epic pov

A topic of conversation from ICFA: I’ve noticed that one of the things which makes it hard for me to get into various epic-fantasy-type novels lately is the way point of view gets used. As in, there are multiple pov characters, and shifting from one to the other slows down my process of getting invested in the story.

But hang on, you say; why “lately”? Why didn’t that bother you in your epic-fantasy-reading days of yore?

Because — and this was the ICFA epiphany — the epic fantasies of yore weren’t structured like that. Tolkien wasn’t writing in close third person to begin with, but he pretty much just followed Frodo until the Fellowship broke at Amon Hen; he didn’t leap back and forth between Frodo in the Shire and Aragorn meeting up with Gandalf and Boromir over in Minas Tirith and all the rest of it. David Eddings’ Belgariad, if I recall correctly, is almost exclusively from Garion’s pov, with only occasional diversions to other characters when the party splits or Eddings needs to briefly show a political development elsewhere in the world. My recollection of early Terry Brooks is much fuzzier, and I’ve almost completely forgotten the one Terry Goodkind book I read, but again, I don’t recall their narratives being multi-stranded from the start.

Even the Wheel of Time, which is pretty much the standout example of Many Points of View, wasn’t like that initially. The first book is all Rand, all the time, until the party splits; then it picks up Perrin and Nynaeve for coverage; then it goes back to Rand-only once they’re back together again. Eventually the list gets enormous, but you start out with just your one protagonist, and diversify once the story has established momentum.

The examples I’ve tried lately that present multiple povs from the start — Martin, Abercrombie, Reddick, others I’ve forgotten — are all more recent. And with the exception of Martin, I’ve had a hard time getting into them. Because character is my major doorway into story, and if I’m presented with three or four or five of them right at the start, I don’t have a chance to build investment in anybody. Martin is probably the exception because his different points of view overlap; the characters are not off in separate narrative strands, but rather interact with one another. It’s less fragmented.

Mind you, it’s funny for me to be criticizing this approach when I appear to have an obsession with dual-protagonist structures in my own books, and my pairs are not always connected at the start of the story. But I think this is a new development in the subgenre of epic fantasy, generally speaking, and it might explain why I’ve been less interested — despite the fact that the new epic fantasies often have more originality going on than the books I loved as a teenager. They jump around too much, try to present me with too many threads at the outset. I’d rather read a story that starts small, then builds. I’m curious to know what other people’s mileage is on this particular question, though.

0 Responses to “epic pov”

  1. coraa

    For me, the issue is that I need to be able to get invested in someone early on. It can be one person, or two, or maybe three… but it’s hard to identify with and/or get invested in five, eight, a dozen people, all at once. That isn’t exactly a POV issue… but when the narrative switches POVs eight times in the first three chapters, it can make it very difficult for me to identify who to get invested with.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yes, I can be invested in more than one character. But if you give me a single chapter of Character A, then another for Character B, then another for Character C — and if none of those three are interacting with one another — pretty soon I’ve forgotten why I cared about A, and gotten cynical about investing in B or C.

      Of course, it depends on the length of the chapter. The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters has three protagonists, and switches between them at the chapter breaks, but the chapters are about eighty pages long. So I was firmly engaged with Miss Temple before it switched away from her, and had seen Cardinal Chang appear in the story, which meant I was prepared to be interested when it switched to his point of view.

      • diatryma

        I think it was a Cherryh book that began with some pages– way more than a prologue, maybe fifty– of one set of characters facing one set of challenges, broke without handling them that I recall, then introduced more characters years later once the challenges had been dealt with, then, another bunch of pages later, broke and introduced a third set… and I just stopped. I had read too much of the book not to know who the main character was. I’m willing to put up with it from Dorothy Dunnett, not a lot otherwise.

        • Marie Brennan

          Yeeks. Not just swapping over to new sets of characters, but skipping the resolution of the conflict? . . . yeah, no.

          And as for Dunnett, even with her I have my limits. Not realizing “Claes” was actually the “Niccolo” of the series title meant it took me way the hell too long to figure out who the main character of Niccolo Rising was. I still mean to go back and try again, now that I know, but I know what you mean about reading too far without an answer to that question.

