As an aspiring writer, I have discovered a plethora of resources on the web about the various aspects of writing. Also as an aspiring writer who has started learning about writing, I now read fiction with a new set of eyes. And reading is important for a writer, because it shows how other writers tackle the same writing problems.
Some of the writing I’ve re-discovered in my book collection is a short series of fantasy adventure fiction from 30 years ago: Red Sonja. (For those of you who don’t know, Red Sonja is a female warrior for hire in the same pre-medieval setting as Conan.) The authors, David C. Smith and Richard Tierney, had been involved in writing swords-and-sorcery fiction of the style of Conan for some time. These novels show writers experienced in their craft, able to create strong characters and exciting adventures. And bittersweet endings, too, as the setting is a place where death is very cheap. Especially considering the essentially violent nature of the protagonist’s career.
But reading through them I noticed something a little odd. No, the language wasn’t out of date. The dialogue was more than readable. It was the point-of-view.
Most modern advice to new writers is about restricting your point-of-view. The best-selling Harry Potter novels use a Limited Third-person POV, which means that except for some prologues, the story is told entirely from what Harry sees and hears. This works because most exposition happens as Harry learns it: we explore the wizarding world at the same rate he does. The Sookie Stackhouse novels, by comparison, are told from a First-person POV, which means you see the story from inside Sookie’s worldview. Once again, exposition happens as Sookie learns about events and people. It means that it is more difficult to see what other characters think of each other without Sookie’s opinon intruding.
However, older, more experienced writers as well as slightly older works are much less restrictive. Terry Pratchett uses a third-person POV where he switches between characters on scene boundaries. There is usually one character carrying the bulk of the narrative, but there are secondary characters who have a considerable share, and often smaller roles who have their scenes, too. The Watch novels do this very well. Most of the POV is from Vimes, giving the reader the vicarious joy of muddling through the puzzle alongside the grizzled old commander. But there are scenes from Angua’s POV, letting you enjoy events from a different angle. And then there are always small scenes from the POV of the primary antagonist littered through the story.
David Eddings does much the same thing. Most of the Belgariad is from Garion’s POV. However, when the narrative splits, Ce’Nedra takes on most of the remaining narrative burden with other minor characters taking whole scenes as they need to. The advantage for both authors is that those pieces of the story can be told in their correct spots and the observations of events can be suitably coloured by the POV. Restricting the narratives to one character would make for very different stories.
Red Sonja shows an even older style. The POV shifts readily within the scenes between the major characters. Much is from Sonja’s POV, and with good reason. But there are several characters in each of the novels who own parts of the narrative. Most of the time, the reason for this is as above: the story can be told more effectively this way.
What is happening here? Is this merely a shift in accepted best practice? Perhaps it’s actually harder to shift the POV around effectively. It does require more planning, I’ll grant you that. But I’m wondering if a single POV helps slow the story down, basically requiring more words to say what happened.
Makes me think hard about the POV I use.