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.

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Swordplay and Beer Drinking; The Trouble with Mastery

My friends and I have this game called Shotgun-Shotgun. You take a can of beer, put it on a stump, shoot it with a pellet gun, then run forward and drink the beer spurting out of the can. I can tell you with confidence that I’m good at this game, and although we only play it rarely, I’m unlikely to get much better. That is because it’s really quite a simple game.

In this, it is almost exactly unlike chess. Chess, we are told, takes about ten thousand hours to master, ten thousand hours, mind you, for someone who is already pretty fucking good at chess to begin with. This ten-thousand hour rule seems to apply pretty broadly across the spectrum of complex, multivariate activities, things like basketball and the playing of the violin. To achieve a top level in any of these fields, the evidence suggests, you really need to put in about ten thousand hours of sustained, intentional study.

This is a serious problem for writers of fantasy. Or, to put it more precisely, a serious problem for the characters about whom fantasy writers tend to write.

Take, for example, the hoary old trope of the farm boy who becomes a blademaster. Let’s assume the kid has the necessary natural talent. Let’s further spot him a few hundred hours due to his ability to handle a hoe. He’s still about 9,700 hours in the hole when it comes to the mastery of Kvaaana’va, the glowing, bedragoned, unbreakable antique blade of his people.

Consider the curious case of Rand al’Thor.

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.

As far as we know, the first time Rand’s ever held a sword is in the third or fourth chapter of The Eye of the World. And yet, by the end of the second book (The Great Hunt) he holds his own in single combat against one of the Forsaken, evidently on the strength of a few dozen lessons squeezed in between a lot of wandering, running away from Trollocs,  and playing the flute. Barely half a year has elapsed since he first holds a sword, and yet he’s capable of battling a full blademaster to a standstill. For those of you not near a calculator, half a year is about 4300 hours, and that’s all the hours in all the days.

Given Rand’s piecemeal, ad hoc practice schedule, a schedule not really suitable for a middle school scrabble club, let alone the martial training of the most important person in the world, it’s more than a little surprising that he gets so good so fast.

Of course, there’s something assholish about totaling up hours and insisting on certain tallies for certain activities. This is fiction, this is fantasy, and I’m totally willing to admit a little flex into the calculation. Rand’s case, however, involves more than a little flex. It strains credulity so violently that the whole fabric of the fantasy is in danger of tearing wide open. If this kid can master a sword in a few weeks, it would seem that anyone can do anything – which, as it turns out, is not far from the truth, given the extraordinary abilities mastered by the other characters. Keep in mind that the whole series, all fourteen books, span just two years. The final eight books cover less than twelve months.

Jordan is far from alone when it comes to this issue of implausible mastery. Part of the reason is that fantasy often doubles as a coming of age story, a fact that puts the writer in a bind. Her first choice is to compress the learning process (whether of sword or magic or bow or politics or whatever) into a preposterous time frame. The second is to dilate the space of the novel in order to accommodate the necessary training. We’ve already seen the dangers of the second approach. Expanding the time frame avoids these dangers, but runs the risk of diluting the narrative urgency.

Of course, writers have found a way to tackle this problem. Anthony Ryan, for instance, in his brilliant first novel, Blood Song, makes use of the frame story, a narrative unfolding in a compressed present, to keep his multi-year tale of training, mystery, and self-discovery from coming apart. Without the frame, Blood Song might seem rambling, unfocused. The frame, however, reminds us that the whole thing is aiming at a clear climax. It gives us a particular lens through which to understand the passage of many years. It’s a smart approach, and Ryan handles it masterfully.

Ursula K. Le Guin does something different in her Earthsea novels. Each book covers a relatively short period of time, a few weeks or months (although Wizard is longer). This gives us the intensity and focus that can be lacking in longer, more wandering narratives. The passage of time, the consolidation and mastery of Ged’s skills, takes place primarily between volumes. The years pass, Ged’s abilities grow, and yet we aren’t forced to witness every step along the path. Instead, Le Guin draws us in for the inflection points, the most crucial forks in the road.

