AND WHY CLOSE POINT OF VIEW IS A RISK
If you were me, would you like yourself? Would you want to stay in my head for a series of novels? That’s the challenge faced when writing close point of view. We’re kept close to the characters’ thoughts. If we like that character’s world view, or their elusive voice, chances are we’ll stick with them. If we don’t… meh. Book set down and forgotten.
In the type of omnipresent voice that used to be prevalent, characterisation was different. It was possible to keep distant from our heroes – and villains – and tell a little more than now, because an external narrator’s voice is more forgiving of telling than internal exposition is.
If I wanted to present a hero using that approach, I could do so. He’d arrive, all dashing and suave, and jump down from his trusty steed with an easy smile on his face. His sword would flash, his cape swirl, as he fought across the courtyard, his enemies falling before him. Finally, he’d reach his target and secure freedom for the city. No doubts in place, nothing but brave heroics.
We’d see little of his actual thoughts. No talk of how his stomach is churning. No dull aggression born of killing many times before to become so adept. No cheap thoughts of what he might do in the city that night: how much he might drink; what his army might do when enjoying the spoils; how he will let them because that is his culture and belief.
Close point-of-view is my favourite not just to write, but to read. The three central voices of Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself are one of the strengths of the book. Making Glotka sympathetic, despite his actions, was masterful writing and could only have been done by getting inside his head. Outside genre, it’s the voice that will pull me in regardless of the subject matter and keep me reading.
But writing such close characters carries risk. There is no room for falsehoods. The reader knows what the character knows. They know his/her/its (because you never know with a genre writer) thoughts, fears and lies. They know the lesser thoughts, as well as the heroic.
It can’t be any other way. In my head, there is a small voice that mutters things I wouldn’t say out loud. Things that may make me less likeable. And you have one, too. Every single one of us thinks less than likeable thoughts from time to time. In close pov, those unlikeable thoughts are presented, the doubts of the character included as part of their narrative. And, sometimes, that makes for a character not every reader will take to.
That’s okay, though. Put a crowd of people in a room and each will hit it off with different people. Sure, some people might be more popular – and, as such, might be a good person to emulate in your characters – but some will end up occupying a small corner with one bored victim. It will vary from person to person. For every ten people admiring Ms-Popular another couple will be gritting their teeth at every word she says.
In multi-pov stories, there is some room to hide. Don’t like Sansa Stark? Try gutsy Arya. Find the Starks all a bit goody-goody? Have Tyrion. Want a bit more of an edge to a person? Cersei is all edge with little softening. Take your pick. Somewhere in there you’ll find someone to like, and someone to hate, and it will vary just as it does at the party.
There is no place to hide with a Great Hero, however (and my first-person writer friends have it even harder.) If that character doesn’t work for a reader, it’s over. In presenting a character, warts and all, we run the risk of dividing readers.
Kvothe, for instance, from the Kingkiller Chronicles. To some, he’s the ultimate Mary-Sue. Good at everything. Smug. Insufferable to the point of some readers throwing the book across the room. To others, he’s an enigma. The opposite face of Kote, and how can that be? A damaged child, doing his best to survive. To write a close character, and show all the shades that reside within is brave. No hero is always heroic.
Nor is a baddy evil in their own mind. They don’t necessarily wake up and decide to make life awful for the multitudes that day. Instead, they wake up with their belief-systems in place. Yes, they’re skewed in comparison to most people’s but the antagonist still believes them. They either believe they’re right, or fear they might not be with all the fall-out that sort of doubt invokes.
It becomes impossible to write only bad and good. For my antagonist, the Empress, I deliberately did few scenes in her voice in Book one. I didn’t want the reader to understand her. I didn’t want them to know her because, in knowing her, they would see that she wasn’t the simple bad-ass portrayed. When she does come out in her full shades-of-grey brilliance there is much more to her than hinted at from the external point of view. And, here’s the thing – she’s all the more horrific for it.
That shades-of-grey is part of what makes close point of view work. That sense that we could be the person in that story. That we could take a wrong turning, and be a bad’un. Or we could, in fact, be brave enough to succeed. We empathise with the characters in a way we never could the robe-swirling destroyer of invincible fantasy. We could be them.
If you can take a reader to being the character, the book succeeds. But, in doing so, you’ll lose a different reader. That’s the balance-beam: for every character shining in the centre of the party another is nursing their drink at the edges and thinking dark thoughts. Because that’s how people are. And that’s what some of us like to read.