How can I make an omniscient narrator emotionally engage the reader?

by Carol Parker
(New Zealand)

Question: I'm having a little trouble. See, I'm writing a book with quite a lot of characters, all of them are equally important and I've decided to settle for an omniscient POV. The thing is, it's not turning out the way I would like it to. For example, the poignant scenes that I really do want to work aren't "cold" exactly, but are a bit too faraway, you know?

Thank you, BTW! :) Your site is incredibly helpful :)

Answer: To a certain extent, emotional distance is an inherent feature of omniscient narration. You're writing from a point of view outside of the characters, so the reader is looking at them, rather than occupying one of them.

That said, one way to create empathy for your characters may be to take advantage of the fact that the omniscient narrator can know things no one character can, and can give the reader information the characters don't have access to. The possibilities for dramatic irony therefore are much greater.

For instance, you can show a character behaving in a certain way that is disadvantageous or harmful to himself because he doesn't know something the narrator does.

To take a more specific example, there's a great scene in the film A Christmas Carol (I mean the classic version starring Alastair Sim) in which Schrooge's sister dies
in childbirth. The viewpoint is essentially omniscient, since the story is being presented by the Ghost of Christmas Past.

The young Schrooge, upset by the loss of the only person who ever loved him, flees from his sister's deathbed and fails to hear her dying words. But the audience hears her ask Scrooge (not knowing he's gone) to look after her newborn son.

The audience also knows (because this is a flashback) that, in fact, Scrooge fails to take his nephew into his heart. When the boy grows up, Scrooge refuses to come to his wedding, rejects the nephew's bride, and won't even visit the couple at Christmas.

The effect of this scene is to create great sympathy for Scrooge. The audience can see how much he wanted the love of family, how alone he eventually became, and how terrible it is that he missed an opportunity to honor his sister's love and to nurture the love of his nephew's family.

On top of that, the Ghost reveals that the reason Scrooge was unloved by his father was that Scrooge's mother died giving birth to him and his father resented Scrooge for it. Hence, we see the greater irony that Scrooge does to his nephew what his father did to him.

That's the unique power of an omniscient narrator.

Hope that gives you some ideas.

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