16

I am in the midst of reworking my latest manuscript into a shape that someone might be inclined to publish. To help me along I hired a professional editor and writer, whose comments and suggestions, for the most part, have been very helpful. However, I am struggling with her insistence that I avoid the third person omniscient POV. While writing from a character's POV can certainly add immediacy and authenticity (and changing POV can be jarring), sometimes it just doesn’t work for me. My editor insists that the omniscient observer style of, say, Charles Dickens (I was flattered) is no longer in vogue. Can a successful urban fantasy novel be narrated with a combination of both omniscient observer and individual characters POVs?

5
  • 8
    Just because something's not in vogue doesn't mean you shouldn't do it... Variety is the spice of life May 3, 2023 at 14:03
  • 4
    Just because one editor tells you a thing does not make it true. (Nor false, for that matter.) Want to know what is getting published? Published books are not very far away. Then you decide if you want to specifically write to sell a lot of copies. That decision has some pointy bits to it.
    – Boba Fit
    May 3, 2023 at 18:14
  • Consider The Martian. It's all rigorously first person Mark Watney, with a few discussions from NASA and what not, but at the end of chapter 23 things shift entirely to the omniscient 3rd person view, recounting millions of years of Martian geology leading up to a description of the vehicle crashing down a crater, and finishing with the wonderful description, "The traveler was alive, for now." And then it shifts back to some dialogue at NASA, and then resumes Watney's real-time log/narrative. I think that's the only time it's used in the book, but there it works quite well.
    – Ralph J
    May 5, 2023 at 15:03
  • For examples of very effective first person, take a look at detective stories such as Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe, usually written from the POV of an assistant, though 2nd person would not be the correct grammatical term. May 5, 2023 at 16:48
  • Thanks to all of you. Very helpful. I like the idea of a quasi-narrator in the form of a character (Watson to Holmes), what I think Peter Cordes later terms a "perspective character." And you're right about looking at how authors in the genre are handling their POVs. Real masters like Connie Willis keep their characters' POVs so effortlessly I hardly notice when I'm reading. Which, of course, is the point.
    – Candon
    May 6, 2023 at 17:55

4 Answers 4

25

The first rule of writing is that there are no rules.

You can write any story you want using any combination of POV.

The recently late Terry Pratchett wrote many parts of his novels using omniscient POV. He'd vary the POV between a very intimate close-3rd POV and a very distant effectively omniscient POV transcending time and space.

I think your editor is telling you that your skills as a writer are not strong enough to successfully use an omniscient POV. While that POV seems easier, it has drawbacks that impact storytelling. It is also harder to establish an engaging and immersive reading experience. I think that is because it makes the character-centered sense of setting and event much more difficult to write.

1
  • You may well be right. My previous fiction (reasonably successful) has been written from omniscient POV, so I think I'm just struggling with maintaining the deep character POV. I appreciate your comment that writing from the inside of a character helps establish a more "engaging and immersive reading experience." I think that is exactly my editor's message, and one that has actually proven quite helpful. Thanks too for your reference to the brilliant Terry Prarchett. It does indeed require extraordinary skill to blow up all conventions and make it work.
    – Candon
    May 6, 2023 at 17:07
14

Which question do you want answered?

Is omniscient observer POV really dead?

Can a successful urban fantasy novel be narrated with a combination of both omniscient observer and individual characters POVs?

Your last sentence suggests you are combining both multi-character POVs and an omniscient narrator.

This is not your title provoking that omniscient POV is 'dead'.

These questions are so different I think you've done it deliberately to misrepresent the issue. I suspect you have not really tried to make that change, and hiding the facts behind a deliberately misrepresented title is not helping you arrive at an honest answer.

It's your money

You're paying a professional for their advice. Obviously it's up to you whether to accept or reject, but you have not presented us an honest case, and you haven't said why you want/need to. I'm chalking it up to stubbornness and immaturity of an amateur, otherwise you wouldn't need to misrepresent what she'd said as some 'absolute' when it was actually tailored advice for your particular situation.

I default agree with your advisor who has read your manuscript. This sounds like a problem of narrative voice. Maybe a great writer can pull it off, but let's face the truth: if your omniscient narrator had been dazzling, she wouldn't advise you to drop it "just because".

Creative solutions

The usual reason (here) why an amateur writer wants to 'cheat' on POV is because they think the reader needs to be handheld through every step of the story, and if there's no character to literally stand there and watch it happen, then the reader too stupid to work it out and just has to be told in a dry character-less infodump by the author.

Can you see why that's a red flag?

Since I haven't read your story, and you don't say why you needed/wanted to do flip back-and-forth, I can't offer any real solutions, but here's one creative suggestion:

If you had a less-omniscient, biased narrator with a very specific voice – in Urban Fantasy it could even be an enchanted object that no one else can hear – with strong opinions on (everything), I think that might fit better with all the character POVs. Something like that might 'fix' any POV holes while adding a counterpoint-voice to the story, not just a workaround that (potentially) breaks the flow of an ensemble.

In other words, try to come up with an interesting narrator that isn't just the author telling the reader what happened.

1
  • While the eventual advice in this Answer is good, it begins with unneeded antagonistic language. As the adage says, there is no reason to presume malevolence over incompetence. A discrepancy between the title and the Question asked is common all over the Stack Exchange network, generally by new contributors. It doesn't mean the Asker was being dishonest. And, even if they were, an assessment of their character is not relevant to actually answering the Question, and only detracts from the rest of the Answer by creating defensiveness in the reader.
    – trlkly
    May 5, 2023 at 22:34
9

The modern reader, unlike most readers in the 1800s and early 1900s, is looking for immersion and identification with the protagonists of the story.

