In the early 20th Century, third person and first person central became the only point of view that was acceptable for fiction. Omniscient was reserved for children’s books and spy/thriller genres. To my thinking, it was the only authentic point of view, acknowledging the inescapability of our subjectivity.
Editors, teachers, and writers generally contended that omniscient narrators are authoritarian, and we’d entered a non-authoritarian, post-modern age where readers didn’t want to be told what was going on. They wanted to be the protagonist of the book and figure it out on their own. Omniscient narrators were so 19th century.
But some of my favorite 20th C. books are omniscient, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude.
With the advent of hybrid genres, more people are breaking out of the mold and mixing narrators like complex cocktails. I’m seeing shifting third person and first person, changing narrative point of view with each chapter, as with There, There by Tommy Orange (about Urban native Americans in Oakland California) and The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi (about bi and trans people in Nigeria).
Jess Walter wrote The Cold Millions nimbly from multiple points of view, starting with first person narration from a minor character who dies before the book proper even starts, but whose death sets a wheel in motion. The rest of the novel is subjective omniscient narrator with some occasional first person narratives. The omniscient narrator and multiple perspectives seem better designed to give us a bigger story about people in a time and place. It asserts that people are part of their society and their landscape.
How to do it, though, without ill-timed info-dumps?
Walters did it seamlessly (after first person preface) with Chapter 1:
They woke on a ball field, bums, tramps, hobos, stiffs. Two dozen of them spread out on bedrolls and blankets in a narrow floodplain just below the skid, past taverns, tanners, and tents, shotgun shacks hung like hounds’ tongues over the Spokane River. Season work over, they floated in from mines and farms and log camps… (11).
As we see above, we get an areal view of a whole crowd of which the main characters are a part, as well as the landscape where the novel takes place. Walters has tucked backstory into the setting, which sets the stage the class warfare of 1909 in the logging, mining, and farming industries. The second paragraph introduces us to one of the two main characters, Rye:
The sun was just beginning to edge the mountains when Rye Dolan sat up, halfway down the first-base line. He looked across the field of sleeping humps, his older brother, Gig, beside him, curled a few feet from the pitchers mound (11).
Instead of action, we next go to backstory on Gig, his connections with labor unions, and a flashback to the night before that explains how they came to be sleeping on a ball field. This goes on for five pages, before we come back to the the ball field where his brother, Gig wakes up. That’s all the current-day action for the first chapter. The rest of the first chapter is backstory with flash back. It’s not until chapter two that we get real present day action with the cops descending on the hobos with “billies and bats and the handles of axes.”
I was taught the structure of chapter 1 is “a bathtub story,” (character get into a tub, thinks about stuff, and gets out. The term comes from Canadian writer Doug Glover, I believe), and that this was a boring and unacceptable way to go, yet it was the opening of what was called “one of the most captivating novels of the year” by Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles. Also– I was taught that the first person appearing in the book should be the main character. Instead, it’s a peripheral character who dies. What it did for me was set the stage: here was a book where first person narrators could die. Here was a world where you thought you were the center of it, and it turned out you weren’t, which historically, is much more accurate than the traditional 21st century first person central novel.
Orange, Emezi and Walter’s narrative structure gave me permission to explore subjective omniscient and multiple narratives in my own novel-in-progress Against the Grain, about an extreme environmental activist who falls in love with the daughter of the logging tycoon clearcutting the redwoods in northern California in 1990. As I navigate this story with a huge cast of characters (including the trees themselves) and various conflicting human interests, I keep returning to Walter’s book for guidance.
So back to the question. How to give historical and biological background without creating an intrusive and unrealistic info dump such as the ones we’ve gotten used to in the TV series Bones and the various incarnations CSI?
Standout Books reminds us not to give information until the reader really needs it, when it’s relevant, or when it’s central to an immediate conflict between characters. Certainly the backstory we get in the first chapter of The Cold Millions helps to explain why hobos are amassing and sleeping in fields, but until Chapter 2, we don’t know why that matters.
More to the point, when does my reader need to learn that giant redwoods have can live 2000 years and respire 500 gallons of water a day? In my rough draft, I’d thrown it down at the beginning of chapter where we meet the heads of Pacific Lumber out in the forest. After much deliberation, I moved it to the chapter where the main character’s father is caught in a mudslide while trying to save the trees he loves. We shall see if it works.
The adventure continues. My first novel, Blue Woman Burning, is an internal narrative, mostly third person point of view, and mostly about the life of the emotions. It feels like the right place for a novelist to start. Now, I’m enjoying the learning curve as I branch out into a novel takes place in the external world with a larger cast of characters, a broader perspective, which is not just about the internal emotional growth of my characters, but about an environmental movement, the trees, and the most important issue of our time: human caused climate change and the battle to save us and the environment from ourselves.
Lâle Davidson’s novel Blue Woman Burning about a woman who’s mother magically disappeared on the Altiplano between Chile and Bolivia, will be published by Red Penguin Books in November of 2021. Her collection of short stories Strange Appetites won the Adirondack Center for Writing’s People’s Choice Award for 2016 and is being re-released in October via Amazon. Her stories have appeared in The North American Review, Eclectica, and Gone Lawn among others. She was a finalist for the Franz Kafka Award issued by Doctor T.J. Eckleburgh Review as well as the Black Lawrence Chapbook Contest of 2015 and The Talking Writing Award for humorous writing advice. Her story “The Opal Maker” was named top fifty of 2015 very short fiction publications by Wigleaf. She is a Distinguished Professor who has taught writing for 27 years at a community college where she recently received the Chancellor’s Award for Scholarship and Creative Activities (2018).