Omniscient (ahm-NIH-shihnt) is a literary tool where the author writes a narrative in third person, and the story’s narrator has complete awareness, understanding, and insight into the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of some or all of the characters in the story.
The word first appeared in English circa 1610 and meant “infinite knowledge, the quality or attribute of fully knowing all things.” Omniscient, and the related noun omniscience, derives from Medieval Latin omniscientia, meaning “all-knowledge,” and the Latin omis “all” and scientia, meaning “knowledge.”
Types of Omniscient Narrator
There are two basic types of omniscient narrators: omniscient and limited omniscient.
Omniscient Point of View
This occurs when the narrator has full knowledge about every character in the narrative. This is an all-knowing point of view; the narrator understands everything about every character and conveys those insights to the reader. An omniscient narrator is sometimes referred to as the God narrator or as having the “God’s Eye view.” This plays on the belief in some religious traditions that there is an all-knowing deity who watches over everyone’s actions.
This narrative mode has traditionally been the most commonly used in fiction and can be seen in numerous classic novels such as those by Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens.
Limited Omniscient Point of View
In this type of story, the narrator explores the inner dialogue of a single character, or a small selection of characters, rather than all the characters. When used, limited omniscient generally focuses on a primary character rather than secondary characters. This type of narrative is sometimes called the third person subjective or third-person limited because readers are limited to experiencing only one or some characters’ thoughts. It is frequently referred to as the over-the-shoulder perspective.
Limited omniscient is also quite common in literature and can be seen in James Joyce’s classic short story “The Dead,” as well as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.”
Alternating Limited Omniscient Point of View
This narration takes place when the limited omniscient point of view utilizes more than one character and shifts back and forth between them. This counts as limited omniscient, rather than fully omniscient, because it still only conveys the internal experiences of a few characters. It is also categorized as third person subjective mode.
This literary technique is sometimes called head hopping, as the reader finds themselves bouncing between different characters’ heads. This style can be found in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
Why Writers Use Omniscient Narrators
An omniscient narrator allows readers to truly know each character’s internal world. This strengthens characterization and keeps readers engaged. Omniscient narratives also help authors’ worlds come alive by allowing different characters’ voices to interpret events. This gives readers a fuller picture of the story as it unfolds.
Omniscient narratives allow authors to open a window into a character’s mind without writing in the first person. This gives them the freedom to enhance characterization without limits.
The Benefits and Drawbacks of Omniscient Narrators
An omniscient narrator enhances a sense of reliability or truth within literary works since readers are given deeper insights into many characters. The multiple viewpoints feel more objective because readers have access to multiple interpretations of events and can thus decide how they feel about each character’s perspective.
Omniscient narrators also enhance characterization, allowing authors to paint a fuller picture and give readers enough information to compare the characters’ private feelings. Additionally, the characters’ history and backstory, as well as the setting, are covered by the narrator’s exposition and don’t need to be rehashed by the characters themselves.
Writers can move between locations and timeframes quickly and effectively by using an omniscient narrator to provide smooth transitions. This type of narration is also useful in creating dramatic irony because the writer can exploit the tension in situations by having the narrator let readers know something important that a character does not.
However, there are drawbacks to using an omniscient point of view. Although readers can see inside characters’ heads, this approach lacks the intimacy of a first-person narrative, which would be told in the character’s own voice.
Additionally, omniscient narrators can appear manipulative. In Steering the Craft, Ursula K. le Guin’s handbook of writing advice, she calls the omniscient narrator “the involved author” and acknowledged that this technique is “the most openly, obviously manipulative of the points of view.”
The Benefits and Drawbacks of Limited Omniscient Narrators
While limited omniscient narrators share some of the same positive and negative characteristics as omniscient narrators, they also have their own distinct advantages and disadvantages.
Limited omniscient narrators offer heightened characterization because they dive deeply into the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, opinions, and reactions of a single character or small number of characters. This creates a strong connection between readers and the character(s). This also allows for an enhanced depiction of setting and plot through the character’s interpretation.
Like the omniscient narrator, there’s an ease in creating dramatic irony with the limited omniscient narrator. The writer can also exploit the gap in knowledge between what the narrator knows and what readers know.
On the negative side, there again is the lack of immediacy and intimacy conveyed by first-person narratives. Readers can also be manipulated into some specific interpretation of events because they only have one character’s perspective to see through.
Examples of Omniscient Narrators in Literature
1. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
Hawthorne wrote his famous novel using an omniscient narrator. Near the end of Chapter II, Hester Prynne stands on the scaffold of the pillory with a bright red A (for adultery) embroidered upon her chest, clutching her out-of-wedlock baby. Hawthorne writes:
Could it be true? She clutched the child so fiercely to her breast, that it sent forth a cry; she turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and the shame were real. Yes!—these were her realities,—all else had vanished!
In this scene, the reader has access to Hester’s thoughts and emotions as she faces her disapproving neighbors, even though she does not speak to the reader directly.
2. Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
In Douglas Adams’s surreal science fiction novel, Arthur Dent is saved from Earth’s destruction by his friend Ford Prefect, who is secretly an alien. Early in the first chapter, before Earth’s imminent demise is revealed, Arthur’s home is slated for demolition to make way for a local road. Worse for wear after a night at the pub, Arthur lies down in front of the bulldozer that threatens his domicile and becomes a thorn in the side of the construction manager, Mr. L. Prosser:
Mr. L. Prosser was, as they say, only human. In other words, he was a carbon-based bipedal life form descended from an ape. More specifically, he was forty, fat and shabby and word for the local council. Curiously, though he didn’t know it, he was also a direct male-line descendent of Genghis Khan, though…the only vestiges left in Mr. L. Prosser of his mighty ancestry were a pronounced stoutness about the tum and a predilection for little fur hats.
Unlike many omniscient narrative voices, which maintain a dispassionate tone, Adams’s omniscient narrator has a distinct and individual comedic voice.
3. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Early in the first book of the famous Harry Potter series, readers are introduced to Harry’s terrible relatives, the Dursleys:
The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it. They didn’t think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters.
Rather than having these characters directly voice their feelings through dialogue or first person narration, Rowling employs an omniscient narrator to convey how ashamed the Dursleys are of their relatives (and, by extension, Harry).
4. Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You
In this 2014 novel, the narrator has a clear knowledge and understanding of all the plot’s events, as well as deep insight into the inner world of each character. Ng opens her book with these two lines:
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
Her narrator is established from the very beginning as all-knowing and direct by sharing this knowledge.
Further Resources on Omniscient
Elliott Holt wrote a wonderful examination for The New York Times about the return of omniscient narrators in literature.
Henriette Lazaridis wrote a lovely exploration of what she calls “the elusive omniscient” narrator for the literary website The Millions.
Brian Davis designed a handy guide for Scribophile to help writers effective use third person omniscient narrators.