          • diatryma

            I think it was wonderfully done with Lymond; the discomfort I felt through most of the first book fit it perfectly. No one else had any idea whose side he was on, so why should I? But the Claes/Niccolo thing would drive me up a wall.

          • jonquil

            Another big turn later in the series comes when Character A turns out to be the Character B we’ve heard so much about, and we ‘should have known’ because of the similarity of the names. In Flemish.

            IMNSHO in the Niccolo series Dunnett got too focused in playing mindgames with the fans. I may just say that because I loathed both of the protagonists about halfway through the book and never found a reason to change my mind.

            Gosh, I am cranky today, an’t I? Must drink more tea.

          • Marie Brennan

            Somebody once described the Niccolo books to me as “all technique, no heart.” There are readers who love them more than the Lymond books, but I doubt I’ll be one of them, although I will definitely try to read the whole series.

          • jonquil

            I know Dunnett fans who love them both; Lymond will always have my heart. It helps that I stormed through the books during what turned out to be postpartum depression; I keep picking up bits I missed on reread.

            A friend of mine whom I met on a Dunnett list has an icon saying “The first hundred pages of my fandom are really fucking confusing”, which says it all.

          • aulus_poliutos

            Lol, I should steal that for Steven Erkison’s Malazan series. I personally never felt confused, but I know a lot of readers did.

          • Marie Brennan

            Malazan is another one I didn’t get into, though I don’t recall if that was because of too many points of view too early, or not.

          • aulus_poliutos

            Malazan is a wild ride and I think, more world- than character-driven, though some of the characters are pretty interesting, at least to me.

          • Marie Brennan

            That book is probably the most prominent case of me loving the narrative voice and other aspects (like Will, and Christian) well enough not to care that I had no idea what was going on in the main character’s head.

          • jonquil

            In *my* fantasy Appropriate Character Afterlife, Christian gets Lymond. But then, so does Kate Somerville. Quite the harem, which is hardly out of character.

    • green_knight

      I often end up investing in the character that dies and then losing interest altogether. (The character I followed in HP was Sirius- I started with III) – and once my focal character is dead, I’m much less interested in reading the rest of the book. Many equally-weighed POV characters are often a sign that ‘nobody is safe, everybody can die’ which is supposed to ramp up the tension and make me more interested in finding out what happens to them.

      For me, it has the opposite effect. If I know that a character can die, I’m not going to throw my heart into loving them. Character deaths _can_ be used to great effect, and break your heart, and you may still love the writer – but they should _mean_ something, change, profoundly, the way the story is going. ‘I want to increase tension’ is not a reason to kill someone. Not even a fictional person.

      • Marie Brennan

        I’ll grant Martin this: he gacks people all the time, but I can’t think of a single important character who’s died that hasn’t changed the direction of the narrative. (Maybe one, but I was rooting so hard for that character to kick the bucket that I cheered when it happened.) But I know what you mean about becoming afraid to invest in anybody. I quit watching the TV miniseries of Stephen King’s The Stand when they killed my favorite character, because I no longer had any interest in what was going to happen.

  2. jonquil

    Every single multi-POV book I’ve read — and yes, that does definitely include LOTR — winds up with my falling in love with one character/set of characters and grumpily speed-reading the less-beloved POVs to get back to finding out what the *interesting* people are up to.

    One recent book (can’t give the title because it would be a spoiler) nearly got abandoned for good because not only did a viewpoint character vanish after I was heavily invested in him, a quick skim forward showed that he never reappeared. (I stuck it out, and sure enough he showed up under a pseudonym.)

    Anyway. This cranky reader loathes that particular form of storytelling. I’m happy to flash back and forth in time and indeed space, but once you’ve got me hooked on a character, don’t throw me back and try again with a different worm.

    • Marie Brennan

      By the time I got to the third book of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy, I had stopped caring about any of the characters except Miriamele, and she seemed to have vanished from the story. Then the narrative picked her up again, and I discovered I didn’t care about her anymore, either.