A third approach, quite common in the genre, is to start the story with a young character whose training is mostly behind her or him, who is just at the cusp of a major breakthrough. N.K. Jemisin uses this approach quite skillfully in her beautiful, gut-punching novel The Killing Moon, where Nijiri has already mastered the bulk of his training before the book opens. This allows Jemisin to focus on the crucial final steps, the last lessons imparted from master to student (and dredged up from the depths of the student’s own being) in the story itself.

I’m sure there are other ways to handle the dual issues of training and time. I’d be curious to hear from other readers and writers on the subject. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to my own ten thousand hour apprenticeship. If only Lan al’Mandragoran could make me a master of writing in half a dozen quick lessons squeezed in between beer drinking and sledding.

A Lover, a Piglet, and a Deep Hole; or, Three Types of Tension

I propose an experiment:

Step One: Acquire a garden hose, a stopwatch, two air horns, a terrified piglet, a wheelbarrow filled with manure, and a hole in the ground ten feet deep and six feet across.

Step Two: Trick your wife or husband, boyfriend or girlfriend, romantic partner or best friend, into stepping into the hole.

Step Three: Gently lower the piglet into the hole.

Step Four: Join both of them in the hole.

Step Five: Explain, once you are both at the bottom of the pit, that you’d like to discuss a subject on which the two of you (the two people, not you and the piglet) have historically disagreed.

Step Six: Arrange things such that, as soon as the discussion begins, another set of people begins filling the hole with water, blowing the air horns, and pelting you with manure.

Step Seven: Allow the piglet to race around the bottom of the pit throughout.

Step Eight: Use the stopwatch to carefully time how long it takes the two of you (again, the two people, not you and the piglet) to come to some sort of agreement or compromise on the issue of historical disagreement.

I’ll admit that it’s just possible that these conditions might lead your friend or partner to submit instantly and absolutely, conceding his or her own side of the debate just to get out of the fucking hole already. More likely, however, much more likely, is that something ugly is going to happen at the bottom of that pit, something far removed from rational discourse and compromise, and you’d just better hope to hell that the air horns and the squealing piglet drown out the screaming.

Why would you do this? Well, to become a better writer, obviously.

This is, after all, what you have to do with your characters all the time. Take the famous scene from The Fellowship of the Ring in which Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn and the rest attempt to cross the Redhorn Pass in the shadow of the great peak, Caradhras. The fellowship is clearly threatened by weather and rockfall, but the threat doesn’t end there. The strain of the conditions leads to the disastrous decision to turn back, to attempt to cross beneath rather than over the mountains, through the Mines of Moria. One can imagine this discussion going differently had it taken place back, say, in Rivendell, when everyone was well rested and well fed. In the cold and wind, however, battling against the evil of Caradhras, the social fabric of the group begins to fray. There’s no piglet, of course, and no air horns, but close enough.

Tolkien knows, of course, that there are three primary sorts of literary tension: the psychological, the social, and the environmental. These are my terms, not his, and I’ll give a set of examples:

Psychological Tension: Jocelyn has lived most of her life ashamed at having fled from the Goblin Horde that murdered her family years earlier. This shame leads her to take foolish risks in all sorts of situations. The tension that results is primarily a product of her psychology, at least so far.

Social Tension: Jocelyn is travelling with Matt. Matt is an anxious person. His palms sweat at the prospect of riding a spirited horse, let alone facing down a Goblin Horde. Jocelyn’s constant risk-taking leads him to a grim conclusion: she’s going to get them both killed… if he doesn’t kill her first. Matt’s psychological weakness are exacerbated by the people around him, by the social tension that results.

Environmental Tension: Jocelyn and Matt might actually scrape by if all they need to do is walk down the Santa Cruz boardwalk. Nothing would provoke Jocelyn into risk-taking, and Matt, therefore, would be able to keep a lid on his murderous desperation. When we pluck them from Santa Cruz, however, and plop them down in a different environment – in the cellars, say, of the Palace of the Goblin King – things are unlikely to end well.

