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Some Thoughts on How POV Works


NOTE: I apologize for posting this a little bit late, but I’m in Hanoi at the moment on business, and I’m swamped with meetings. I hope you will forgive both my tardiness and editorial clumsiness in exchange for some pictures of beautiful Hanoi (click on them to enlarge).

I haven’t written much about point-of-view before, probably because I find it so intrinsically wedded to voice that separating the two has always seemed pointless. But on the (long) flight to Hanoi, I read a couple Daniel Silva books (The Kill Artist and The Unlikely Spy) and his use of an omniscient narrator and shifting POV within individual chapters leapt out at me, and made me reconsider my somewhat flippant attitude.

People like to use metaphors to describe point-of-view: it’s where the camera sits, it’s the lens through which we see the story, etc. While such metaphors do have some descriptive value, I don’t think they’re actually useful for talking about how POV fulfills its function, which at its heart is to engage the reader and lock their attention on the story. Voice serves the same purpose (which is probably why the two concepts are so closely wedded in my mind), but POV can accomplish some goals that voice alone cannot.

The Selectivity of Fictional Description

All fiction is a description of made-up events taking place in fictional environments which the reader constructs in their imagination. When we write, we suggest the elements and images and actions that we want our readers to imagine. While we will never know what they really see in their mind’s eye, if we fail to plant some consistent images in the reader’s mind then we won’t have a story. Point-of-view is the tool through which we select the relevant facts.

Consider the story of Cinderella: if you strip away the stylistic elements, if you strip away the voice, if you strip away the characters, what you are left with is a collection of (fictional) facts which nevertheless have a point of view.

Fact: a young girl has a stepmother and some stepsisters. Fact: the stepsisters and the stepmother make the young girl work very hard. Fact: the young girl is unhappy. Fact: she wants to go to the prince’s ball, but her stepmother and sisters won’t let her. Fact: she goes anyway. And so on.

That brief set of facts, presented clinically and with no more panache than a grocery list, nevertheless has a point-of-view that is inherently sympathetic to Cinderella. It ignores the concerns of Cinderella’s stepmother or stepsisters. It ignores the concerns of the prince – at least, those which do not relate to Cinderella. It ignores the state of the kingdom’s economy, the country across the bay, or the weather. Those concerns are irrelevant to the story being told – and it is point-of-view that communicates which facts are relevant.

Subversion of known stories is almost always predicated on a shift in their point of view. The story of Cinderella might be a told from a perspective sympathetic to one of the stepsisters (as in Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister), or the stepmother, or the prince, or a palace servant. The tentpole events of the story might remain the same (the cleaning, the ball, the search, etc.) but the details through which the events are described – which in effect comprise the story’s content – would be totally different.

Subversion of narrative conventions likewise relies on a shift in POV. For example, the “gritty” fantasies of Glen Cook, Steven Erikson, Joe Abercrombie, etc. subvert the tropes of heroic high fantasy by shifting their POV to the grunts in the mud on the front lines. But POV is more subtle than merely switching the focus of the reader’s sympathy.

The Relationship Between POV, Facts, Tension, and Theme

The facts of a story, and the point-of-view which selects those facts, are used to either give the reader the information necessary to understand the events of the story, or to draw the reader’s attention to the author’s thematic intent.

In Daniel Silva’s The Kill Artist, switching POVs between different characters informs the reader of facts unknown to other characters. This is a classic Hitchcockian technique for building tension: we might know about the trap awaiting our protagonist around the corner, but because they do not, the level of tension (and our engagement with the story) increases. Will our hero survive? Tune in next time!

On a thematic level, Silva uses POV shifts to give the reader a clearer picture of characters’ emotional states, which thematically serves to establish a certain degree of moral equivalence. Because these POV shifts occur within chapters and without clear textual markers, they introduce a greater narrative distance into the text which in turn contributes to a concomitant slowing of the story’s pace (quite frankly John Le Carré achieves a similar thematic and emotional effect less clumsily with less frequent POV shifts).

And while Silva relies on shifting the perspective of characters to draw the reader’s attention to his artistic goals, POV can use other devices as well. For example, one can imagine a retelling of Cinderella that maintains its focus on Cinderella’s concerns, that adheres to the tentpole events of the story, that is even told in a voice similar to the Charles Perrault story, but which draws the reader’s attention to Cinderella’s poverty, or her stepmother’s desperate desire for upward social mobility, or that otherwise suggests concerns with social class. The POV need not be mobile to achieve these effects: it merely needs to select for different facts or to draw attention to different details.