      But it’s a fundamental risk of telling an ensemble story, that any given reader will engage more strongly with some parts than with others. Still, I think there are virtues to the ensemble approach, narrative strengths it offers that a single-pov story can’t. For my money, the best balace of the two is the one Jordan struck, at least early on: center on a particular person, stick with him or her long enough to get the story moving, then start branching out into other characters who have already appeared on the page. Then it’s more a matter of broadening my frame as a reader, rather than (as you say) throwing me back and trying a different worm.

      • beccastareyes

        I think Elizabeth Moon tends towards this approach as well, at least in her SF* — for example, in the Vatta’s War series, the first book keeps focus on Ky. The second book adds in Ky’s cousin, Stella, who was mentioned in the narrative, mostly as ‘cousin Stella who screwed up’ (plus, briefly Ky’s father (or uncle)). Then we get, Rafe, a friend of Stella’s, and Ky and Stella’s Aunt Grace… all people who have at least been mentioned first in the narrative, and possibly appearing on screen. I think there’s a few from left field — some of Moon’s later books in her series tend towards ‘random NPC-POV scene where NPC does something, only to die, but so the readers know what’s going on Elsewhere’ — but most of the POV choices make sense and are reasonably well-paced.

        * The only bits of her fantasy I’ve read are the Deed of Paksenarrion books, which tend towards keeping a close eye on the protagonist. Moon started a new series that picks up right on the heels of Paks and that is shifting POVs, to the point where I want to reread Paks just to make sure I have all the minor characters straight. (That and the details about the mercenary company that plays a role are better explained when the POV character is a new recruit, rather than the veteran captain.)

        • Marie Brennan

          Once I’m fully engaged, I don’t mind new povs from left field. (Though if you swamp me with them, it’s a different story.) It’s doing it in the opening of the first book that really doesn’t work for me.

      • diatryma

        This thread finally made me figure out how to describe Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars books: they’re a river. You start out with a few little streams with little problems, then they go on and new streams join up, eventually forming a powerful flow that dominates the landscape… but if you want to find where the river, the monstrous thing with giant otters and mangroves, begins, you find just those one or two little streams. The little fish in them go downstream and become big fish, and if you accidentally spill chemicals in them, the entire river is affected.

        That works for me in spite of the fact that by the seventh, I had forgotten who many of the characters were. It didn’t matter; there was a sense of inevitability about it, that the world had changed so much from the beginning.

  3. mrissa

    There’s always a risk that I’ll like one of the perspective characters and hate the others, but that doesn’t seem to happen nearly so often in genre work as it does in…well, Margaret Atwood is the major offender. She has an absolute gift for writing dual-threaded books where the threads are substantially dependent upon each other to make the whole and yet where I hate one of the two.

    For me the problem is not when there are multiple perspective characters but when the author is clearly using perspective to create suspense that wouldn’t be there in another perspective choice. George R. R. Martin is a clear example of this for me: we don’t get particular perspectives because then we’d know that somebody was still alive (/uninjured/etc.). Which makes me assume they’re still alive (/etc.), so then I don’t have the suspense and I’m annoyed about it, because it ends up feeling to me like the author capering about going “Ooh ooh look over here do not look behind that curtain!” and the curtain is gauze anyway.

    • Marie Brennan

      You’ve already heard me rant at length about a particular series where I love one pov character and really don’t much care about the other.

      I never got that particular whiff off Martin, I think because of the filter through which I process character peril. (Interestingly, it’s a very different filter than I use for most other authors.) He also manages, more successfully than most, to make me care about however I’m reading about at the moment: at the end of a Jon chapter, I don’t want to read about Arya, because I want to know more about what’s happening with Jon. Then by the end of the Arya chapter, I don’t care about Bran, because I want more Arya. Etc. (The exception to this rule being Sansa; I pretty much never care about her, at the beginning or end of her chapters.)

      • jonquil

        ” at the end of a Jon chapter, I don’t want to read about Arya, because I want to know more about what’s happening with Jon. Then by the end of the Arya chapter, I don’t care about Bran, because I want more Arya. Etc. ”

        This, in a nutshell, is why, even though I have loved GRRM since Fevre Dream I never went beyond Volume I.

