IN DEFENSE OF MULTIPLE POINTS OF VIEW

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In The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction I offered this sage advice on the question of point of view:

Some authors tell me they write in “third person omniscient,” which they take to mean that the unseen, unnamed narrator somehow knows something the characters don’t. To my mind there is no difference between “third person omniscient” and “third person lazy.” In any one scene, choose one character and get into his or her (or its!) head and stay there until you decide you need to switch to someone else’s head. If it makes sense to end the chapter there, do so. Otherwise, a scene break is fine. But limit those point-of-view (POV) shifts so you aren’t stopping your readers every few paragraphs.

Lately I’ve been hearing about some perceived trend away from multiple points of view, and I hope I didn’t do anything to enable that trend. If you’ve read pretty much anything I’ve ever written you’ll quickly see that I write (most of the time, anyway) in multiple limited POVs, and generally in third person, past tense. This means that in a particular scene there is an unnamed narrator (third person) describing what has already happened (past tense), but for the most part the narrator only know what one of the characters involved in that scene knows (limited POV). Here’s an example:

Galen wondered what Bronwyn was smiling about.

If this was first person, it would read: I wondered what Bronwyn was smiling about. The words “wondered” and “was” indicate past tense. The fact that Galen is wondered why Bronwyn is smiled is a result of the limited POV—Galen didn’t know what was going on in Bronwyn’s head, so neither do we. Though I’ve seen a lot of literary novels lately written in present tense (Galen wonders what Bronwyn is smiling about.), and some of the great classics of the genre, like the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, were written in first person, limited POV, third person, past tense, tends to be the default for genre fiction, and I’m okay with that—which is not to say that I reject anything else, mind you, just that the trend isn’t in any way destructive and everyone is free to ignore it as they please.

But now there seems to be this idea afloat that multiple POV is bad: it’s confusing . . . taxing to the poor, beleaguered reader—which I find condescending, as though readers are too slow on the uptake, too dense to understand the switch in POV, or process being in the head of more than one or two characters. Nonsense. There are very, very good reasons to jump from POV to POV, always with the caveat that every decision you make in your writing should be well considered.

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My recent collaboration with Mel Odom, The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff, was very carefully limited to three POVs, which I think is a fine approach for a shorter work. The book is technically a novella, around 36,000 words. The three POVs are: Arron (our hero), the Hound (our villain), and the Butler (an even scarier villain). The majority of the story is seen from Arron’s point of view because ultimately it’s his story—hell, it’s his series. But I got into the Hound’s head for a few chapters to give some context to the world. The barbarian Arron is a stranger in the “civilized” colonies of the Heteronomy, and I needed a character who can show who the human antagonists are and how they pose a threat to Arron, but more so, why. The Butler, who intrudes in short, first person vignettes, does the same thing, but for the ghosts that haunt the crumbling manor house Dragon’s Cliff. Otherwise, each ghost would come off as just a monster, with no back-story or context.

See where I’m going with this?

Robots are the new vampire!

And I’m not alone. One of the books I happen to be reading right now provides a great, positive example of how multiple POVs can inform even shorter works. In Maverick, the fifth book in the science fiction series Isaac Asimov’s Robot City: Robots and Aliens, the author Bruce Bethke employs multiple POVs to positive effect. I’m not quite halfway through this short, 184-page book and so far there have been scenes from seven different POVs: the alien villain Aranimas, the human antagonist’s robot assistant Basalom, the robot City Supervisor 3 (aka Beta), the series’ hero Derec, the canine alien Maverick, Derec’s father Dr. Avery, and another canine alien named WhiteTail.

Why is this a good thing?

First and foremost, it’s a matter of motivation. I’ve pontificated time and again on this subject, which is something I feel very strongly about. There has to be a reason for your characters to be doing what they’re doing. For a hero, “because it’s the right thing to do” is not strong enough, any more than is “I’m an evil genius, bent on world domination” for the villain. People don’t do things (at least not things that are significant enough to tell a story about) for no reason, and characters should be people.