POV’s Relationship to Character and Voice

Most stories operate on both an external/physical level (character X does Y) and on an internal/emotional level (character X feels Z). On both levels, character is the common factor: when we read, it is the characters who engage and maintain our attention. And POV is the tool through which we tell the reader which characters are deserving of our attention.

I think the distant narrator is a dying breed: almost every narrator I can think of these days is a close narrator, either first-person (it doesn’t get any closer!) or close-third. There are good reasons for this, in particular because such close perspective engages our emotions more rapidly and draws us into the story sooner. But the point of view is the marker by which the reader learns who they should care about.

At the same time, combining POV’s selectivity with its focus on character presents an opportunity to deepen our characterization. POV selectivity is all about choosing and presenting the details that are most relevant to our narrative goals, but the details that we select can tell us a great deal about the character our POV is focusing on. Careful selection of details enables our words to serve double duty: to further the external/physical level of the story, and to deepen the reader’s understanding of the internal/emotional level. The surroundings, emotions, sensory details, etc. that we include express our character’s value system, priorities, attitudes, philosophy, etc. POV, in fact, is one of the strongest characterization tools.

And it is through POV’s relationship to characterization that it meets its natural partner: voice. If POV subtly communicates a story’s character(s), then the way in which that POV communicates – how its paragraphs are constructed, sentences structured, and the words selected – can rapidly offer the reader greater insight into the character. If we forget this fact, if we introduce a disconnect between our POV and the voice, we risk the plausibility of our characters and the cohesion of our entire story.

POV/Voice vs Accessibility/Pace

I’m never entirely sure which matters more to me – POV or voice – or which creates the other. It’s the kind of circular discussion that requires a bottle of whiskey and a late night under the stars, and which never gets resolved. I believe that POV and voice are both inherently in tension with a story’s accessibility and pace.

Shifting POVs may undermine the reader’s ability to invest in any one character (as in Silva’s The Kill Artist), which in turn weakens their ability to invest in the story. A POV which selects dense details for inclusion may overburden the reader with facts irrelevant to the story. A voice which is highly idiosyncratic and difficult to follow may decrease the reader’s willingness to decode and internalize it. And every time we ask the reader to do a bit more mental work, to store additional facts or decipher complex sentences, we slow the story’s pace.

But despite this tension, that doesn’t mean that there’s ever a single “right” way to approach POV: the “right” technique depends on our artistic goals for a particular story, and on the other techniques and structures we employ to achieve those artistic goals. Which while not particularly helpful in a prescriptive sense, hopefully offers some food for further thought.

The Aesthetics, Structure, and Themes of Noir Speculative Fiction


Last week on Twitter, I got into an interesting discussion on whether noir fiction is inimical to science fiction. The original conversation got fairly involved, and while we reached few conclusions (substantive discussions in 140 chars are tough!) the conversation made me wonder: is there something about the aesthetics, tropes, and themes of noir that make it oil to speculative fiction’s water?

The Components of Noir Fiction

In thinking it through, I’ve come to the conclusion that what we think of as “noir” is like any other genre: a broad spectrum of storytelling methods that at their basic root share some combination of the following traits (there may be more, but this is the list I came up with over lunch):

Stylistic / Tonal

  • Sparse prose lacking in emotional qualifiers (e.g. Dashiell Hammett).
  • Heavy use of juxtaposed similes rather than metaphor (e.g. Raymond Chandler).
  • Focus on realistic characters, plot, and and mimetic description (all).
  • Characters mired in a particular setting, situation, or themselves (all).
  • Sensory and simile-laden descriptions of atmospheric settings (all).
  • Hyper-localized (usually to a particular city) scope and setting (all).
  • Frank / mimetic treatment of violence and sex (all).

Structural Tropes

  • Innocent protagonist is wrongly accused of a crime.
  • The protagonist’s action is incited by competing interests who want the same thing.
  • The protagonist is betrayed by someone (typically a lover) he had trusted.
  • The love interest in need of saving turns out to be just as bad as the bad guys.
  • The femme fatale who excites self-loathing, pity, anger, and distrust.
  • The detective with a violent past.
  • Taciturn, bitter, damaged heroes.