        • Marie Brennan

          He’s the only author who’s made that work for me. Probably it has to do with all the other things working alongside the characters: strong plot, interesting world, etc.

  4. wshaffer

    Some years back, I read a book written by a very successful literary agent which was basically all about how to write a big fat bestseller. One of the bits of advice that I found quite odd was his insistence that your book had to multiple POV. This seemed to be partly based on the idea that it’s easier to cover an epic plot with multiple POVs, and partly on the idea that you could cover your bases better in terms of reader identification if you had a variety of characters.

    I found this a very odd idea, because I tend to struggle with multiple-POV books. A dual-stranded novel is fine, but really large numbers of POVs are distracting, not to mention encouraging of the kinds of stupid plotting tricks that mentioned above. I will confess that when I picked up George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings, and discovered that it began by adding yet another POV character to the long list of ones from the first book, I uttered something blasphemous and unprintable, put the book down, and haven’t touched the series since. I know that it’s my loss, really, but I just can’t quite summon up the energy.

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s definitely easier to build an epic plot with multiple points of view, because then you don’t have to contrive reasons why your single protagonist knows about and/or interacts with everything that’s going on. But the “covering the bases” argument is a weird one to me, because you’re equally if not more likely to turn readers off with one or more of the characters you’ve included.

      Martin didn’t lose me on the “adding yet more points of view” until the fourth book; there are three new ones in it, each of whom gets two chapters apiece in the whole book, one of whom could have had their chapters given over to a different (already established) character, and one of whom dies at the end of their second chapter. This was pretty much the point at which I decided Martin had lost control of what he was doing, and was falling into the Jordan trap of fractal complexity.

  5. pameladean

    I can take multiple viewpoints early in a bookd on one condition: that the narrative voice itself is enchanting to me. If I’m going to lose my viewpoint characters too fast, the narrator had better step in and take the burden. This is what got me through the later books of LoTR. The only book I can think of where the voice was enchanting to me and I still resented the shifts in viewpoint and the long waits to get back to the people I cared about was Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and I think that that was symptomatic of a larger problem I had with that book.


    • Marie Brennan

      What got me through the entirety of LotR was grit and a determination to achieve cultural literacy. 🙂 But I can imagine that a good enough narrative voice in another text would have the same effect for me. It would have to be awfully good, though, because fun prose isn’t enough to hold me if I don’t care about the characters.

      • pameladean

        Ah yes, that’s always so interesting — one person’s enchanting narrator is another’s twee ditherer; one person’s riveting storyteller is another’s irritating monotone.

        This has been said so often it’s boring, but for me, the first time through LoTR, the character I cared about that was always present was Middle-earth. After that I did come to care about everybody, but only after narrative lust was satisfied.

        My problem isn’t usually quite so stark as not caring about the characters, though; it’s more irritation at being yanked around the plot in ways I’d prefer not to be yanked.

        Do you find that subsequent rereadings of books that start with widely dispersed characters who don’t seem to have anything to do with one another to be more satisfying than the first reading, when you don’t know how it all fits together? Or is it truly a matter of the characters alone?



        • Marie Brennan

          I can’t think of any specific examples of what you describe, but it occurs to me that the first book of the Lymond Chronicles comes close, in that on a later reread I know the motivations that explain all these seemingly disparate actions the protagonist is taking. And yes, it absolutely is more satisfying. I expect the same would be true of a book playing pov games, presuming the author is actually doing their job well — though there are probably books out there whose early structure would turn out, upon rereading, to be very badly-juggled indeed.

  6. swords_and_pens

    For me, it’s a matter of story combined with character. If you have multiple POVs *and* you are following engaging storylines, then I can become interested as long as things keep moving. But if you switch from something interesting to someone doing the dishes, you will lose me.

