I work at a job where I get to explain the idea of an omniscient narrator to kids who have to eliminate the choice on multiple choice tests. Most narrators in contemporary fiction don’t know everything that’s going on anymore. They’ve been taken over by first person narrators who don’t even know what’s going on with themselves.
This is my experience with recent fiction. With the advent of the internet, and the blogs and Facebooks it brought with it, we have become overwhelmed and exceedingly comfortable with the personal story. Likewise, novels are more often reading like diaries, like character studies, rather than broad sweeps of civilization, as great classics like Tolstoy and Dickens did.
Modern books that wish to present something broader than one man’s view of things still do so through the personal narrative. The bestselling series that is all the hype recently, A Song of Ice and Fire, (which became the HBO show Game of Thrones), enters the thoughts of a different character in each chapter, in order to see their story, their emotions, their diary.
Genres of grand, plot-based books like The Lord of the Rings now often read like Harry Potter. Pride and Prejudice would now never not be Elizabeth Bennet’s diary. Even then, Jane Austen felt stuck in the third person narrative, employing the style of free indirect speech to make us feel we were listening to Elizabeth telling us the story.
Though there are obvious exceptions to my sweeping theory, I use it to present the glaring lack of omniscience in my narrator.
Jillian is a first person narrator who knows less about herself than the book’s non-narrators. Jillian isn’t exactly an unreliable narrator, but a self-professed forgetful alcoholic. Jillian doesn’t know much about who she is, so she can tell us little about it. Jillian isn’t sure what she’s doing next, so she can’t tell us that either. We follow Jillian because people around her hint at her, and us, that she can be something more. We’re waiting to find out what.
Also, we forget that by reading we become a character. That’s the beauty of first-person narrators: there is no outer judgment. To critique is to draw judgment on oneself, the reader. It often feels that a lot of the decisions the character is making, at this proximity to us, the reader, are almost fuelled by our own will as much as theirs. We’re embarrassed when a character makes an immoral decision. We cringe at our sex scenes.
My narrator is great to work with because she lets me avoid the old chasm between ‘showing’ the reader and ‘telling’ them. Jillian doesn’t tell things; she just wouldn’t.
By never telling, only showing, Jillian has created a very boring book, for her lack of omniscience means we see such few things. The things we see, though, are pure Jillian.