I’m button-busting happy to have recently read a number of recent novels with omniscient third-person point of view, including Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo (wonderful witty omniscient narrator), The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney and They Don’t Mean To, But They Do by Cathleen Schine (both novels include fluid head hopping between characters), and Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff (in which the omniscient narrator functions as a Greek Chorus).
Quick refresher, here, about point of view:
Third person: When a narrator relates action in third person.
He ran on the windy beach.
Third-person points of view can be subdivided according to degrees of knowledge or “distance.”
1. Brad hugged Jennifer. (Effaced. Objective. We see the action, but don’t know what the characters are feeling.) This is an objective narrator--with no access to any consciousness or thoughts--who presents (i.e. dramatizes) the entire story, usually through dialogue.
2. Brad hugged Jennifer, but he was thinking of Angelina. (Close or “limited“ third person. We have access to the thoughts of one of the characters.) The third-person close narrator is a single consciousness, but can move about in time, and extend the vision of the point of view character.
3. Brad hugged Jennifer, but he was thinking of Angelina, and Jennifer was thinking of the pool boy. (Omniscient. We go into the thoughts of more than one character.)
Glimmering at the far end of the third-person narrative POV spectrum is perilous, intoxicating omniscience. Why don’t more writers use it? As Richard Russo points out in his essay, “In Defense of Omniscience,” the omniscient point of view is “a mature writer’s technique.” It takes guts to play God. And yet, the omniscient point of view is enormously fluid and rewarding. “No other point of view gives a writer such easy, natural access to the things that need to be revealed,” writes Russo. Omniscience offers access to the thoughts of more than one character, and the freedom to transcend time and space.
“The omniscient third person narrator is what I think of as a Russian third, the Anna-Karenina-third where it moves from person to person within a room during the course of a single conversation,” the novelist Ann Patchett said in an interview about writing her novel Bel Canto. ”It’s what makes the book seem fuller. It is more ambitious.”
The omniscient third-person narrator, as a storyteller, can judge, quip, predict, warn, weep, draw conclusions (Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility), knit the seams of a ragged historical tale (Ragtime by Doctorow), head hop among characters (Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto), go through walls and into graves (William Kennedy’s Ironweed), tell secrets (Elizabeth Strout’s fabulous Amy and Isabelle) and increase tension (Tolstoy's Anna Karenina). The narrator may remain prominent (Richard Russo’s Empire Falls), cop an attitude, bristle with authority, or recede. That’s right: recede. “Once you establish a more distanced narrative voice in your fiction,” notes Debra Spark, “you can abandon that voice, and let the story play out dramatically.”
Two important points: The narrator is not (necessarily) the author. The narrator is not (necessarily) the protagonist.
Writers, Don’t Squander the Third-Person Omniscient POV
In many contemporary works, the third-person limited narrative remains stunted, “a virtual stand-in for the first person,” as Spark writes in her essay “Stand Back.” In effect, by never expanding from limited third-person to full-blown omniscient point of view, a writer may miss the scintillating experience of discovering and unleashing a narrator who might well provide a wider, deeper story.