    There needs to be parity and flow to the narrative across the POVs. This doesn’t mean rip-roaring action in Chapter 8 with POV 1 needs to be followed by rip-roaring action in Chapter 9 with POV 2, but something should be happening. Going from crisis to boredom to crisis across narratives only makes me want to skip the intervening slow bit. It’s a delicate balance, but the narratives need to balance and play off one another to keep things moving forward.

    One guaranteed thing that will get me to put down a book and never come back is switcing POV/narrators in the middle of a paragraph, or often even a section. It is very disconcerting for me to settle in mentally with one character, only to have someone else barge into my consciousness with no warning or expectation. This is why, when I picked up “Dune” after having not read it in years, I couldn’t get through it. I’d first read it when I was young and devouring books like they were slices of pizza, and I didn’t notice it; but now, shifts like that send me grumbling and cursing to the shelf for something — anything — else to read.

    • Marie Brennan

      But if you switch from something interesting to someone doing the dishes, you will lose me.

      Presumably the author always thinks what they’re switching to is interesting; the reader, however, will not always agree. My issue is that the plot rarely engages me unless I’m engaged with the character, so you could hop over to some rip-roaring action and I still wouldn’t necessarily care. Once I’m invested, you can get away with a lot more, but in the early chapters, that investment is still being built. If it keeps being undermined by shifts to new material . . . I may just stop there.

      One guaranteed thing that will get me to put down a book and never come back is switcing POV/narrators in the middle of a paragraph, or often even a section.

      This doesn’t bother me if the actual point of view is omniscient — I can’t remember if Dune fits that description or not — but yes, there are some authors who wander between heads simply because they don’t know what they’re doing.

  7. Anonymous

    This is exactly what turned me off of the last Robin Hobb book that I picked up: the prologue and first chapter had an excellent hook that I loved. The second chapter introduced a different POV, and then the third chapter another, and the fourth chapter another. That was when I gave up, still waiting to get back to that first POV that I loved, and too tired to put up with the other four or five or eleventy that the book insisted on spitting out. (In its defense, this was the nth book of a series, and the characters had all been introduced in earlier books, presumably. This might have been less of a problem if I were starting from the beginning.)

    • Marie Brennan

      I can forgive that rate of change if it’s not the first book in the series. But I’ve tried a couple of series lately that do that from page one, and in several cases I’ve just put them down with a shrug.

  8. Anonymous

    I could go off into waaaaay too much lit-crit theory on this,* but instead I just recommend a book nearly as fat as a volume in an Interminable Fantasy Series: Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction. For a mid-twentieth-century English professor, he sure understood narrative in a way that doesn’t make its way into the classroom very often (and, in particular, at the school he taught at, but that’s an argument for another time).

    There is more than one right way, and more than one wrong way, to handle multiple POVs. Most of the wrong ones do have something in common: It’s the same authorial voice looking through a different set of eyeballs, and even the internal monologue aspects are too similar. A differing POV is more than a different vantage point for description, although too few “postmodern epic” authors (and editors) understand that. The whole point of the extra POV is to provide a different perspective, and authors who respond “the name is Friday, Sgt Joe Friday: just the facts, ma’am” are either dumber or more disingenuous than most when they won’t acknowledge that their voice must change with the viewpoint. Tolkein did that quite well — just compare the blank verse of the battle at Helm’s Deep with the multi-view visit to Shelob’s Lair. It wasn’t just formal rhythm, either.

    * As proof of my nerd credentials, I reprogrammed my DVD player to watch Jackson’s The Two Towers in “book order” when I first got the DVD instead of the head-hopping order of the film… and it makes a big difference. Viewing all of Frodo’s efforts while not “knowing” what’s going on in Rohan — and, in particular, without Gandalf’s presence hanging in Frodo’s near-background — puts Frodo’s (and Sam’s) character development in a rather different light. To my mind, this was Jackson’s most serious error in adapting the books for the screen.

    • Marie Brennan

      I wouldn’t personally hold Tolkien up as a model to emulate; I’m in the camp of people who were way more interested in the Aragorn-et-al end of the story than the Frodo-and-Sam-trudge-through-Mordor end, which meant that enormous blocks of the plot I barely cared about were more off-putting than otherwise. Now, I’m well aware his structural choices (among others) work really well for some people, so they’re not without merit. But me, I prefer the head-hopping order of the film.