Thematic

  • Moral protagonist at the whims of an amoral world.
  • Moral trajectory (clawing upwards or sliding downwards) of the flawed hero.
  • Unimportance of individual lives/crimes to the broader world.
  • The supposed futility of moral action.
  • The fraying of an outdated moral code in the face of changing values.

Can all of these traits – or any of these traits – work in speculative fiction? Are there some that cause the narrative to break if combined with aspects of speculative storytelling?

Noir Stylings in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Noir is often called a style, rather than a genre, precisely because of its stable set of stylistic tendencies. It’s easy to spot a noir sentence: “The muzzle of the Luger looked like the mouth of the Second Street tunnel” (Raymond Chandler from The Big Sleep). Noir owes much of its stylistic roots to the 1930’s obsession with mimetic fiction. Yes, the stories are lurid and over-the-top. But that doesn’t change the fact that classic noir writers eschewed metaphor in favor of journalistic storytelling or colloquial simile. At the level of world choice and sentence construction, this aesthetic stands in sharp contrast to the way much speculative fiction is written.

Whether we’re writing science fiction, fantasy, or horror, we are working with realized metaphors. Sure, sometimes a sword is just a sword. But Bilbo’s Sting is much more than a sword. Colonies mining selenium three in the asteroid belt? That’s an aspirational metaphor, a conceit, that the author asks us to accept for the sake of the story. While all fiction is – at some level – a metaphor, speculative fiction brings that metaphor forward: the very world in which it operates is meant to function according to different rules. For all we know, the physics and morality of that fictional universe are very different from our own. And it is the author’s job to engage us in that strange world.

The most common technique for establishing this world-building is to use an extended metaphor: to treat the unreal as if it were real. If the characters accept it, then so too will the reader. However, there is an inverse relationship between the familiarity of the story’s world and the work that the prose must do to communicate that world. Speculative fiction uses simile and metaphor to make the unfamiliar world understandable. Sparse descriptive prose works for the traditional noir story because it is – by definition – set in a world familiar to its readers. But in speculative fiction, layering simile upon simile and metaphor risks turning the story into a stylistic house of cards. Executed poorly, the story collapses under its own stylistic pretensions.

Applying a noir style to speculative fiction is an exercise in careful and precise balancing. On the one hand, we need to employ metaphor and simile to communicate our world-building. Yet on the other hand, we need to use sparse and carefully selected simile to give the story its emblematic noir feel. I suspect that achieving noir style is more difficult in fantasy than it is in science fiction.

Beneath its core speculative conceit, much science fiction aspires to a mimetic presentation of plausible action. As such, science fictional prose generally tends to rely less heavily on metaphor (besides its central world-building) than fantastical prose. Which is probably why I can think of many more science fiction novels which employ noir style than fantasies (George Alec Effinger’s Marid Audran novels, William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, Richard Paul Russo’s Lt. Frank Carlucci novels, and A. Lee Martinez’ The Automatic Detective all come instantly to mind). Because fantastic prose relies more heavily on metaphor, it approaches noir more through its reliance on the classic tropes than through the style of its prose.

Tropes and Structure as a Window into Noir

We all know the noir hero when we see him: he’s wearing a trench coat beneath a streetlamp in the pouring rain, the smoke from a cigarette curling around the brim of his drenched fedora. You can see the weight of his history in his eyes. And while this kind of description is cliché, it is no less accurate for all that.

Noir and speculative fiction both share their roots in the pulps, and thus derive many of their stock characters from the same sources. It is hard not to see the connections between the tough-but-sensitive private eye, the cowboy with a past, or the scruffy space pirate. Noir structural tropes play well into the traditional independent ethos of much speculative fiction, which is probably one of the reasons why they so often get co-opted. And when the noir writing style won’t really work (as in much fantasy) then this puts that much weight onto the tropes and themes.

Consider for a moment Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. The basic premise behind them (the only wizard in the phone book) is straight out of hard-boiled crime fiction. In fact, much urban fantasy relies on the structure of the classic noir story to shape its plot. Of course, such urban fantasy tends to straddle a spectrum of storytelling: for every horror-tinged Southern Gothic (like Southern Gods by John Horner Jacobs – see my review here) you have a PI tale (Butcher’s The Dresden Files, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter, Glen Cook’s Garrett PI, etc. ) or a criminal-as-good-guy (Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces).

