Moving Between Characters in Omniscient Point of View

Remember when I read Spellbound by Nora Roberts? One of the things that threw me was that she wafted from character to character. Orson Scott Card in Characters & Viewpoint gives an example of this that actually works. Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us why it works. Maybe we can propose a theory.

Here’s a snippet from the example Orson Scott Card gives:

Taking her out was like taking a final exam. Pete knew he was failing, but he couldn’t figure out why. He kept bumbling along, trying to impress Nora with his sensitivity, never guessing that Nora was much more comfortable with beer-and-football types. She had grown up with brothers who thought that “fun” was any outdoor game that left scabs. She had often told her friends that all but six of her delicate, fragile bones had been broken during childhood—at least she could hardly remember a time when she didn’t have a cast on some part of her body.

He starts in his head, transitions to hers. But it’s not confusing. Let’s look at the transition: “He kept… trying to impress Nora with his sensitivity, never guessing that Nora was much more comfortable with beer-and-football types.” The last part of this sentence happens in his mind. But it implies that the narrator knows something about Nora that’s relevant to Pete’s attempts to woo her. We immediately ask, “Why is she more comfortable with beer-and-football types?” We’re asking something about Nora’s feelings, what’s happening inside her head.

This is anticipation. It’s what happens on-screen when the character at center frame suddenly looks to the side. We immediately ask, “What’s he looking at?” So the camera cuts to his view, looking at what he’s looking at. We were looking at him; now we’re looking from his point of view.

Orson Scott Card does the same thing here, whether he realizes it or not. He causes us to wonder about Nora’s comfort zone with guys. So switching to her point of view to find out is as natural as apple pie a la mode.

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

Learn to make your characters come alive, create characters people love (or love to hate), know when to make a character deep and when to make him shallow, choose viewpoint to enhance the story.

Contents: ▶ What is a character? ▶ What makes a good fictional character? ▶ Where do characters come from? ▶ Making decisions ▶ What kind of story are you telling? ▶ The hierarchy ▶ How to raise the emotional stakes ▶ What should we feel about the character? ▶ The hero and the common man ▶ The comic character ▶ The serious character ▶ Transformations ▶ Voices ▶ Presentation vs. representation ▶ Dramatic vs. Narrative ▶ First-person narrative ▶ Third person ▶ A private population explosion

This is what Nora Roberts tried to do, anticipate, but not quite.

He saw the flicker in her eyes, the dimming of disappointment, a flash of frustration. But he couldn’t know just how deeply that disappointment, that frustration cut into her heart.

He’s here, she told herself. He’s come. That’s what matters most now. “It is, yes.”

Even if we take the first paragraph as his thoughts, the last sentence makes us wonder just how deeply did it cut into her heart? If the narrator had answered that question, the cut would have been seamless. But as it is, there’s a confusing gap. It’s as if our on-screen character suddenly looked to the left. But instead of following his gaze, the camera turns around and looks to the right.

Therefore, the passage disoriented me. I went back and reread the paragraphs, now doubting my own ability to comprehend simple English, becoming even more confused, wondering even more whose point of view is whose. I’m still not convinced, from the quote above— I’m still not convinced those first sentences are in his mind. They seem to be in both minds at once. Because I was looking for a clear indicator of a transition.

In limited-omniscient point of view, the narrator switches point of view only at a section break. But it becomes clear that the difference between omniscient and limited-omniscient is a difference of degree, not of kind. By convention, in limited-omniscient, section breaks signal possible changes in point of view. In omniscient, these changes can occur more frequently, and we may spend less time in each character’s mind. But there still has to be some indication that a change is imminent. It may not be as blatant as a section divider, but the anticipation still has to be there, the question and the payoff, knitting the two sides of the transition together into a single stream of consciousness.

-TimK

About J. Timothy King
J. Timothy King

I'm the eldest of three siblings, a stay-at-home father of two daughters, the husband of a wonderful wife, and an indie author of life-expanding character fiction. When not writing, I read, watch old TV and movies, play bass guitar, and tend to my family in our Boston-area apartment.

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