If you have, as in The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff, at least a few chapters from the villain’s POV, your readers will get a clearer sense of why the villain is doing what he’s doing, and that adds layers to that character that the hero (if you stick firmly to that one POV) may never realistically be privy to. It avoids painful constructions like: I later found out that what he really wanted was . . .

In the case of Maverick, the multiple POVs conjures the feeling that all these people are headed toward some climactic meeting at the end of the book (or the series)—something significant is building that has ramifications across a large stretch of the series’ invented universe, and not just in the immediate vicinity of the hero.

Many years ago I saw an interview with the legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, and have been paraphrasing this story ever since:

If you show the audience four men sitting around a table playing cards then suddenly a bomb goes off, you’ve given them a brief few seconds of horror. But if you start with the men playing cards then slowly pan down to reveal a bomb attached to the underside of the table, a clock relentlessly ticking down, then pan back up to the men playing cards, oblivious to the presence of the bomb, you’ve treated your audience to several minutes of unrelenting terror.

Sometimes the reader has to know something the hero doesn’t know.

But what about the case against multiple POVs, like “it’s confusing”?

No story should be confusing, but multiple POV on its own doesn’t make a story confusing. If you find a story confusing, it’s not because of the multiple viewpoints. Something else has gone wrong in the writing. Now, that doesn’t mean you should go insane, and throw a different POV in every paragraph or so. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and as with so much of the art of storytelling, there is no hard and fast rule defining that line. That having been said, I think three different POVs feels like a good minimum to me: hero, villain, and observer. This “observer” can be almost anyone, but in fantasy and SF in particular, that’s likely someone who can provide some kind of context for the invented world—like my boss ghost in The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff. As many as a dozen different well-managed and strongly-motivated POVs in a very long novel is fine. A short story, probably better with one, maybe two.

Some people have told me they think a single POV is more personal or immediate. Not necessarily, if you go back to the Hitchcock example. It can also be more limiting. Though I mean no disrespect to a character and series I truly love, I like to call this trap the John Carter, Arrogant Douchebag of Mars effect. These first person narratives often backed Mr. Burroughs into a corner in which he had to describe the superhuman awesomeness of his hero in the hero’s own voice. Coming up on a hundred years later, this is part of the Old School charm of these brilliant fantasies, but contemporary readers of a contemporary work will be rather less forgiving of the same sort of thing.

That Hitchcock story also brings up an interesting point about if and when it’s okay to break from limited POV entirely. If none of the guys playing cards knows about the bomb under the table, whose point of view are we seeing it from? If you were describing this scene in a book, you might describe it from the villain’s point of view (assuming it was the villain who planted the bomb . . . maybe the guys playing cards are Nazi agents and the bomb was planted by the hero), but sometimes you do have to step back entirely.

Back to Bruce Bethke’s Maverick: Chapter 9, which is told from WhiteTail’s POV, ends with this short, two-sentence paragraph:

All her efforts were concentrated on keeping track of her father. She never noticed the small, green observation robot that drifted along at treetop level, following her.

In the end, you’re going to have to learn to write by feel. What fascinates you about this scene? Who’s actually driving it? Who has the most at stake in that specific scene? What does the reader need to know to maintain tension and provide release? Keep motivation in mind at all times—why are your characters doing what they’re doing? Ask them, and they’ll show (not tell) you.

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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11 Responses to IN DEFENSE OF MULTIPLE POINTS OF VIEW

  1. Don Bassingthwaite says:

    I’ve done a novel with a third person limited single POV. It was interesting to be entirely inside the character’s head for the whole thing (and the feedback I had was that people loved that) but challenging because there was no foil. I think it worked because I invested in the character’s biases, then overturned them, but it was tricky and I don’t think I’d want to do it on a regular basis.

  2. I do the third person limited single POV in most/all of my books. As Don said, it’s hard and somewhat, uh, limiting, but I really think it works well. POV is something I’m very attuned to and it annoys me when I see mid-scene POV switches, sometimes back and forth between characters in the space of a few paragraphs.

    As for the final line of the chapter given in your example…

    “All her efforts were concentrated on keeping track of her father. She never noticed the small, green observation robot that drifted along at treetop level, following her.”

