Using the Omniscient Point of View to Create Sympathy

Writing in the omniscient point of view has many advantages, not least of which is the fact that it lets an author paint a convincing portrait of multiple characters. With the omniscient POV an author is able to get inside the heads of many different characters and reveal their innermost emotions and relationships. It also allows lets the reader see how different characters react and respond to certain events in the story.

One author who uses the omniscient point of view to great effect is Kenny Cook, in Love Songs for the Quarantined. Released in 2011, this a thematically related collection of short stories that in the author’s own words “illuminates the unexpected, the unforeseen—the moments when, without warning, everything changes.” In addition to a fortune teller’s ominous predictions that unsettle two brothers during their first visit to the Cotton Bowl and a bout of whooping cough that reminds a quarantined family of its vulnerability, these unanticipated moments include a surprise visit from the infamous Bonnie and Clyde to distant relatives in the Oklahoma countryside, as well as an accident where a tiny fragment of hot steel embeds itself in a welder’s eye, thus altering the course of his marriage, and not for the better. Entitled “Filament,” this last story drifts back and forth between many different points of view, a technique which Cook employs to craft an omniscient narrative that makes his community of characters more sympathetic and authentic.

According to Kenny Cook, the omniscient point of view is especially well-suited to stories that focus on a community rather than just one or two individuals. In a Q & A session about “Filament” with Hannah Tinti, the editor of One Story, Cook said he had “long wanted to write a story using full-blown omniscience—a voice able to move forward and backward in time and, catlike, in and out of the consciousness of many different characters.” For Cook, there is a certain freedom in using this point of view, as it brings out of the thoughts and inner workings of many different characters. It’s in this interior exploration of the various individuals that Cook is able to build a community in his story and get to their innermost, humanizing thoughts.

The main character in “Filament” is Loretta Simpson, whose husband, Blue, becomes increasingly abusive after he suffers an eye injury; as a result, he is eventually shot and killed during a domestic incident. The deputy who shoots him, Fortney Nevers, does so because he is embarrassed when Blue sees him lose control of himself and wet his pants. Any doubts as to whether this is truly the case are erased when Cook provides an omniscient view into Deputy Nevers’ mind-set on page 146: “Fortney would later swear under oath that he didn’t aim for the man’s back but for the fireplace, though after the trial he would sometimes remember or, in a feverish night sweat, dream it differently, would see his revolver pointed to a spot just below Blue Simpson’s left shoulder blade, would feel again his finger squeezing the slightly oil steel of the trigger.”

Although Nevers is the last character in “Filament” to join the lineup, he is on equal footing with the others in the story because, just as with the other characters, the author has exposed his inner workings to the reader through the omniscient point of view. The effectiveness of this strategy is no doubt heightened when Cook uses this point of view to paint a picture of the deputy’s vulnerabilities and insecurities, something that renders a more sympathetic and believable character in the end.

This authenticity is visible as well when Cook reveals Loretta’s ambivalence about her domestic situation in the opening paragraphs of the story: “She gradually realized, too late, that she had no special knack for mothering. It wasn’t that she felt a particular animosity toward her children, but rather against motherhood itself. At first she was ashamed of the epiphany, but after a few years, she no longer tried to deny it.” Although she doesn’t make these thoughts known to anyone else in the story, the depth of her sentiment is disclosed a line later when the author describes what is going on in Loretta’s head: “People tended to harbor a grudge against mothers who seemed to dislike their own, even though, from she could tell, it was a common enough occurrence.” Without the omniscient point of view, the reader would have been left to infer Loretta’s thoughts on motherhood through her actions or dialogue; Cook, however, lets an all-knowing narrator do the work and the reader finds out exactly what Loretta is thinking. Given that many would criticize a mother for having these thoughts, Loretta is made more human and the reader is better able to empathize with her.

This process of humanization is continued on page 136 when Cook writes of her unhappy home life that “Loretta believed she would have adapted just fine to this situation if matters had not taken a turn for the worse in the eighth year of her marriage when a miniscule filament of hot steel wedged itself in Blue’s left eye.” From this insight into what the main character believes, the reader finds out that Loretta is willing to tough out her present situation, presumably for the very children for whom she has the ambivalent feelings, and this, in a sense, provides a sense of redemption for whatever shortcomings might have been displayed by Loretta. Using the omniscient point of view, Cook has created empathy for the main character while allowing the audience to better identify with her.

In the same sentence where the author reveals Loretta’s belief that she will eventually adapt to her situation, he also discloses the moment when things really start to go downhill for her marriage, the pivotal instant when her husband receives his eye injury. While not excusing his future actions, the ensuing descriptions of Blue’s inner workings nonetheless afford the reader the opportunity to at least understand his feelings: “When he arrived home on those nights to the house that never seemed to stay clean or uncluttered, the dust growing like moss on the furniture, he often felt the walls squeezing him, a claustrophobic bitterness puddling like acid in his stomach. His wife had grown too thin, with a hostile little smirk. . . .” Here it’s not hard to see that the Blue character feels under pressure, even overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy. Combined with the recognition of his physical pain, these sentiments evoke a certain amount of sympathy, albeit short-lived, in the reader, and it is through Cook’s use of the omniscient point of view that this empathy is cultivated and conveyed.

Like many abusers, Blue Simpson feels remorse after the physical violence he inflicts on his wife, but his attempts at making amends fall on deaf ears when it comes to his son, Tildon. While his sisters return their father’s good-night greetings – a sign, in essence, that things have returned to normal after the latest bout of violence – Tildon remains quiet in his bed, feigning sleep, as his father lingers in the doorway, forlornly listening for any sign from his son that can be interpreted as a return to normalcy. “Tildon knew what his father wanted, but he could not bring himself to appease the man’s wish to be forgiven” – with these words on page 138 Cook makes it known that Blue Simpson will not get, from his son at least, the forgiveness he so desperately seeks, and he effectively paves the way for Blue’s ruination at the end of the story. It is only through the implementation of the omniscient point of view that the reader is able to know exactly what is going through Tildon’s mind as he lies there in the dark, his absence of words serving as a bit of foreshadowing for the fate in store for his father.

This insight into the inner workings of Tildon, is just one of many instances where the author uses the omniscient point of view to share the characters’ thoughts with the reader. In “Filament” the story drifts back and forth between many different points of view, a technique which Cook employs to craft an omniscient narrative that makes his community of characters more sympathetic and authentic.

Lovesongs

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