When I started taking classes from my writing teacher, mentor, and now friend Laurel Leigh (perhaps you’ve heard of her?), she gave me some of the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten.
Fortunately, I completely disregarded it.
Before I tell you what her advice was, why I ignored it, and why that turned out to be a good thing, let me provide some background for the subject matter: writing in multiple Point of View (POV), or as I like to call it, expressing your multiple personalities in a single work.
I grew up reading epic fantasy, and I’ve known since I was a teenager that this was the genre I wanted to write. If you aren’t familiar with the genre of epic fantasy, I’ll give you the briefest introduction. Basically, the hero always has nothing less than the fate of the entire world on his or her shoulders. Picture Frodo attempting to drop the ring into the cauldron of lava in Mordor while everyone he cares about fights for their lives. No pressure, right?
In order to succeed in such a monumental task, the hero needs a large and competent cast of supporting characters. Would Frodo have succeeded without Samwise? I don’t think so. Gandalf, Aragorn, and Legolas played important roles too, among others. In epic fantasy, the battle is always fought on several fronts.
Because the hero can’t be present on all these fronts at once, epic fantasy is often written in multiple points of view. In one scene, we’re in Frodo’s POV as he inches toward the cauldron; in the next, we’re with Gandalf, holding back the orc army in the last ray of light left on Middle Earth.
Now, the advice Laurel gave me was this: Don’t attempt to write your book with six-plus POV characters. Find your hero—she might not even be the hero you have marked out as the main character—and tell her story.
Given my background with epic fantasy, these words broke on barren shores.
I should start by saying that Laurel was absolutely right. I would have had a much easier time, and probably produced a much better first novel, if I had followed her advice. I should also mention that I have followed, or tried to follow, at least 90% of the advice Laurel gives me, with winning results every single time.
Unfortunately for me, epic fantasy is what I wanted to write. I needed to start there.
I should also add that there have been several incredible epic fantasy tales told with a single point of view. In fact, my favorite author, Robin Hobb, uses single first person POV in her first work, the Farseer Trilogy. So multiple POV isn’t a rule of the genre, though it is the norm.
When I told Laurel this, those many years ago, she replied that it may be a convention in the genre, but that doesn’t matter. You should tell the story the way the story needs to be told.
Again, she was absolutely right, and again I ignored her advice, but her response got me wondering why so much epic fantasy is written in multiple POV. To be honest, before she suggested maybe I should scale things back, I hadn’t really considered writing in any other format.
The answer I come up with is this: multiple POV epic fantasy novels are actually the story of several different characters woven into one book, united by plot and setting. Through this method, the writer explores the implications of the main event (usually, but not always, the end of the world, or some great and final battle) on the various POV characters.
The benefit for the reader is that they can experience several different personalities under the same conditions. The farmboy becoming the prophesied hero experiences the dramatic arc differently from the wise old magician, who experiences it differently from the inexperienced young battle Queen. As a reader, I can experience the same story in a variety of different ways. It’s like the difference between ordering off the menu and exploring the buffet.
One of my favorite things about this kind of epic fantasy is how opinionated readers get about the characters. Even when all of the “good” characters are drawn as sympathetic by a given author, all of them have their haters on the online fantasy forums. Entire threads are devoted to tearing apart these characters, evidence perhaps of how deeply epic fantasy writers are engaging their readers using multiple points of view. Continue reading