The three types of conflict are sometimes treated as though they’re separate. You hear people complain regularly of the latest action flick: “It’s all just car chases and things blowing up.” While I happen to love car chases and things blowing up, the point can be a valid one. Environmental tensions that do nothing to exacerbate social tensions are hollow and bombastic. If the characters start getting along better when the city bursts into flames, you (the author) have a real problem.

Likewise, social tensions that don’t chafe against raw psychological tensions are pointless. Imagine: Jesse makes fun of Jimmy’s ears. Jimmy, a level-headed and self-respecting young man, ignores him. Not much of a story there.

Give Jimmy a psychological weakness or wound, however, and we’re off to the races. Let’s say his ex-wife divorced him, saying, “You look like a goblin with your tiny face and huge, stupid ears.” Let’s say he really took that to heart. When Jesse makes his crack, Jimmy’s going to have him hanging over the Brooklyn Bridge by his ankles.

This kind of dynamic plays out all the time in my favorite sport: adventure racing. Teams drop out of races all the times, and at first blush, it usually looks as though it was the environment – the freezing rain, the endless bog, the capsized boats – that did them in.

Closer observation, however, usually reveals something else: the environmental difficulties irritate social tensions (John is sick to death of Jill telling him how to paddle the fucking boat), which are themselves almost always based on psychological issues (John was worried from the get-go that he’d be shown up by Jill, and sure enough, she’s proving far, far tougher than he is). The three types of tension meet in a perfect storm.

The teams, on the other hand, made up of happy people with good senses of humor, women and men who can work hard without taking themselves too seriously, usually endure with equanimity and even laughter the very worst of environmental tensions.

“Literary fiction” (whatever the hell that is) often (but certainly not always) eschews environmental tension as superficial or gaudy. We get tight little portraits of depressed men and women staring at blue jays while drinking themselves to death. Or whatever. Epic fantasy, though, is epic for a reason. It’s great to have a group of unhappy, distrustful people, but if you can put them on a rocky ledge above a gorge with a thousand hungry wolves on their trail and raging wildfires ahead, why wouldn’t you? Also, it never hurts to throw in a piglet.

The Lounging and the Bon-bons

Followers of this blog will have noticed that I haven’t posted recently. I can hear you all muttering, “He’s lounging in the November Vermont sun eating bon-bons.” Well, I am. But I’ve also been writing articles about fantasy — they’ve just been ending up in other places. For those of you who are curious, here’s a recap:

The Problem with Prophecy: On the role of prophecy and the troubles it presents. Ruminations on the irritating oracle at Delphi, the book of Revelation, and the Bhagavad-Gita. Also, a raging discussion in the comments section.

Depicting the Divine in Epic Fantasy: Gods are all over the place in fantasy, but it’s tricky to do them well. I take a look at a few different approaches here, with discussion of ass trumpets and brain eaters along the way.

Asymmetrical Ass-Kicking: On real life heroism and what it can teach us about the writing of fantasy. If you don’t know the name Miyamoto Musashi, you don’t know about one of the most bad-ass real-life people ever to wield a sword (or two). Myke Cole was generous enough to post this over on his blog, which is filled with great content. If you head over there, it’s well worth spending some time looking around.

Finally and most exciting, the first seven chapters of The Emperor’s Blades are now up for your reading pleasure. You can check them out on tor.com, here. Feel free to let me know what you think, either on this blog, or in the comments below the chapters themselves. If you like what you find, please consider pre-ordering the book here. It’s cheaper than waiting for the publication date, and it helps me out a lot!

As always, thanks so much for reading, chatting, and generally loving fantasy. Now, back to my bon-bons.

 

Marriage is not Epic Fantasy; POV and the Dangers of Intimacy

“Even after twenty years together, my wife/husband/partner still surprises me every day!”

