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Thoughts on Omniscient Narrators


I feel like there's a disconnect in the terminology. When reading, there is a huge difference to me between omniscient third where there is a distinct narrative voice and omniscient third where there is no distinct narrative voice. Yes, technically the term is used to refer to both but to me they feel like such hugely different styles that I think there should be separate terms. For example...

When reading A Tale of Two Cities would I ever consider the narrator is anybody other than Dickens? Hell no.

I agree with this. Most books, at one point in time, were written this way. Authors took on the role as storyteller/narrator who sees all naturally. However, that changed very drastically in more contemporary times.

Dune is narrated by Frank Herbert.

This I disagree with. Dune isn't narrated by anyone. From the reader's perspective, its just exists, forming in your mind from the words themselves, no one is telling it to you.

Because that's what a narrator does. They tell you a story. But within the last century pretty much all fiction writing has moved away from that idea. Most writing advice/instruction I have come across tells the writer to distance themselves from the narrative as much as possible. Don't put a voice in your exposition unless it's from the point of view of a specific character. The reader should completely forget that anyone wrote this book. The author doesn't exist once the story begins. Show, don't tell. Books are written more and more often these days as if they were movies. A series of images is presented to your eyes. There is no narrator, no source for the story. It simply is.

Now, I won't claim that there's necessarily anything wrong with this style of storytelling. Though most of the time it doesn't appeal to me. So whenever I come across a book with a distinct narrative voice with an omniscient pov that is well written it's really refreshing to me.
In fiction, I think a narrator who is separate from the author is created by default when the author crafts the narrative.

I would go further than Mythopoet. Although we should be careful to distinguish the storyteller narrator with a distinct, fictional personality from a more hidden omniscient narrator, both sorts are crafted in the crafting of the tale.

This creation of a narrator doesn't require the picturing of some mythical bloke with an obvious personality distinct from the author's personality that will color the narrative. For the more obvious storyteller voice, yes, picturing this other fictional person will probably be necessary—although I think some of it can be as instinctive as being able to write a distinctive character voice when you have that character firmly appearing in your head.

Perhaps creating the other sort of omniscient narrator, the sort not obviously inserting himself, can rely more on instinct—as you say, it's "you"—but even so, the words you create are crafted and the result is a narrator who is not you. The reader doesn't have access to you, but only to the words you've given them.

This last point comes more into focus when considering fictional worlds populated by fictional characters involved in fictional events. The reader has a sense that someone is telling him the story. If the story begins by telling the reader that "Robed figures" huddle "in an oasis of flickering brazier light as bones hit the cave floor," then having the feeling that the person narrating this is there or at least was there (however far overhead, or close) lends authenticity. This isn't a tall tale, an author fabricating a fiction; the world being described is real now.

At least, that's the sort of goal most genre fiction has. I suppose the sort of silly, "tall tale" impression —man, this guy is just lying to us, but it's fantastic!—might be the target for some authors in some tales. Even then, I'd say the author's putting on the robe of "tall tale fabricator" and creating just such a narrator separate from himself.

Incidentally, cracking this open even further...who is telling me that the flickering brazier light is an oasis? That's a subjective evaluation and requires the sense of a person who can exist and so be subjective. I think the author chose well with that description; but the result for me is a narrator who 1) is able to make subjective evaluations and 2) will insert his own voice into the tale even if the author didn't picture him as a completely separate persona. Reading that, I don't know the author. I don't need to know the author. But I'm pretty sure the author wasn't in that cave at that time witnessing the event.

I would call this a great deal of overthinking. “Performing” doesn’t change who the narrator is by default.

When reading A Tale of Two Cities would I ever consider the narrator is anybody other than Dickens? Hell no. Dune is narrated by Frank Herbert.

If I drop into Third Om it’s me, not some mythical bloke named narrator. In fact, in Sundering the Gods, outside of dialogue and internalized thoughts, the narrator is “me” relaying the information I’m relaying. I’m not trying to craft a narrator at all. I already have one. It’s me. Why would I try to make another one? If this Narrator isn’t going to do something useful for me, like do my shopping, I’m not going to bother creating him.

This notion of thinking the writer is lying to you because its placed in a mythical world mystifies me... It’s a story. It is neither a lie nor the truth. Much like politics.
When reading A Tale of Two Cities would I ever consider the narrator is anybody other than Dickens? Hell no.

Not to beat a dead horse, or maybe yes to beat it...

Dickens can't be telling me the story; because, he's dead. When he was alive and writing it, he couldn't have been telling it to me because I did not exist.

I suppose he may have felt he was telling the story to all future generations, but this is a hazy thing for me. Anyone can pick up the book and read it, even without knowing anything about Dickens, and encounter a disembodied narrator, a narrator "alive" in the book. Does this narrator have Dickens' voice? Yes, probably. Will a reader 500 years from now, who has zero knowledge of the specifics of ancient literary scenes and figures, be able to make this assessment? Will the question of the author's identity matter?

If the future reader is a literary archaeologist, will they be able to say much that is definitive about the real Dickens? I think there will be obvious clues, but these won't create the whole picture. Who was Shakespeare? (A writing prompt for a science fiction story: the protagonist is a literary archaeologist. This field arose because the past being studied has been preserved in discourse—fiction, Twitter, on thumb drives chockablock full of documents—whereas much else about that time period has disappeared into history. Set it 1000 years in the future, or at whatever distance makes most sense. Perhaps the protagonist is a citizen of another planet, and the ancient home planet, Earth, has just been rediscovered.)

I don't think Dickens needed to be asking these same questions when writing the book, at least not consciously, although I do wonder if he might have wondered how the book would be received long, long after he became dust.
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