GUEST POST: The Epic POV, by Kameron Hurley

If you’ve read a lot of thrillers or crime novels, even many horror novels, you’ll be familiar with the “primary protagonist plus tons of one-off point of view characters” style. Sometimes you’ll just get a few paragraphs from the point of view of a pilot who gets to view an event vital to the plot from another angle. Sometimes it’ll be from the point of view of a parent horrified when their child starts vomiting cereal, which ties into what the protagonist does for a living, and shows us, the reader, the public hullabaloo that triggers the product recall that gets our protagonist fired from the cereal company.

These point of view switches give readers a wider view of the world outside the protagonist’s head. Intercut with the primary point of view character or characters, they also gives us a narrative break; they can help build tension and create more interesting pacing.

I’m used to reading multiple point of view books in a variety of genres, yet when it comes to epic fantasy, I will hear quite often from readers that epics suffer from the problem of “too many” point of view characters. Oddly, I haven’t heard this much of popular thrillers, which employ multiple point of view characters as well.

I admit I’m not sure what this means sometimes, having read crime novels where you spend the entire first chapter getting to know a character you know will be dead by the end of it, and hopping through a bunch of point of view characters in something like Jurassic Park where I was like, “OK, not sure what that added, but let’s go.” And let’s not even get started with a really vast epic like War and Peace.

The reality is that you should have as many point of view characters as you need to tell the story you’re trying to tell. If you don’t need a point of view character to tell your story, then yes, they should be cut. Use as many or as few as you need.

That’s it. You have my permission.

I often think this rebellion against too-many-point-of-view characters from some readers is an issue related to empathy fatigue. We can only identify with so many people – and then see horrible things happen to them – so often before it wears us out. This has become a bit of a problem with the A Song of Ice and Fire books most notably, where the death count is so extraordinarily high that one often develops an aversion for sympathizing with a character because they’ll be dead within a few hundred pages at best.

This is likely why we’ll swallow more point of view characters in thrillers – at best, we get half a chapter, a scene, with a person before we move on. We’re not given time to get emotionally invested in them. We may be given just enough to find them sympathetic, and then the narrative is moving back to our primary protagonists. We know we don’t have to get invested, because they won’t be around long.

In the epic, you’re never really sure who’s important, or who’s about to get knocked off after three chapters. It can be painful.

I’ve also found that many episodic television series feed and nurture an expectation that no real harm will come to characters in the soap operatic tradition of having horrible character deaths that are either retconned (“it was all a dream/we used this magic thing to reverse time”) or through resurrections (“they weren’t really dead/we used a magic spell to fix them”). These sorts of “they’re dead but not” stories give you the catharsis of experiencing the death of a beloved character without them really being dead. It’s a safe, escapist fantasy, and I’ll be the first to note that with so much horror in our lives, it’s a vital fantasy for many. I can weep along with the death of my best TV friends and cheer when they are resurrected. It gives me the full gambit of emotions, all happening to fake people, all without causing me vital harm. And I know, then, that I can watch the show and get invested in the characters because the likelihood of horrible death that lasts is far less.

This is what it comes down to: we don’t want to risk an emotional attachment to someone who’s going to die, or who doesn’t matter to the story. Writers who insert multiple point of view characters who are sympathetic, who readers come to care for, and then either kill them off or have them show up for three chapter and tap out, make a lot of readers tired. I get that.

But you know what?

It doesn’t mean I’m going to use any fewer point of view characters if that’s how many I need to tell the story.

Writing what we want to write and writing what we know makes readers happy aren’t always going to be the same things. At the end of the day, you need to figure out who you’re writing for and what you want. The reality is that some books hit it through a combination of talent (nominal) and good luck (mostly). So I find that when someone wants to put a cap on something like, “You can only have five point of view characters” I end up pointing out all the really successful work that doesn’t fit that template, and it all falls apart.

Tell the story you need to tell. In the way it needs to be told.

You’ll be loved. You’ll be hated. People will rant about you on the internet.

It’s all just par for the course.


ABOUT the Author

Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy, comprising the books God’s WarInfidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed MagazineYear’s Best SFEscapePodThe Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.

7 thoughts on “GUEST POST: The Epic POV, by Kameron Hurley

  1. Pingback: MIRROR EMPIRE Blog Tour is Upon Us: Here’s What to Expect | Kameron Hurley

  2. Steven Erikson in his Malazan series somehow manages to get you invested in a character and then kill them off in three pages, repeatedly, without losing your attention.

    • The Malazan Series is a really interesting example when it comes to this question. He’s dealing with such a broad sweep of history, that I think it’s almost understood (at least by the second or third book) that the individual narratives are important only partly for themselves. Unlike, say, LOTR, where Frodo’s struggle IS the struggle of good versus evil, the Malazan conflict is so much larger than any one character that I think we end up viewing those characters (and their deaths) a little differently. Does that interpretation resonate at all?

  3. The Faithful and the Fallen is written from numerous POVs, and it is an adequate example for introducing POVs as they are needed. For example, the character of Veradis is absolutely necessary to tell us of what happens at Nathair’s end. But Camlin could have been avoided, as a POV, but we do not know how he is vital to the story yet, so the character cannot be written off just yet.
    On the other hand, Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfus is told from a single POV(the past is), and the story gets told marvelously. But the world-building suffers. We do not know anything about the world Kvothe lives in, beyond the places he travels. Sure he does quite some traveling in The Wise Man’s Fear, but still, the narratory device cashes in at the expense of world-building.
    Another one that really succeeds in storytelling without cost to world-building is Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song. He uses a similar structure to Rothfus’s , but it works better, ranging over a wider span, yet the world is well described.
    So, there is no definite number of POVs to make it work, it varies from book to book. But A Song of Ice and Fire really crossed a line with the POVs, I felt. It is too much to ask the readers to sympathise with a character they were told to hate from the first chapter- Jaime, for example. Also, the Red Knight by Miles Cameron had a bit too many POVs that it actually took out the momentum.
    Here, Brian’s Emperor’s Blades is worth mention too. He strides a middle ground of sorts – not a single protagonist, not many either. Two men, one woman. That worked fine too.
    I have found that multiple POVs work better when they are spread geographically than any other context.

  4. Pingback: Saturday Miscellany — 9/13/2014 | The Irresponsible Reader

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