      You’re right about the failure to really differentiate points of view, though. It’s a missed opportunity on the part of the author, when they could really be enriching their stories. Unfortunately, achieving that kind of difference requires the writer to be able to get deeply into the headspace of the individual characters, which requires a) the skill to do so and b) the time to devote to it. The latter is hard to arrange, if you’re trying to make a living nowadays: “just the facts” is a lot quicker to get onto the page.

      • jonquil

        camp of people who were way more interested in the Aragorn-et-al end of
        the story than the Frodo-and-Sam-trudge-through-Mordor

        ::holds up a lighter::

      • Anonymous

        I’m only holding Tolkein up as an example of technique, because good examples need to be relatively familiar to the audience (that’s why I didn’t cite to The Recognitions). In substance, LoTR displays some serious problems (in order to make his theme work, for example, he needs to head-hop even less… and that doesn’t fit the pace and means of character development). It all gets into the question of “how much simulated simultaneity does the audience demand?”, and I suppose I spent too much time doing physical and bioinorganic chemistry to fall anywhere close to the mean or median on that… now reinforced by academic work in law and the histories of law, and military force, and publishing…

        The best example I can come up with in speculative fiction (that’s in print at the moment) for how to do it “right” is The Left Hand of Darkness… but that is primarily because the thematic material and character development are, themselves, merely the right and left hands of each other. For all the praise heaped on that book, I think it not praised enough. And, of course, it’s true “speculative fiction” sitting somewhere in the intersection of the sets “science fiction” and “fantasy” and “magical realism” (with more than a nod toward “politicoutopian fiction”), so that makes it hard for people who like Clear Labels to talk about.

        In short, I grew up on narratives made before Hollywood stopped paying literarily oriented screenwriters back in the 1970s (and yes, I’m pointing at a certain dark influence on the Force as a, but not the, culprit); I had my firm sense of narrative values before Terry Brooks published Song of Sha-na-na. That’s not a snooty “my assumptions are better than your assumptions” as much as it’s a “my assumptions are different from your assumptions, especially near the edges”… because, as Our Temporarily Invalid Hostess notes, and Faulkner’s oevre and Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time demonstrate all too readily, one can have too much of something that is otherwise a good thing and end up with a poisonous mess (thus part of my snark about Brooks).

        • Marie Brennan

          Hollywood pays any screenwriters these days? <g> (I’ve been reading ‘s blog, and corresponding with him, and my horror at their position in Hollywood knows very few bounds.)

          • Anonymous

            And it should know no bounds, because that’s the optimistic viewpoint. I get too involved in the business side of these things; “cynical,” for me, would be an unduly Pollyannish position.

            Specific example: For [film in semilimbo due to intrastudio politics at the moment], it took eleven redrafts of the production agreement to get the studio to budge on “what part of ‘you may not claim copyright in the previously published novel’ did you not understand?”. And that’s before realizing that the novel in question was neither the first- nor last-published in a series, nor the first nor last in chronological sequence. The objection was even put in those terms for the second redraft of the agreement, at which point the idiots at the studio tried just moving it to a different part of the contract.

  9. zhai

    Word to all that. I have trouble with a lot of modern epic fantasy for this reason. It also drives me up a wall when a book starts with a prologue with a throwaway character — though certainly some really excellent books have done this in the past (Diamond Age comes to mind).

    I do prefer starting close and then branching, especially with an author I haven’t read before. I think Martin does a good job of making sure that each of his characters has a compelling story of their own, and that keeps you reading — but I gave up on Song of Ice and Fire in book 3 because of those spread out supply lines… going forever, or so it felt, without getting the characters I was itching to hear from. I may try again when the series is done.

    I have heard the advice mentioned above about multi-perspective, but the agent I was reading mentioned specifically that this is a late-stage career sort of thing, after some solid work in tighter, closer, shorter novels. It’s a master-level technique to keep the big multi-perspective going. I think that even braided dual narratives are in a different category.

