Epic Point of View

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 an epiphany I had at ICFA — 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.