However, it takes more than just using plot structures or character tropes intrinsic to the genre to make a speculative fiction story noir. Those that do it well (like the ones I just mentioned) start with other noir devices. For example, Butcher and Connolly both tend to employ fairly sparse, descriptive prose. Connolly and Jacobs both have frank, bare-knuckled approaches to violence. Hamilton is just as frank when it comes to sex, itself an “innovation” often laid at the feet of noir. Their books also tend to oscillate around themes familiar to readers of noir.

However, there are plenty of times when fantasy stories tack on the structures and tropes of noir as mere window dressing. For example, in Ellen Datlow’s enjoyable anthology Supernatural Noir (see my review here) there were a couple of stories which failed to go beyond the most superficial employment of noir tropes. And as a result, for me at least, they neither worked as noir, nor as good fiction.

The Thematic Dimensions of Noir and Speculative Fiction

In our Twitter discussion, Kip Manley raised the argument that science fiction, fantasy, horror, and noir can all be characterized by their relationship to modernity. And while I agree with that statement on its basic tenet, I think that the thematic exploration of all four genres can go much deeper. In particular, noir has always been much more concerned with the individual than with a broader generality. This was not always true of science fiction.

People often call science fiction the “literature of ideas”, and it is often criticized for prioritizing concept and technology over characterization. And for a long time, this criticism was pretty accurate. In our time, this type of idea-focused science fiction tends to reside in the “hard science fiction” sub-genre written by Greg Egan, Peter Watts, Ben Bova, and Gregory Benford. Fiction which places its thematic focus on the ideas (technological or sociological) is to a great degree inimical to noir. And that’s because noir‘s central thematic concern has always been the individual, who typically gets lost in hard SF.

And yet. Noir themes show up frequently in “less hard” science fiction, be it in space opera (Alastair Reynolds comes to mind), cyberpunk (William Gibson, George Alec Effinger) or near-future science fiction (Ian McDonald, Lauren Beukes). Alone, themes focusing on the individual and their struggle in an amoral universe are not enough to make a work of speculative fiction “noir“. Too much fiction – let alone speculative fiction – focuses on the individual. But where those themes appear with other nods in the direction of noir, whether in structure or style, then I think it is safe to call a work of speculative fiction noir or at least noir-inspired.

But what about fantasy? Just as hard science fiction is made inimical to noir through its central concerns, so too are certain branches of fantasy. For example, epic fantasy – by its epic scope – breaks noir‘s reliance on hyper-localized concerns. Even if, as in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn novels or N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy (see my review of the second book here), an epic fantasy’s themes focus on the individual, by elevating that individual above the concerns of the everyman, an inherent trait of noir gets broken. Yet in plenty of other fantasy (and especially in urban fantasy), the hero’s everyman status is maintained and the story can safely be called noir.

How to Write Noir Speculative Fiction

In other words, I believe that there is no inherent reason why noir cannot be melded with speculative fiction, either in science fiction or in fantasy. The genres are not, as some would believe, mutually incompatible. However, it takes more effort on the writer’s part to take a piece of speculative fiction and give it a noir sensibility. If noir is composed of a combination of certain stylistic, structural, and thematic devices then the use of any one of those devices isn’t enough to give speculative fiction a sheen of noir. To really meld the genres, the writing needs to combine multiple dimensions of noir: style and tropes, or style and themes, or themes and tropes. Which is why doing that kind of noir mash-up well is so bloody difficult.

And because I love me some lists, here are a bunch of excellent speculative fiction books that I consider to be rather noirish:

Science Fiction Fantasy

REVIEW: Stonewielder by Ian C. Esslemont


Title: Stonewielder: A Novel of the Malazan Empire
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Pub Date: May 10th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Not as dense as Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, but fast-paced and character driven.

I’ve mentioned my appreciation of Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont’s gritty Malazan world before, and over the past several years I have eagerly been following Esslemont’s contributions. With Stonewielder, Esslemont’s third book in the Malazan universe, he artfully balances characterization, forward momentum, and complex plotting mechanics to deliver an accessible and enjoyable read.

From his debut with Night of Knives, Esslemont has faced a difficult challenge. By the time his first book was published in mass-market form (2007), Erikson had already released his seventh (Reaper’s Gale). This meant that Esslemont had a ready audience who would likely snap up his book, but that audience (myself included) had certain expectations.