    Piers Anthony used cycles in a lot of his novels, which was interesting and I recall kept me going in some of his stories because even if I wasn’t super-enthusiastic about the character in the particular chapter I was reading, I knew what was coming up next. It also gave the whole novel a sense of rhythm and a sense that the author knew where it was going — a feeling I sometimes find missing in the big cast-of-thousands fantasy books. I haven’t read anyone else who’s done this recently…

    • Marie Brennan

      My general thoughts on prologues are here; I don’t address characters there, but my thought is that I don’t mind a throwaway character so long as the scene has more lasting value.

      I don’t remember if I’ve read any of the Anthony novels that feature the cycling approach — it’s been so long since I picked up his work — but I can see it having merit. It runs the risk, though, of forcing the narrative itself into an unnatural shape; it’s time to go back to Character C, even if it would logically make more sense to skip them until after Character A makes their next move. Not impossible to pull off well, but hard. Kind of like writing a sonnet, maybe.

    • jonquil

      I was furious at TDA when the only character I cared about disappeared halfway through the book to become part of a coitus-powered computational deus ex machina.

  10. diatryma

    There’s a pair of books I’ve read and delighted in picking apart that have four POVs each, in pairs. In the first of the books, I’d say one and a half of them are more or less pointless; in the second, I bet you could cut out two because the events overlap, maybe two and a half, but honestly I had a better time picking the book apart than I did reading it, so you might be able to remove all four.

  11. hooton

    I’ve noticed that one of the things which makes it hard for me to get into various epic-fantasy-type novels lately is the way point of view gets used. As in, there are multiple pov characters, and shifting from one to the other slows down my process of getting invested in the story.

    Do you find that this is just the case with epic fantasy or is it the same with any genre of book that you read?

    I ask because for me multiple POVs aren’t a problem so long as they are done well. If there are a load of POVs in the first chapter and none of the characters seem to have anything to do with the others then I’m more likely to be bounced out but if you can see the connection from the start or the build up is slower, then I can usually jog along with it.

    • Marie Brennan

      Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any non-epic-fantasy books that have tried to do it to the degree I’m thinking of. I can deal okay with two points of view early on, but the higher the number gets, and the earlier all of them are presented, the more it becomes a problem. And the only novels I’ve seen try to give me four or five viewpoints in the first hundred pages have been at least somewhat in the epic camp.

      Of course, anything done well enough becomes a lot more acceptable. And as you say, seeing the connection early on helps. I generally trust the connection is there — if I didn’t trust the author to manage that much, I wouldn’t bother picking up the book — but if you give me too many new scenarios before returning to the first one, I start forgetting who that person was, what they were doing, why I cared, etc.

    • diatryma

      I think epic fantasy is the genre most likely to have space for this particular thing, followed by epic science fiction. Anything shorter, and you end up with three scenes per POV.

      • Marie Brennan

        Its scope both permits and demands the extra perspective.

        • diatryma

          I keep wanting to bring up Patricia Briggs here; she has at least three books with big wars and/or apocalypse in the backstory/background/over the next hill, but the scope of each story is closer. It threw me a bit, but I like that instead of writing about saving the world, she writes about saving a village after the epic things have wrecked everything else.

          So there, I have brought up Patricia Briggs.

  12. aulus_poliutos

    I almost feel like a dissenter here, lol. Because I don’t mind the shifting POV lines approach of Abercrombie et al. I don’t know why I don’t mind getting introduced to a number of characters in a short time, but I usually care for some of them (in case of Abercrombie it was Logan and Glokta) without feeling janked out of their story by the shift to another character/plot line. Maybe I’m just weird. 😉

    But I do the same as writer and now I worry a bit. Sure, I stick with one character/plot line a bit longer than one chapter*, but I still introduce a bunch of MCs that are not connected at that point during the first part of my BEM (Big Epic Mess), and in case of the historical fiction NiP I start with omniscient and give the reader more than one character’s POV in the very first chapter. Since I never have problems with those things as reader, it didn’t occur to me others may, and the Don’t Do This or That rules are not something I stick to because I see them broken in published books, books I enjoy, left and right. Plus, I have tried to write limited third in scenes that want to be written in omniscient, and it never works.

