The Little Fat One; Free Indirect Style in Fantasy

The choice of point-of-view is one of the first and most fundamental that a writer faces, and one of the most common choices I see in fantasy today is some form of third person limited. This isn’t, of course, the only way to do things, but it has grown so prevalent that I think it’s worth taking a quick look at some of the opportunities and dangers.

First, some definitions. James Wood, in his excellent book How Fiction Works lays out the groundwork:

“So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking or speaking […] this is called ‘free indirect style.’

“Thanks to free indirect style, we see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once. A gap opens between author and character, and the bridge – which is free indirect style itself – between them simultaneously closes that gap and draws attention to its distance.”

Woods provides an invented example of free indirect style:“He looked at his wife. Yes, she was tiresomely unhappy again, almost sick. What the hell should he say?” Then he explains, “The narrative seems to float away from the novelist and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to “own” the words. The writer is free to inflect the reported thought, to bend it around the character’s own words.”

We can find this sort of thing all over the place in fantasy. An Arya chapter, for instance, in Martin’s Game of Thrones:

“Sansa got to sit with [Prince Joffrey] at the feast. Arya had to sit with the little fat one. Naturally.”

Clearly, both the phrase “little fat one” and that single word, “naturally,” are Arya’s words. Martin cedes his narrative prerogative to his character, allowing a child’s imprecision – “little fat one” – to replace his own keen eye in order to develop the voice, and thereby the mind of his POV character.

There are, however, some technical difficulties when writing in free indirect style, perhaps chief among them, the inability to convey facts or matters beyond the ken of the POV character. If Martin, for instance, wanted to narrate a battle scene in an Arya chapter, one in which he hoped to explore tactics and strategy, he would find himself at an impasse: either he ruptures the consistency of Arya’s voice in order to include the necessary military terminology and observations, or he sacrifices the precision of his description to keep her language woven through his own.

It’s possible to flex the boundaries, of course. As Woods points out, the omniscient voice of the author is never entirely obliterated. If it were, we’d be in the realm of first person rather than third person. When Bran (again in Martin’s novel), seven years old, observes his father “peel” off his gloves, we suspect the verb belongs to Martin rather than his character. This, however, is a minor departure from Bran’s voice.

What happens when the writer needs to do something more drastic?

I came across a skillful passage recently in Daniel Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path. He was in a bit of a bind, evidently wanting to open his chapter with a wide-ranging overview of the role of coffee shops in the world. Unfortunately for him, his POV character (for this particular chapter) is a naïve young woman with limited experience of the world. Ergo, she doesn’t have either the experience or even, perhaps, the idiom necessary to be a plausible vehicle for the description he needs to convey. He begins the chapter as follows:

“Coffee houses had always had a place in the business of business. In the cold ports of Stollbourne and Rukkyupal, merchants and sea captains hunched over the tiled tables and warmed mittened hands with steaming cups as they watched the winter sun set at midday. Beside the wide, moonlit waters of the Miwaji, the nomadic Southling pods sipped cups of something hardly thinner than mud…”

I found myself calling, “Bullshit!” by the middle of the second sentence. Cithrin hasn’t been to any of these places. She doesn’t know the Miwaji from a bucket of piss. The fabric of her narrative voice seemed badly twisted, but then, at the start of the second paragraph, Abraham turns it on its head: “Or at least that was the way Magister Imaniel had told it. Cithrin had never been outside Vanai.”

This is a wonderful little narrative moment. Suddenly we find ourselves two layers deep, overhearing the voice of a young girl who is herself remembering the voice of her much more experience mentor. It is psychologically plausible, and Abraham has created the narrative distance necessary to give the reader a sweeping overview of his invented world, an opportunity that Cithrin’s voice alone did not afford him.

When you start looking out for them, there are all sorts of problems and clever solutions presented by point of view choices. I’d love to hear from others about similar successes, or experience wrestling with the same sort of problems.

5 thoughts on “The Little Fat One; Free Indirect Style in Fantasy

    • I think it can certainly work. Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles are mostly in first person (inside the narrative frame) and Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice is also in first person. Both books do a nice job creating character through narrative voice, but both are also disciplined about keeping the cast of relevant characters small. You can count the people who really matter to each plot on one hand. It’s hard to imagine Robert Jordan or George RR Martin writing in first person unless they had multiple narrators, which might be really cool…

  1. I just finished reading the Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. One of the things that astonishes me about Conrad is how he shifts POV with such grace, often multiple times in a single chapter.

    When I’m writing from a character’s perspective, I try to make my language as characteristic as possible. I have a high ranking courtesan, and formal descriptions follow her everywhere. I also have a thief, and I use planer language when I’m writing from his perspective.

    Now, from what I garner, Conrad takes a similar approach, but in the phases when he’s shifting between views, he switches to an uncharacteristic, neutral style before delving into a new character’s perspective. This eliminates the abruptness associated with jumping between mindsets.

    • Conrad! I haven’t thought about Conrad in a while because it depresses me to think about Conrad; he is, as you point out, staggeringly good… and English was his THIRD language. That said, you make a great point about Conrad’s handling of 3rd person omniscient. Not too many fantasy writers take on this POV, but Conrad provides a good model any bold enough to do so. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: seeing through others' eyes in reading game of thronesunderplex

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