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.

Nebraska Stumps Newton; Three Types of Literary Time

Anyone who’s ever driven across Nebraska knows that Newton was wrong. Not about gravity, of course. Gravity is still a thing (sort of), but about his notions of absolute space and time. Newton believed that both space and time were the intrinsic scaffolding of the universe, that they were present even in the theoretical absence of anything else, like some sort of invisible graph paper and silently ticking stopwatch. In his words:

“Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external…”

Leibniz thought this was a pile of horseshit, and ever since Einstein’s special theory of relativity, the consensus has swung heavily toward Leibniz. Of course, if Newton had just bothered to drive across Nebraska, he would have understood that, despite the neat longitudinal grid of the map, the distance between Omaha and Ogallala expands until it is nearly infinite, while the time you get to spend in Las Vegas when you finally cross the country is always criminally short.

Things are even more complex inside the pages of a fantasy novel (or any novel, for that matter) where we encounter not just expanding and contracting time, but three simultaneously occurring and overlapping time frames.

Hunh?

Time Frame One: Book Time. This is the time frame experienced by the characters inside the story. If the main character wakes up in the morning and is pecked to death by penguins that afternoon, the book covers about eight hours.

Time Frame Two: Reading Time. The duration of Book Time need not match the time a reader must spend, ass in chair, reading the book. An eight hundred page novel could cover a single hour (probably a really miserable hour), and yet it will take a reader thirty or so to complete.

Time Frame Three: Real Life Time. When you find a really wonderful book, the sort that involves sitting down at 6 PM, reading straight through while pissing into an empty Gatorade bottle, Reading Time and Real Life Time are nearly synonymous. More frequently, however, it takes a matter of days or weeks, Real Life Time, to get in the necessary hours of Reading Time to finish a novel. This happens because of a) other demands and b) running out of Gatorade bottles.

As a result, it’s not uncommon to spend twenty hours over three weeks completing a book that spans twenty years. It can be helpful, even crucial for authors to realize that the emotional responses and psychological developments of their characters are taking place out of phase with those of the reader.

For example, if Jessica sneaks into Jimmy’s house on page twenty-five and takes a dump on his pillow, both the reader and Jimmy could be expected to feel a visceral revulsion toward and (unless the attack is warranted) distrust of Jessica. If the book leaps forward ten years, however, between pages twenty-five and thirty (probably through a section break or chapter break), Jimmy’s feelings toward Jessica have had ten years to evolve. The reader’s have had about five minutes.

I felt this acutely when reading Ken Follett’s wonderful novel Pillars of the Earth. The book spans decades, but I read it in days. As a result, my feelings about outrages committed at the book’s start were still burning hot, even when the feelings of certain characters against whom those outrages were committed had cooled, or changed. I had days to process events they had decades to absorb. Despite having loved the book (I recommend it whole-heartedly), the ending left me feeling a little confused, a little left out, largely due to this disjunction between my emotions and those of all the characters.

Of course, an author can use the overlapping time frames in her favor as well. One trick that comes across particularly well is rehabilitation of dubious or downright evil characters. There’s a guy in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, a character we hate in book one. Martin later tries to bring us around to this dude, to make us see 1) that we may have misjudged him initially and 2) that he’s changed. This sleight-of-hand certainly worked for me, and seems to have worked for most readers, and it leans heavily on the fact that, for most of us, years and years of Real Life Time have passed between the character’s initial evil-doing and his later rehabilitation. In Book Time, however, it’s less than a year. It’s the obverse of the situation mentioned above – we, the readers, are ready to forgive, while most of the characters, understandably, are not.

In the end, the most important conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that if Leibniz hadn’t spent so much time dicking around inventing calculus, he could have written some bad-ass fantasy novels.

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.

Please Take Your Hand Off My Thigh; Intimacy in Narrative Voice

I don’t trust the Huggers. You know the people I’m talking about: that guy you only met that one time at that party (the one where some asshole flushed the metal doorknob and no one could use the toilet all night), who, despite not having seen you in three years and misremembering your name, insists, when you run into him at the ABBA cover band concert, on shouting, “Dude, what is up?” And then hugging you.

Or that woman you work with who you hugs you every time you see her, saying, “It’s so good to see you!” as though you’re the survivor of a wrecked whaling ship lost two years at sea instead of the guy who works three doors down from her every day. I don’t think the Huggers are evil, mind you, and I love a good hug when the time is right, but I’m always a little leery when people I would definitely make no effort to save in a zombie apocalypse insist on hugging me warmly and repeatedly. As they’re patting me on the back, I want to whisper, “When the undead come, I will let you die…”

Which leads me to my point about third-person narration: just as there are physical huggers, there are narrative huggers. Oddly, though, while I’m wary of the former, I find that the latter can make for quite effective storytelling.

Narrative huggers? Take a look at these lines from David Eddings’ delightful and venerable novel Pawn of Prophecy:

“In the early autumn just before Garion’s fourteenth birthday, he came very close to ending his career. In response to some primal urge all children have – given a pond and a handy supply of logs – they had built a raft that summer.”

This seems to be an objective little bit of narration; we learn the season (autumn), the location (a pond), the unfolding action (raft-building), and the second sentence could read simply: “Garion and his friends had built a raft…” Only, the narrator isn’t content to furnish us with the facts only. He wants to comment on those facts, to make a larger point: it’s not only that these particular kids at this particular time are building a raft, he wants to remind us, but that all kids in similar circumstances will tend to build rafts.

This is a move away from the action at hand. Toward what? Toward you, reader. Prepare to be hugged. The assumed agreement here, the sense that this proclamation regarding kids and rafts is one that the reader will readily accept, provides a type of literary intimacy, a bond inviting trust between the storyteller and listener. “You know how kids are,” the narrator seems to say, “and so do I.”

Tolkien is a great hugger. Right near the start of The Hobbit, we find this sentence: “There is little or no magic about [hobbits], except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along…” The most obvious hug here is, of course, the assumption that the narrator and the reader are similar, that both are large, stupid blunderers. This sentence, however, asserts its intimacy in another way. The narrator claims that hobbit magic is “the ordinary everyday sort.” Both of these adjectives – ordinary, everyday – assume a shared frame of reference with the reader, shared values. In just the same manner as the Eddings narrator above, this narrator suggests, “We have the same view of the world. We will agree as to what constitutes ‘ordinary’ and ‘everyday’ because we are fundamentally alike, you and I.”

Maybe a hug isn’t quite the right analogy here, but you can imagine the narrator pausing in his tale to wink or put a conspiratorial hand on a shoulder. Different readers have different tastes, and reasonable people can disagree over how much hugging and pawing they want from their narrators. There can be dangers with this approach, which I’ll get to in a future post, but I’m curious, at the moment, to hear how people respond when the narrator leans in close and puts a hand on your thigh. Do you pull away? Or let yourself be drawn in?