Guest post: Django Wexler on point-of-view
This week I’m very pleased to welcome Django Wexler, whose epic gunpowder fantasy featuring a military commander hero and a cross-dressing heroine sounds right up my readers’ street!
Reconnaissance: Point of View as a Precious Resource
First, the Universal Caveat—this is, of course, only the opinion of one reader/writer, so please take it for what it’s worth.
I read a lot of books, as you might expect. In fact, ever since getting involved with the writer/publisher/book reviewer blog-tweet-sphere-o-net, I have been deluged with more books than I can reasonably read. There’s a pile of about fifty on the end of my desk right now, shaming me and threatening to collapse and knock over my lamp.
As a result, I’ve had to get a bit more ruthless about abandoning books in the middle if I’m not actually enjoying them. I used to make a bit of a fetish about finishing books, out of a masochistic sense of duty, but the growth of the pile has made this impractical. My new rule is that each book gets a hundred pages to hook me. Recently, I found myself tossing several novels in a row, all for roughly the same reason—too many points of view. So I thought I would talk a bit about what that means.
Point of view (POV) is something every reader understands, at least intuitively. It can be in the first-person (“I went to the store.”) or the third-person omniscient (“Bob went to the store, unaware that a speeding taxi carrying his long-lost daughter was at that moment …”) but those are separate discussions, so let’s confine ourselves to the more common third-person limited. In this POV, I can write “Bob went to the store and bought some milk,” but I have to leave out the bit about his long-lost daughter because our POV character, Bob, is unaware of it. I am “in his head,” so to speak, and show the reader only things that he knows, observes, or could reasonably be aware of.
A novel with this kind of style can have multiple POV characters, usually separated by chapters or scene breaks. (Flipping from one character to another in mid-sentence, or even mid-paragraph, can be very disconcerting to the reader.) In my book The Thousand Names, for example, there are two perspectives, Marcus and Winter, who more or less alternate. (With some exceptions, see below!) It’s a standard, popular style, which as an author you can expect readers to be familiar with—Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn is written this way, as is Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy.
The question, then, is how many POV characters you should have. At first glance it seems like the more, the merrier—after all, having more points of view gives you more ways to observe events, more perspectives on what’s happening, and the chance to spread yourself wider and write a more complex story. But there’s a countering tension, which I like to think of like this: POV time (that is, time or word-count spent in a particular POV) is a precious resource, which shouldn’t be needlessly squandered.
Why? Well, ideally, every scene in a novel accomplishes multiple goals simultaneously. Most scenes do something to drive the plot, but at the same time they serve to establish or deepen characters and relationships and help to establish reader sympathy. (For the characters who are supposed to be sympathetic, hopefully.) Being in a particular POV tends to be a good way to strengthen that character, to create reader sympathy for him or her, and to build relationships involving that character.
The book only has so many pages (and the reader only so much patience!) so the level of depth you can pack into a character is limited. Part of a writer’s skill involves squeezing the maximum effect out of every scene, but an easy way to handicap yourself is to spread that effort too widely. Think of the POV characters as balls you’re trying to keep in the air—the more of them there are, with all their attendant relationships and secondary characters, the harder the trick becomes.
The result of failure is that the characters feel thin. We don’t spend enough time with them to really understand them, or to establish sympathy for them, and so the plot of the book begins to feel irrelevant because the reader doesn’t care what happens. Alternately, if one character is clearly the “main” character, the other POVs may feel like annoying distractions. Another problem is that it may become difficult to differentiate between POVs, so that each has a distinct ‘voice,’ and all the characters can begin to sound alike.
How many POVs is too many is not a question that has a simple, numerical answer. In general, it feels like larger, more complex novels can support more POVs, while smaller and more tightly focused stories should have fewer. In many ways it is a matter of deciding what the primary story or stories of the book are going to be, and arranging the POVs to focus on that. If the book is about a relationship, having a POV on both sides can be helpful, and your POV characters may spend a lot of time together; if the story is about vast, sweeping events, they may never meet.
What is clear is that the decision to add another POV should never be taken lightly, because it imposes a cost in terms of the reader’s attention and sympathy. It’s worth considering (ideally at the outline stage) how many POVs you’re using, and if any of them could be eliminated. Multiple POVs who spend a lot of time in close proximity may be unnecessary—one of them might work better as a secondary character in the other’s perspective. Side stories, no matter how fun they are, are good candidates for the “kill your darlings” mantra unless they add more to the book than they take away.
In The Thousand Names, it took quite a few drafts to nail down how many POVs I wanted to use. The story is about a military campaign, and Marcus and Winter both take part, but they see it from opposite viewpoints. Marcus is a high-ranking officer, involved in planning and setting objectives, while Winter starts on the bottom and sees things progress from the point of view of the men in the ranks. A third major character, Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich, doesn’t get a POV at all. This is not because he isn’t important, but because as a character he worked better when seen from the outside—it allows him to retain an air of inscrutability that would be ruined if we had access to his thoughts.
One writer many of you are probably familiar with, George R. R. Martin, provides an interesting example of the ups and downs of POVs. (My personal opinion, of course!) The first book of his series, A Game of Thrones, is a masterpiece of POV economy. They all start out in one place (Winterfell) and we’re introduced to each POV via the previous one before they start spreading out to show us events taking place throughout the Seven Kingdoms. In the next two books, he adds POVs judiciously, and characters like Jaime Lannister are an excellent demonstration of the power of a well-placed POV to generate sympathy even for characters we previously despised.
However, as the scale of the books continued to spread (and as characters dropped like flies) new POVs kept being necessary. I found the fourth and fifth books a tougher read than the first three for this reason — we’re introduced to a dozen new POV characters, mostly people we’ve met only briefly, and the process of establishing sympathy has to begin again. (This is not remotely to imply I would know how to do a better job, of course. It was a tough spot!) If the series concludes, as planned, in book seven, I’m optimistic that the contracting scale will bring the POVs under control.
One common departure that deserves a look is the extremely brief POV, sometimes called a “mayfly POV.” These characters, often used for prologues, interludes, or other odd bits of story, come into focus only briefly and then disappear again. (Often, it seems, because they get killed!) They can be very useful for giving us a glimpse of a villain, or exposing part of the plot the main characters are unaware of. But they, above all, must be kept brief, since during these sections we’re getting plot and world detail, but not character information. Too much of that sort of thing and the readers will get distracted.
There are, of course, inevitable exceptions. Some writers are so skilled at what they do that they can handle far more POVs than would be possible for another author, and some books are structured in ways that don’t rely on generating sympathy for the characters, or are in some other sense unusual. Like any writing “rule,” this one is not hard and fast. But it is at least worth thinking about, when adding a new point of view, whether throwing another ball into the air really serves a purpose important enough to warrant the extra effort.
Django Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not planning Shadow Campaigns, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts. Visit him online at djangowexler.com.