Most books I read now are written in what I call “POV (Point of View)” or third person limited omniscient. Like the namesake maiden of the above fairy tale, this is a place I’ve come to call home as an author. Part of this is because it’s what I read, so it’s what I’m familiar with. There are a lot of wonderful examples here. I’m going to go with a few I feel are particularly special.
The Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett: POV is, in my opinion, about character, and no one in the business uses POV to develop characters like Brett. I stumbled upon his writing while reading an anthology, and haven’t stopped yet. There’s a timing aspect to POV that Brett understands on an instinctual level.
The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson: Sanderson isn’t a slouch in the character department by any means, but for my money what he does with POV is use the narrative form to show the scope of his world. I discovered Sanderson when I heard he’d been requested to finish Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series (which is another great example of POV). At first, I read Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, thinking to mock the poor man who thought he could think to touch Jordan’s world. Then I read Mistborn, and I shut my foolish mouth. He was the perfect choice for so many reasons. I digress. Sanderson uses the characters in different locations and times to present the reader an idea of the scope of the world in which they’re interacting.
I’m sure the above authors and more use this form of narrative for a ton of reasons, but I wanted you to see how these masters of the craft use a tool for specific reasons.
Third person limited has become a go-to style for fantasy fiction. Perhaps some of my sci-fi readers will help me identify what style those writers lean to, but as I’ve grown up reading fantasy, I’ll stick to what I know. Third person limited is when the author takes you into the mind of one particular character. For one chapter, I might be a young woman who’s been an abused thief her whole life. The next chapter I might be a demon hunter, taking on the forces of evil. The trick is, whenever I’m in that character’s head, I’m learning what he knows, and only what he knows or observes for the duration of scene or chapter. It blends the scope of omniscient writing with the intimacy of first person.
Versatile: The writer can build character and show scope. The writer can present a large amount of information and hide specific pieces by carefully choosing what character’s mind to visit during a scene. Keep in mind, there are times when the reader can know information but the character can’t. POV helps with that.
Character development and scope: I chose the above authors because they epitomize the pros I’m discussing here. Writing in POV feels like watching a really good TV series. This is because, like television, when we watch a show, we follow one character around for a time, then meet someone new. The reader isn’t overwhelmed with a dozen random characters and what they’re thinking. Instead, the reader sees the world through one set of eyes, then sees a different place, or the same place under a different set of circumstances. Quintessential Editor dug into some awesome depth on this very topic on his post regarding subtext.
Reduced Intimacy: As with any form of compromise, no one can have it all. POV is more relatable than omniscient writing, but it’s still never going to connect the reader as well to your main character as first person. The idea is the readers will each find their favorite characters. That’s awesome. In Anime, Fantasy and television, I have favorite characters. It’s a great topic for discussion, but often this pulls the reader’s sympathy from one character to many.
The Unfavorites: In stories told through POV, there are inevitably favorites, and there are the characters readers genuinely dislike. This is dangerous because if a reader sees too much of a character he or she doesn’t like, it’s possible the reader will either skip ahead or put the book down.
I struggled with this while reading A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin. The book is well written, but it was centered around characters in the world that I just don’t have a lot of interest in. Sure, some arcs were cool, but it really slowed down the pace of the book for me. Now Martin had his reasons, and I agree with those reasons. This isn’t a review on the book, it’s an example that POV has a very dangerous side effect.
If your readers don’t invest in your characters, you lose. This is the danger of all books to be honest, but the cost is amplified here because you don’t have the safety of going “all in” on one character as you do in first person, nor do you have the ability to rapidly shift from character to character as you do in omniscient. For my money, this is the most dangerous disadvantage of this form of narrative.
Overloaded plot: I’ve already encountered this issue twice in my career. POV increases scope, but that increases your word count. In Caught, I originally had seven ongoing character viewpoints and two additional side viewpoints. That number of characters in less than 90,000 words was just too demanding on a reader to keep track of. The majority of the revisions I’m doing with caught were to narrow the number of viewpoints down from nine to six. Some will argue that is still too much.
In The Nick of Time, I was constantly frustrated with the cast of my book. I’d be halfway through a chapter when I legitimately realized I’d lost a character some three chapters ago. It’s easiest to get caught up in world builder’s disease using this, so the author who chooses this narrative should be fairly certain he knows the characters all have unique voices and arcs. The author should also make sure to note that the more viewpoints he or she uses, the larger the story will become.
Summary: This form of narrative has become my favorite, but in finding my favorite, I struggled because I was stubborn. It’s a tool, like omniscient or first person. If you’re writing a story with a large scope of compelling characters, or a story with a perhaps more limited number of characters that spread across great geographical distances, this might be the tool for you. I wouldn’t make this absolute, but those are the circumstances I feel best suit this type of narrative.
Did I leave something out? Care to provide a different side of some of these issues? As always, feel free to use the comments section. I had a lot of fun discussing the craft with the last post, and I look forward to more of the same.
Thanks for reading,