In today’s Craft Essay, we’re pleased to present “What it Means to Be Seen: Adding a Witness in Fiction” by Sam Dilling. Dilling explores Annie Hartnett’s recent novel, Unlikely Animals, and the use of the omniscient POV to create subjectivity and raise tension within the narrative. Read the full essay below!
If you find yourself stuck on a scene, add a witness. Oftentimes, this is done in a scene where there are implications to something being witnessed. Say you’re reading a chapter in a novel and someone has committed a murder. As the scene unfolds, it appears the perpetrator has gotten away with the act. But just as you reach the end of the chapter, you learn that another, previously unseen character was present and watched the murder take place. This has obvious implications for the stakes of the story, and what happens next.
On this topic, I briefly spoke to Luis Jaramillo, Director of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at The New School and Assistant Professor of Writing, via email. He describes this device as “a very powerful tool that helps create tension” which is evident in the scene described above. “A witness also provides an important kind of evidence,” he writes. “The reader may glean something from a scene that the protagonist doesn’t.” In this way, adding a witness inserts another dimension to the conversation that happens between the writer and the reader both on and off the page. So, what would it mean to have a witness not just to one crucial moment in a novel, but for its entirety? This is what the omniscient point of view offers.
Brit Bennett explores this in her debut novel, The Mothers, where the lives of the main characters are narrated by what the Michigan Quarterly Review calls a “church hivemind”—a mostly omniscient viewpoint made up of the titular mothers of the Upper Room church. The novel takes place in a contemporary black community in Southern California and follows Nadia Turner, seventeen, who gets pregnant by the twenty-one-year-old local pastor’s son. Throughout the novel, the church “mothers” can be found fanning the flames of scandal and speculation. From the opening lines of the novel, this tone is set: “We didn’t believe when we first heard because you know how church folk can gossip.” At times, this casts a shadow over the characters and the decisions they make—as though the narrators are speaking from somewhere high up in the rafters, looking down on everyone else.
This omniscient POV is executed on an even larger scale in Annie Hartnett’s second novel, Unlikely Animals, which takes place in the fictional town of Everton, New Hampshire and is narrated by the ghosts of the Maple Street Cemetery. Similar to the narrators of The Mothers, the ghosts are privy to information that the main characters are not; however, unlike the church mothers, the ghosts of Maple Street are able to dip into the townsfolk’s heads.
In the opening scene of Unlikely Animals, the main character, Emma Starling, is driving back into town after dropping out of med school. As Emma nears the town of Everton, the ghosts sense her arrival: “Even though Emma didn’t drive by us in the cemetery, we could hear her muttering to herself… we were beginning to hear some of her thoughts.” Although Hartnett cites Bennett’s The Mothers as an inspiration for her omniscient POV, and while Hartnett’s narrators do call themselves idle gossips at times, Annie veers from Bennett’s path early on and paves her own.
The subject matter of Unlikely Animals is far from what would be considered “light”—even if there are adorable hallucinated animals running around the town. Emma’s father, Clive Starling, is dying of a mysterious brain disease; her brother, Auggie, has just gotten out of his latest stint in rehab; and her high school best friend, Crystal Nash, has gone missing. There is guilt and grief, loss and loneliness, shame and despair. And yet, while the novel has plenty of heavy moments, the perspective of the ghosts keeps it from ever feeling hopeless.
Throughout the novel, the ghosts are seen laughing, crying, cheering, and mourning right alongside the people of Everton. The ghosts tease and crack jokes, gripe and complain, and even reflect on what life was like while they were still living. Hartnett keeps the narrators close enough that the reader knows they’re there, so that the reader can sense them lingering in the margins, but never so close that they overshadow the story.
It is later in the novel that we see the true effect of the ghosts as narrators. In one scene, Emma is processing her grief for her terminally ill father. She prays he will make it through the school year, bargains with someone in her head, and suddenly wonders who she is praying to, if she doesn’t believe anyone can hear her. The ghosts, narrating, say:
“She had always said she was an atheist, or at least an agnostic, whenever the topic came up but secretly she thought it would be nice to believe in God sometimes, really go whole hog on the Jesus thing. It would be so great if you really felt like there was someone out there who listened to your bargains, your pleas, your promises to yourself. Like someone somewhere was keeping a lookout. We’re here, we told her, as we often did.”
In what would otherwise be a heart-wrenching moment, we get a beat of reprieve as the ghosts enter the scene. It unfolds like a camera lens panning backwards from Emma, sitting in the high school auditorium with Moses, her adopted stray dog, at her feet, to see the occupants of the Maple Street Cemetery lovingly looking on. It is a powerful image. Through this, we sense how the presence of a witness can be used not just to add tension, suspense, or higher stakes to a scene, but to add a rich, emotional texture.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Annie about the novel this past April. During our conversation, Annie informed me that although the narrators of the book didn’t come until later in the writing process, they were what pulled it all together. “The narrators of the book are the cheerleading section,” she said. “And that’s why the book is able to have that feeling of hopefulness even though it’s a book about a lot of tough things. Because the narrator’s love the people in the town so much and see themselves like people in the stands at a football game.”
To see someone like this is an act of love, and that love is on display in Unlikely Animals. Hartnett shows what it means to demonstrate empathy through omniscient narration. Utilizing the omniscient POV, Hartnett strikes a balance between writing her characters with compassion and navigating them through difficult times. She doesn’t shy away from the hard, dark moments that make up a life and is able to capture her characters even more completely through the lens of the ghosts of the Maple Street Cemetery.
Similarly, The Mothers benefits from the POV of the church ladies who make up the fabric of the community—who are privy to the secrets exchanged behind hands after Sunday service. But no matter how much they may feed into the rumor mill, it is clear the mothers care deeply for the people they observe, even when they no longer share a pew. Toward the end of the book, the women narrate: “We’re too old to find a new church now, so each Sunday, we gather to read the Word and pray. No one leaves us prayer cards anymore, but we intercede anyway, imagining what the congregation might still need.”
Whether the characters are being watched by a close-knit group of church-going women, or by the residents of a cemetery in the center of town, both novels benefit from the perspective of the narrators. The omniscient POV acts as a witness to the story and adds a layered, emotional texture it may not have otherwise. In Bennett’s case, the reader feels as though there is always something worth watching, that there is always something gossip-worthy. In Unlikely Animals, the reader gets the sense that something important is always happening, that each event is significant in its own way—even, and maybe especially, the smaller, quieter moments.
So, if you find yourself struggling with a scene, or with the POV of an entire novel, zoom out and ask yourself—who’s watching, and what do they have to say?
by Sam Dilling