiction in the first place. It's hard to really feel like you're living someone else's life when the author is head-hopping.

    But third-person limited POV and first-person POV play directly into those escapist reader motives. They're much more suited to putting you right in that character's shoes from cover to cover.

    Ultimately, those POVs do a better job of giving the reader what they were after to begin with--an experience--and that's why we're seeing them succeed.

    Oh, and thanks for the link! For anyone who is wrestling with this in their own writing, I have another article on POV selection here:


  9. Maybe it was the movies. Following one primary POV throughout a picture, maybe this is one case where books followed the storytelling mechanism popularized by the constraints of film.

  10. Hang on. What are you implying about crocs?

  11. Lol, I was worried I was on thin ice with that one, Kelly :-)

  12. I think first person or third-person, one POV is easier to write. I ghosted a teen series with five main characters, and had no choice but to use omniscient narrator because each character had to have equal prominence. It was a headache because it was so hard to pull off and potentially distancing! What I usually did was engineer the scenes so that most of the time it was just a couple of the characters together, thus allowing me to focus on the dynamics of what was going on just between those two. But it was exhausting.

  13. Me: Very interesting post! (All this analytical detail is hurting my head.)

    Myself: Head hopping reminds me of soap operas - overly dramatic glares, no dialog. (I hope they think I know what I'm talking about)

    I: I do like to use it in certain scenarios. (I don't know why I just said that - what an idiot-- where's the erase button on this thing!?#*)

  14. howdidugetthere- Lol, I have some colleagues who study multiple personality disorder. Can I pass on your contact information to them? j/k :-)

  15. Perhaps society has evolved to the point where most readers can reliably use "theory of mind" to infer intentions and motives of characters.

    It'd be interesting to see whether readers on the autism spectrum, particularly with Asperger's, are more fond of reading books written in the omniscient POV.

  16. Anonymous 7:03 -- Don't go anywhere. Tomorrow's post is on theory of mind. :-)

  17. Olive Kitteredge has different points of view in every chapter. I would call the narrator omniscient even if not like 19th C. ONs.

    The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a whirl of viewpoints because it's all letters.

    These are mainstream best selling books that don't stay in an one person's head at all. The point is: stream of consciousness isn't all that popular either.

  18. As we are increasingly shown up not to have all the answers, to be omniscient is simply unbelievable for a reader to credit. narratives tend to be more fragmentary, reflecting our own mere partial knowledge and partiality as observers.

    We no longer believe in God either in the main, so that's also another prop removed from the possibility of omniscience

    marc nash

  19. Or... as a scientist, would you not agree that 'reality' is just a convenient consensus and that in a quantum world there simply is no omniscience, in fact the very opposite, a just don't knowness...

    time for writers to consider the implications of quantum world on our own approaches to language.

  20. Sulci Collective -- that's an interesting question. I'm not a physicist, but I find it hard to extrapolate from quantum mechanics principles to applications to reality or God. It's a very large leap. My husband is an astrophysicist -- and he might be more equipped to answer questions like these. I've never asked him about it, but he's a practicing Christian (as am I), so I'm guessing that he doesn't draw that conclusion either.

  21. Sulci-- I do think you might be onto something with your thoughts regarding how the postmodern worldview doesn't like hard realities, and thus might make an omniscient viewpoint unappealing to modern readers.

  22. Um, since when has it been dead? I have books in my library now that have been published in the last couple of years that are in omni. Many children's books are written in it because it has a natural story telling quality to it. A lot of thrillers are also written in--heck, the book I'm working on is in it, and I ran into an editor who talked about changing a third person book to omni because it was better for the story. I will say that the viewpoint has evolved from the earlier version of it, just like first person evolved from what I saw when I was reading growing up. Clive Cussler and Vince Flynn both write in omni; so does Tamora Pierce (also first person). Lemony Snicket was in omni, as was Harry Potter. It most often turns up in thrillers and young adult.

  23. Linda -- You're right, there was some head hopping in Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lionness quartet -- thanks for the reminder. And The Graveyard Book uses omniscience as well ( I had a post on it a few weeks back). I don't remember any in Harry Potter though (but it's been a while since I've read it), and don't read many thrillers (or any, I'm too much of a wimp). Interesting how it survives more in certain genres.