    * It will probably something in the 12-15K range for the Roderic plotline, and about that length for the Alastair plotline as well (not sure how long the first Iverys section will turn out), while the one taking place at court will only be a short interlude. Not sure that works better, but some instinct told me I should not shift between Roderic, Alastair and Iverys every chapter but present their stories in larger chunks – something between Abercrombie and Tolkien (though in case of Tolkien the split occurs later in the book so it’s not fully comparable).

    • Marie Brennan

      some instinct told me I should not shift between Roderic, Alastair and Iverys every chapter but present their stories in larger chunks

      My personal inclination agrees with your instinct. Barring specific “stunt” cases, I think narrative flow should dicate when you shift, rather than a rigid structure; I’d prefer to see the story move away from a given character when they’ve just finished an important task, or at a moment of high tension, or something else organic.

      As for the general rule, mileage always varies. In my particular instance, there’s usually two paired problems, and they feed on each other; I might have liked Logan and Glokta (and the others) more had I stayed with them longer at a stretch, and conversely had I liked them more, I would have been more firmly hooked into the story and therefore more willing to go along for the pov ride. There’s no guarantee that book would have worked better for me with a more settled pov structure, but I know that the structure didn’t help.

      • aulus_poliutos

        Yeah, and the narratice flow tells me the best moment to shift would be when Roderic (and Kjartan, another MCs but who’s secondary to Roderic in that first part) are hiding in the highlands from both Roderic’s father and the king. Considering the fact that Roderic had been the Royal Marshal, pretty much the second highest ranking man in the kingdom, you can guess that some excrements have hit the ventilation pretty bad at that point. 🙂

        The first breaking point for Alastair’s plot line would be when Illugi betrays him to the Nordmen, though that would require a shift back in time to meet up with Roderic’s plot line again. Not that big an issue, I think – some sort of coherence in a character’s line should work better than a strict timeline as long as the reader will be aware of shifts back and forward in the timeline as a whole. Iverys’ story will only start after Roderic left for Gallicaine and Alastair is dragged off to Nordland. At least that is the structure I think I will have for the first part.

        Writitng out of order doesn’t help with timelines but if GRR Martin can do it …. *grin*

        • aulus_poliutos

          The historical fiction NiP is worse, btw, and the fact that Arminius insisted on being a MC as well, thus bringing those up to 6 (and that’s not to mention the number of characters who also get the POV which can be pretty much everyone in omniscient) didn’t help matters. 😉 This thing is turning out a lot bigger than I had planned.

  13. Anonymous

    I’m going to be another dissenter here… I love reading multiple POV epics. (One of the few things I hold against Abercrombie is that he probably doesn’t have *enough* POVs :)) I feel like it lets me get to see more of the world, and more potential worldviews in it, than I’d be able to if the author was only feeding me one POV. Plus there’s the safety valve factor that if one POV character happens to rub me up the wrong way (I couldn’t care less about Sansa in Martin’s books, for instance) I know there’ll be another one along in a minute 🙂

    That said, one of Martin’s POV shifts a book or two ago when he suddenly cut to another dukedom we’d never spent a moment in before did leave me feeling like he was taking the proverbial… I think that’s how the Sand Snakes turned up, though, and they were fun, so it all worked out 🙂

    • Marie Brennan

      I enjoy them once the ball has gotten rolling; it’s the up-front presentation of so many perspectives that puts me off. As someone said in an earlier comment, it’s like hooking me, then throwing me back in the water and trying again with a new worm.

  14. pentane

    Brooks, to my recollection, also sticks to single PoV. Not suprising since the first Shannara books was LotR with some serial numbers filed off and I don’t remember that changing in the next 3-4 books I read.

    I always associate the multiple PoV thing with Gibson who did a really interesting job of tying three threads together at the end of the story in Count Zero, and now seems to be doing same by rote.

    • Marie Brennan

      I haven’t read the Shannara books since, geez, possibly elementary school, so I really wouldn’t remember. But that doesn’t surprise me.

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