George R R Martin and a hundred different viewpoints

Posted: December 18, 2013 in reading, writing
Tags: , , , , , ,

George R R Martin isn’t afraid of using multiple viewpoints. If anything, it’s becoming a little bit of a problem in the later Game of Thrones books, as every single character in Westeros screams to have their voice heard. So it’s interesting, both as a reader and a writer, to get some insight into why he does it.

Original photo by Shane Lin via Flickr creative commons

Original photo by Shane Lin via Flickr creative commons

Broadening narrative scope

Martin recently gave some advice for budding fantasy writers. As part of it he talked about choosing PoV characters to broaden the narrative’s scope. He’s telling an epic tale of war, and he can’t show different aspects of what happens without showing a range of experiences – people in the various theatres of war, living through different events on different sides. It’s a much more modern approach than using an omniscient God-like viewpoint, and I agree with Martin that it’s a better one.

Losing focus

The problem with this sort of thing is that a story with so many different viewpoints, such a scattered focus, can lose some of its emotional impact. Momentum and intense atmosphere are sacrificed for the sake of showing it all. Harry Turtledove’s alternate histories suffer from this. They achieve a huge scale through multiple viewpoints, and you get to see every facet of the war, but they often lack a sense of atmosphere and emotional engagement.

Keeping a balance

The more I think about this, the more I realise just how brilliant George R R Martin is as an author. Despite that broad spread of viewpoints he manages to fill every chapter with emotion and tension, to make me care about nearly all his characters. It’s a tricky thing to do.

Of course, if he turned that skill to a more focused and compact story, something like his previous Fevre Dream, then he could build something truly intense. But I’m loving what he’s doing right now, so I shan’t complain.

In fact, knowing why Martin writes the way he does is reassuring for me. Understanding that that approach is a particular tool for a particular job lets me relax into a different approach to viewpoint in my writing, while appreciating both the glory and the limits of what Martin is doing.

Keep it up George, you continue to be awesome. And thanks for the advice.

  1. I read the Game of Thrones books while on my old 3 hour daily commute and when I got home each evening I would recount everything I read that day to my husband. This really helped me cement the characters/viewpoints in my mind. Without it I would have had a harder time keeping it all straight. But I absolutely loved the approach, especially because it didn’t matter if someone’s viewpoint was being featured, they could still die at any moment and we’d lose their voice and perspective, just like in real life.

    • 3 hours commute? Holy cow, that would drive me nuts. I can see why you took a big thick book.

      His willingness to kill off viewpoint characters is one of my favourite things as well. It prevents it becoming predictable, and as you say makes it feel more real.

  2. Jon Taylor says:

    I have been using my commute to listen to ‘The Lions of Al-Rassan’ and I am, once again, in your debt for the recommendation. Even though its written in the third person, it feels like this is doing something similar as it skips from Jehane’s persepective to Alvar’s, both liberally sprinkled with the historian/narrator’s voice. Maybe its a good example of an alternative somewhere between the single perspective and multiple pov models? Either way its a great way to explore a world.

    I also love the way Guy Gavriel Kay does a deft dance with his chronology, teasing with hints and foreshadowing before taking the story somewhere surprising. Its delightful and lyrical. It reminds me of why I flirted with learning Spanish at Durham!

    • Jon Taylor says:

      … and while I’m on the subject of Martin and Kay. I wasn’t aware of just how important Sunday afternoon films like this ( ) were in shaping my imagination.

      • And yes, those films made a big difference to me too – I have such fond memories of El Cid I’m not sure if I dare go back and watch it with an adult’s more critical eye. Just thinking about the ending, with him riding out dead and into legend, it brings a tear to my eye.

    • GGK does have a wonderful way with world building, doesn’t he? And the different perspectives are very well intertwined, including the way that reading Jehane’s parts throws light on Alvar’s, and vice versa.

  3. glenatron says:

    One of the things that Dorothy Dunnett does very well – and which GGK partially inherits from her – is to tell parts of the protagonist’s story through another character’s eyes. So you get their actions, but filtered through the beliefs and expectations of the person who is the current POV character. It is a brilliant way of telling the story, giving a clearer idea of the characters around the MC while also opening the door to subtly misdirect the reader.

    It requires an extraordinarily accomplished author to carry it off well, though, I think. Certainly I can’t think of many other writers who do a good job with it.

    • Where it’s happening in GGK it seems much more subtle than in other cases, for example Conan Doyle’s Holmes/Watson partnership. There’s a more nuanced interweaving of characters than just a protagonist/narrator team-up, to the point where a hundred pages in I’m not totally sure who the protagonist of one strand is but I’m enjoying it either way.

  4. […] there’s a rich range out there to be found, from Chap-hop to Afrobeat Joy Division covers, dark fantasy epics to silly pirate stories. And the market can reward good work. Sure it’s to blame for the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s