The first fact that must be stated when describing Esslemont’s work is perhaps the most obvious: Esslemont is not Steven Erikson. The writing styles are different, the plot structures are different, and perhaps most significantly, the pacing is different. However, these differences are not a weakness: in many ways, they make Esslemont’s work more accessible than Erikson’s dense opus. In Night of Knives, Esslemont visibly struggled to get his sea legs. While it was competently executed, there was a tentativeness to his storytelling that had been noticeably absent from Erikson’s work. However, with his second novel – Return of the Crimson Guard, which takes place after the events of Erikson’s The Bonehunters – Esslemont clearly grows more comfortable with his plot structures and the intricate flow of multiple storylines. By the time we read Stonewielder, Esslemont has clearly hit his stride.

Esslemont’s books tell the story of events on the continent of Quon Tali, literally on the other side of the world from the events of Erikson’s ten book series. Despite the distances involved, the authors share a significant number of characters. Esslemont’s books focus on characters who notably left or vanished from Erikson’s books. This was my first area of concern: how often have we seen new hands mess up a beloved franchise by screwing up the characters? Thankfully, Esslemont neatly avoids this trap, perhaps helped by the fact that his books delve deeply into characters who received less focus in Erikson’s books. As a result, he creates characters that become firmly his own, shaped by and for his own plots and writing style.

The integration between Erikson and Esslemont’s plots – particularly Return of the Crimson Guard and Stonewielder is excellent. The events of Esslemont’s books have significant repercussions on Erikson’s, and vice versa. However, Esslemont shows us events which Erikson did not, or a different side of those historic events. Reading both Erikson and Esslemont lets us see their world’s history unfold from multiple perspectives. I like to think of it as reading two books on WWII history: one Russian, and one British. They will describe related events, but the different perspectives, cultural backgrounds, styles, and focus will fundamentally change how the same events are presented. Reading one side of the story can be enjoyable, but reading both provides a richer understanding of the events.

I suspect that read on a standalone basis, the Esslemont books may be easier to follow than Erikson’s. Like Erikson, Esslemont relies on chapter-based POV shifts, but with fewer characters and fewer plot lines it is easier to keep track of what is going on in the story. Stonewielder in particular unfolds in a more linear fashion than Erikson’s typical modus operandi. This focus also helps Esslemont’s pacing, giving the books a certain sense of implacability that draws the reader in. As the stakes rise in Stonewielder, the pacing likewise accelerates which makes the latter half of the book move very quickly.

Avoiding complex metaphysics helps Esslemont accomplish this feat. While he employs – and elucidates – much of the complex magic of the Malazan universe, he steers clear of the more esoteric metaphysical considerations that bogged down some of Erikson’s later books. The focus on characters in action (or avoiding action, at times) keeps Stonewielder close to its gritty, epic adventure roots.

However, readers unfamiliar with Erikson’s books may find it hard to get become grounded in Esslemont’s novels. My preexisting familiarity with the world’s bewildering factions, history, politics, and characters let me hit the ground running with Night of Knives, and smoothly follow Return of the Crimson Guard and Stonewielder. How daunting a fresh reader would find these titles and the unique world they present is difficult for me to judge.

On the whole, Ian C. Esslemont’s Stonewielder is a great addition to the Malazan canon. The plotting, characterization, and pacing are strong, and he continues to apply the excellent world-building characteristic of the Malazan universe. At its heart, Esslemont’s story strikes me as less complicated than Erikson’s. As such, I found it a welcome breath of fresh air coming off of the satisfyingly dense conclusion to Erikson’s series. Those who started reading Esslemont with Night of Knives will be pleased to see that his craft has significantly improved over the last several years.

If you’re a fan of gritty, complex, ambitious epic fantasy then Stonewielder will likely appeal to you. It combines the gritty boots-in-the-mud feel of Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company, with morally ambiguous eldritch magic like in Michael Moorcock’s Elric Saga, and the evocative world-building of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series (which shouldn’t be surprising, considering that Ian C. Esslemont co-created the Malazan world with Erikson).

To flatten the steep learning curve and get some of the characters’ backstory, I strongly recommend starting with Return of the Crimson Guard, or Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. If anyone reading this has instead started with the Esslemont books, I’d be curious to know how you found them. Were you able to get drawn into the world, fill in the blanks of backstory and factions, and generally follow along?

In the meantime, I’m going to be eagerly awaiting the next installment in Esslemont’s series. If his work continues to improve as it has so far, then his series might gain in heft to become more than a side story in the Malazan universe. The seeds are certainly there, and I’m rooting for the series’ continued upward trajectory.

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