As a beginning writer, although I don't think it is a great idea to try and imitate best selling authors, it is a good idea to use them as templates of what sells.

And there are some but not many Omniscient POVs. Most of them are 3PL (Third Person Limited), sometimes alternating protagonists by chapter or section, and most of them follow the standard story structure, and that is what is selling now, and getting good reviews, and getting good word of mouth. All of that is critical to success: Only about 5% of readers will buy a new book by a new author on their own. Those are "Early Adopters", they have the time and money to risk buying a book by an unknown just because the blurb, the cover and a short sample of the writing sounds interesting.

Some critics will also deign to read a few pages and see if they are engaged.

All other sales rely on those Early Adopters and critics, both sophisticated readers, and if they don't recommend it, sales go nowhere. It is a flop.

Publishers hate flops. Agents hate flops. So any commercial success you hope to have should be geared to giving those Early Adopters and critics, what they expect: An imaginative new story with a new character in a new setting, written in the expected style they know can sell.

That is how you break through.

There are a few exceptions to this rule: Publishers and agents aren't stupid; they will make exceptions for well known authors with a fan base. Stephen King will likely be published if he wants to try something experimental; so would JK Rowling, or Dan Brown. Publishers know their millions of fans will trust the author and buy the book; they aren't likely to lose money on it.

And sometimes, blind luck will work. JK Rowling was rejected on her first book by every publisher she could find, a few dozen times. The one thing that saved her was the young daughter of a publisher that found Rowling's manuscript in the already rejected pile, started reading it, and told her father he had to publish it. Thus was a multi billion dollar franchise begun; Rowlings writing style did not appeal to adults reviewing it, they couldn't get past her numerous technical flaws. But it was a wildly popular fantasy with children, that didn't care about the overuse of adverbs and other technical faults.

But I would not count on that. You have to get published first. And an intermittent omniscient point of view is likely to destroy your chances, a new author needs to be in the top 1% or 2% of transcripts received to make it.

Stick to the script. When you are a strong selling author by sticking to the script, then agents and publishers will trust you to innovate.

7
  • 2
    Perhaps a useful term is "perspective character". David Weber uses a lot of different perspective characters, some fairly minor just to pop into the ship they're commanding as part of a space battle or other event. It's still 3rd-person, but it's describing their part in what's going on and their thoughts. But they might soon have their ship destroyed by a surprise attack (e.g. by the protagonists), so even though the narrator was briefly focused on them, they aren't really a protagonist (unless the term is broader than I thought.) May 3, 2023 at 16:05
  • 1
    @PeterCordes Sure, I suppose. If it is overdone, I would find it irritating. A a reader, I don't want to "shadow" a character for just a few pages, jump out into another character and see them killed. The point of 3PL is not to deliver information, the modern reader wants to identify with the characters. Different POVs are fine, but IMO the "switch rate" should be at about the Chapter level, not a page or two, and definitely not less than a page. I haven't read David Weber, but I'd probably consider that lazy and unimaginative writing. There are better ways to get the information across.
    – Amadeus
    May 3, 2023 at 17:50
  • 2
    Nowadays I wouldn't use JK Rowling of an example of anything good, although it does explain why her incredibly racist book under a pseudonym got published at all. May 5, 2023 at 0:51
  • 1
    @user253751 I'm not using her as an example of something good, in fact she is an example of something bad: Her writing was rejected by every publisher she sent it to! The only reason she got published was a child randomly saved her manuscript from the reject pile her father had thrown it in. Also, I am just talking about the business of getting published and selling books. We wouldn't even know JKR was a vile person if she wasn't the richest author on Earth with $1.2B net worth and over half a billion copies of her books sold. There is something to learn there despite her character.
    – Amadeus
    May 5, 2023 at 11:20
  • 1
    Very interesting discussion, and very helpful. Amadeus' comment that "The modern reader, unlike most readers in the 1800s and early 1900s, is looking for immersion and identification with the protagonists of the story" echoes that of my editor, and I do get it. Having always written in the OPOV, and doing so with some success, switching to a character's deep POV involves more of a learning curve than I had anticipated. But certainly good for me as a writer.
    – Candon
    May 6, 2023 at 17:36
5

Certain genres have certain conventions, and it might put readers off if you broke them. For example, Young Adult literature today is conventionally written in first or close third person perspective. Because (apparently) readers of YA want to identify with the protagonist and be drawn into his or her experience. This doesn't work well when the events are told from the distance of an omniscient narrator.

As this example illustrates, viewpoint isn't right or wrong in an absolute sense – it is "dead" or not – but it serves a certain purpose for your story. So the question you need to ask yourself is:

How does my story change when told from different viewpoints, and which viewpoint best facilitates the effect I am trying to achieve?

You don't give enough details in your question for us to answer that question, but maybe you can answer it by looking at other works in your genre and considering to what effect you would want to deviate from that.

Also, kill your darlings. That is, don't become infatuated with what you created. Professional writers can and do change everything about their texts, if it helps sell their work or makes their work better (whichever flavour of professionalism you subscribe to).

1
  • Kill your darlings indeed. With my previous writing, I have worked with editors after the ms was accepted for publication. Invariably, the relationship occasionally became somewhat adversarial -- "What? You want to take that out? You're ruining my book!" Yeah, well, most of the time they were right (but not all the time), so working with an editor I have hired is a new experience. I can view her suggestions and comments more objectively. It's up to me to be brave and slash and burn without being under duress. Hard.
    – Candon
    May 6, 2023 at 17:43

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.