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.

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.