  24. Is it that less people are interested in writing and/or reading stuff in omni or is it that less editors buy manuscripts with omni POV because the current wisdom is that it doesn't sell well?

    Publishing companies are pretty conservative. Except for the occasional rogue risk-taker, they seem to rush in a remarkably sheeplike mob to publish whatever happens to be "in" at the moment. (If I see one more vampire book I may barf. Ditto young wizard coming of age saga.)

    How do publishers know what readers might read if they only provide them with certain types of books? My guess is that if some rogue editor published a mainstream book in omni POV that made a big splash, there would suddenly be a lot more omni books on the market.

    The interesting thing about publishing is that, while it does have an element of supply and demand, publishers' marketing departments exercise a lot of control over both sides of the equation.

  25. Actually, despite what it says, I'm not Anonymous, I'm John Barnes.

    Omni isn't dead, as noted above. Close 3rd and 1st have been sold pretty hard by some fiction writing teachers, and it's very easy to spot omni and treat it as a mistake (rather than considering whether it's the right way to tell that particular story), and thus it gives workshoppers something to talk about. It's a slightly more sophisticated version of going through manuscripts looking for less v. fewer, his or her v. them, independent clauses on each side of a semicolon, or comma-which/no-comma-that -- something any chimp can learn to spot, which allows the chimp to feel like it had something useful to say about the fiction in front of it.

    Better readers and editors tend to look at it as a tradeoff: is it more interesting to be trapped in one head, only able to see/hear/smell/feel what that one character does, or more interesting to know what's happening all over the room?

    Sometimes it's more interesting one way, sometimes the other, and as long as the reader is cued as to which you're doing in this particular piece, the one to use is the one that's more interesting to a reader, not the one that empowers your workshop.

  26. I think the reader wants to believe that the author is the main character and feel a connection to that person--and wants to take that person's "side" against others.

    What a great post! Fascinating topic--one I often think about too, having written a novel that started out as a first person narrative and then became third-person limited.

  27. I prefer omniscient POV, such as The Lord of the Rings, because I find it enriching to see how different characters perceive the same circumstances. To me, that is what makes a book different from a movie. You get inside everyone's head and find out what makes them tick.

    I actually see the limited-third POV that is popular now as a byproduct of our society's addiction to intense, vicarious experiences. It's like a literary drug, or a vicarious high. Not to say that it doesn't deliver a great experience for the reader, or require great skill on the part of the writer, but I find it discouraging that it's the pretty much the only accepted way for new writers to write if they want to get published - other than first person, which is even more like "candy."

    Just my disgruntled opinion.

  28. Some really good books have been written lately with omniscient POV but they do it in a very different fashion. First of all, "Middlesex" by Jeffrey Eugenides is a very clever and brilliant First Person Omniscient POV. Three other good novels get around this modern prohibition on third person omniscience by using First Person Plural (We) Omniscient POV. The three novels are: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, and The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett.

  29. Such a fascinating discussion! I can see how all of these things mentioned are influences. And I've seen how certain readers definitely prefer one more than another. I love omniscient narration, as Christine H said, because I love seeing the larger picture and how characters are reacting differently. Also, I love the idea that multiple characters factor into the climax and the resolution of the story rather than just one person "saving the day" alone.

    As for omniscient narration being like God, I think I appreciate that, too. Love Marcus Zusak's I Am the Messenger and the idea he brings out of the author as God, arranging lives and circumstances for the good of the characters. While first person or limited third provides readers a chance to experience one other person's life and thoughts, omniscient narration is a chance to see a larger perspective of society/humanity and to see ourselves the way God might see us. Whether you believe in God or not, I think it's still a useful and intriguing glimpse.

  30. I posted Le Guin's take on omniscient or, as she calls it, involved narration in the comments to this post at Write Badly Well.

  31. I prefer omniscient. It makes for a stronger book when all characters are involved, not just one or two. I want to read a story. I don't care about close-up details. Boring! It's called story TELLING not story SHOWING.

  32. I prefer omniscient. It makes for a stronger book when all characters are involved, not just one or two. I want to read a story. I don't care about close-up details. Boring! It's called story TELLING not story SHOWING.