    I totally understand the impact this has on the reader. I also totally disagree with its use. If she never noticed the green robot, why is it even being mentioned? It bugs the heck out of me to see this kind of sudden POV switch. It strikes me as childish, and indeed I see this a lot in young children’s books.

    Interesting post!

  3. Philip, this a great and informative post. I write in third person, close but using multiple points of view. I’ve seen it done well, and I’ve seen it done with disastrous results. As you said in the quote from your book:

    If it makes sense to end the chapter there, do so. Otherwise, a scene break is fine. But limit those point-of-view (POV) shifts so you aren’t stopping your readers every few paragraphs.

    Amen. Unfortunately, too many people head-hop without using this simple guideline. It’s amateurish and causes other people to discount the usefulness of multiple POVs.

    I’m going to share this with my local critique group.

  4. joshua says:

    I find that in many cases multiple POO leaves me irritated and frustrated. I’ve read somewhere around 600 fantasy novels since the age of 11 and frankly I’m tired of the Robert Jordan style or writing. Every time I begin to fall in line with a character and become immersed in the events unfolding the author shifts characters. Each chapter ends up being a cliff hanger movie. In some cases 100 pages may pass before returned. One of the worst cases of this was The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Over time books like Patrick Rothfuss “Name of the Wind” have become a breath of fresh air.

  5. Martin Christensen says:

    @joshua I completely agree with everything you said. So many fantasy novels start out so well, but end up being a frustrating experience. Sometimes the first book in a series is OK, but then, when you eagerly pick up the next book, it’s like someone else wrote it. I’d call this the “show me the money” effect. I don’t know if it’s the author or the publisher (if book one was self-published) that’s responsible, but once they have you “hooked”, they start dragging the story out. Adding more “depth” and epicness by including multiple new POVs often means a much slower story with no end in sight.

    In some cases the other POVs (apart from the protagonist’s) are painfully dull or told from the perspective of an unlikeable character.

    I started listening to “The Sorcerer’s Ring” by Morgan Rice as an audio-book, but it suffers from way too many POVs. In the end, I almost had anxiety when listening to the main POV as I was sure the pleasure would soon be snatched away in favor of some dreary unlikable character’s POV… unpleasant😦

    Robert Jordan’s fate should be a cautionary tale told to aspiring fantasy authors. The man was responsible for one the most epic and recognized fantasy stories ever, but he kept dragging it out. In the end, he couldn’t see his life’s work finished despite promising a resolution with the book he was working on… a promise he would have been unable to keep anyway as the story had grown so immense that Sanderson had to split it up into three books. Had Jordan not gotten ill I suspect we would still be waiting for the “final” volume.

    @joshua: Indeed, too much poo also leaves me irritated… especially if chili was involved😉

    • Philip Athans says:

      Like any tool in a writer’s kit, multiple POVs have to be used well–it seems to me that you’re less troubled with the idea of multiple POVs than with the charcaters themselves, and that’s a real challenge for any author. You have to not just get in someone’s head, you have to make what’s going on in that head interesting, dramatic, and not necessarily likeable but relatable — and everything has to be designed to move your story forward.

      I won’t try to defend Robert Jordan, but I know from being in the publishing biz as long as I have that once you have established that kind of successful franchise the pressure is on to continue it, not to end it, and not every fantasy world, much less every fantasy story, is necessarily capable of sustaining five, ten, fifteen books or more. But then you have a publihser sending you six-figure checks and asking for more … hard to turn that down.

      Personally I’d love to see way more stand-alone SF and fantasy novels. Some authors like William Gibson have done a great job setting expectations for the kind of fiction he writes, but each book stands on its own rather than being the next chapter in an ongoing/never-ending serial. And Gibson also handles multiple POVs with considerable skill.

  6. Nate Marineau says:

    Amazing! Sorry to comment on an old post but this really sold me on defending my desire to use multiple POV in my sci-fi fantasy novel, for all the reasons you mentioned. A writer friend strongly disagrees with me, but my mind, and therefore my writing, is very cinematic. I really need a chapter or two away from the main character to show the villain, and develop what’s going on behind the main character’s back. Otherwise, I have to settle for telling it later. You sold me. And you have sold me a book, because I am now intrigued to read your work. Really beautiful post!

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