When I hear comments like this, I know I’m supposed to say, “Shucks, isn’t that sweet!” Instead, I want to call bullshit. If you spend twenty years with a person and they still surprise you on a daily basis, either you haven’t been paying very close attention, or you’re married to someone with a serious personality disorder.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love my wife, and marrying her was one of the two best things I’ve ever done (the other being having a kid). However, if we made a list of the wonderful things about our shared life, “Daily Unplumbed Mystique Coupled with the Bass Thrum of Bottomless Mystery” probably wouldn’t appear near the top.

Not to say that Jo doesn’t feel an occasional shiver of unanticipated pleasure when I do something unusual like unloading the dishwasher all the way. Or that I don’t find myself staring when she says it’s actually ok to have an “October Beer and Mud Sports Festival” in our backyard. Still, we don’t tend to shock each other all that often because after five years together, we know each other. Mostly. Which I have to think is sort of the point of a long-term commitment like marriage.

Marriage, however, is not epic fantasy.

The intimate familiarity that can make a romantic relationship so rich and secure can be anathema to the fantasy reader. After all, if we’re looking for a familiar story, we don’t tend to open books with paintings of half-orcs battling ice trolls beneath a sky spangled with blood-red stars. Now, obviously not everything about a great fantasy is mysterious and unusual. We need some contact with our own lives, contact that usually comes through a character or group of characters whose intellectual make-up and emotional responses are recognizable, familiar.

If all of the characters are cozy and familiar, however, if they all seem like our aunts and car mechanics and friends, we start missing out on the epic in epic fantasy. After all, we come to the genre expecting certain characters to be mysterious and larger-than-life, unfathomed and unfathomable. We should be able to relate to Sam and Frodo (even if we don’t agree with everything they do or think), but when we’re reading about Gandalf, we probably shouldn’t be thinking, “Yeah, I totally get what it’s like to be the Servant of the Secret Fire; I hated wielding the fucking Flame of Anor.” The story would be weak if Galadriel, who has lived through the three ages and thousands of years, seemed just like Jessie, the pigeon-toed brunette from that cocktail party you were at a few weeks ago.

Most fantasy writers understand all of this intuitively. Fantasy novels are replete with truly epic characters: gods and immortal mages, inscrutable dragons and sentient battle-axes. There is mystery. There is awe. There are unresolved questions.

One of the most potent tools in maintaining this mystery is point of view. Many of these larger than life characters aren’t POV characters, meaning we never get inside their heads. They can utter grand pronouncements or rattle off impossibly witty quips page after page, and they never seem too normal, too familiar (if handled well) because we only see what the writer lets us see. The POV keeps the mystery intact.

There is, however, a danger. Often, these secondary characters, due to exactly the mystery and awe just mentioned, become fan favorites. To take just one example, consider Boba Fett, the masked bounty-hunter from Star Wars. In the original three movies (episodes IV, V, and VI), Fett has a very small role, but people love him, he has his own fan club – and people want more of the characters they love. When this happens, the author (or film maker) is pressured to explain, to reveal, to expose psychology and backstory. Such explanations jeopardize the very foundation of the reader’s initial interest in the character.

And this is where POV comes into play. If we’re in Gandalf’s head, we know every time he has to take a dump, every time his gout acts up, every time that luxurious beard itches. None of that is necessarily bad. Sometimes it’s extremely effective to puncture the bubble of mystery and awe. Given the difficulty of unpuncturing bubbles, however, it’s well worth thinking about what will be lost through greater revelations, what will be destroyed through intimacy.

Peter Watts, in addition to being one of the best sci-fi writers around, understands this. His brilliant novel, Blindsight, involves a ship filled with misfits captained by a hyper-intelligent vampire named Sarasti. Watts makes the crucial decision to keep us out of the vampire’s mind, and he goes a step further: not only does he keep the reader in the dark about Sarasti’s motives and emotional make-up, even the other characters in the book are baffled by him. They often don’t understand his tactical decisions or the reasoning behind them, and Sarasti himself makes little effort to explain himself. “You can’t follow,” is his response to the questions of his crew. Those three words, in cutting off any avenue of inquiry, open up an entire world to our imaginations.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to be married to Sarasti, but damn is he fun to read about.