Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Narrative Viewpoint: Third-Person Perfect

In the third post in my series on Narrative Viewpoint: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly, I’m focusing on the good for a change, the viewpoint that I think works best for most stories: third-person limited. A great example of this viewpoint is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Each scene or chapter is told only from the narrative viewpoint of a single character, who is referred to by his or her name instead of “I” as would be the case in the first-person point-of-view.

A textbook example of third-person viewpoint done right!
In A Game of Thrones, for example, the first chapter is told solely through Bran’s viewpoint. He is the only character in the chapter whose internal thoughts are revealed to the reader, and every observation the reader experiences comes only from Bran’s vantage. While there are many other important characters in the first chapter such as Ned Stark and John Snow, we’re never shown their internal thoughts; rather, we only know what they reveal through dialogue or their actions – just like Bran would. The next chapter is told through Daenerys’ point-of-view; the third chapter is told through Ned’s point-of-view, and so on. We get to know each of these characters extremely well, which is one of the things that makes the novel so special.

Martin only changes viewpoints after a chapter break, which adheres to one of the unbreakable rules of third-person limited: viewpoints can only shift after a scene or chapter break. This eliminates the jarring experience of jumping from one character’s mind to another’s during the same scene, which is one of my huge problems with the third-person omniscient point-of-view. Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels follows the same rule. We get to experience many of the same events from the viewpoints of different members of Roland’s ka-tet, but King always starts a new scene before he changes the point-of-view.

We get to know Roland's ka-tet very well!
This is not to say that third-person limited is always the best narrative viewpoint. Some novels are undoubtedly best told through the first-person point-of-view, which is the most intimate viewpoint between a character and the reader. But it is an extremely limiting viewpoint since the only parts of the story that can be told are those the first-person narrator experiences. This necessarily eliminates all those great scenes where the bad guys are plotting something terrible for the hero, which the reader knows about, but hero does not. Imagine Stephen King’s The Stand without the scenes involving Randall Flagg or the Trashcan Man. The story would suffer. Big time.

Third-person limited also allows the author to create complex plots where the action takes place in different locations at the same time, like the various locales in A Game of Thrones. A first-person narrator can only be in one place at one time. But with third-person limited, multiple characters can tell the story through their own viewpoint even if they are continents apart like Daenerys and Jon Snow – so long as the author obeys the rules by only changing viewpoints after a scene or chapter break.

Lastly, third-person limited eliminates that maddening omniscient narrator who plays no role in the story except to tell the tale. Instead, the story is told through the actions and thoughts of a character who lives through it, allowing the reader to do the same. This, in my view, is one of the primary reasons why we read fiction. So why wouldn’t an author use a point-of-view like third-person limited that does this so effectively? To me it’s a no-brainer.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

I found this quote particularly apt for today:

A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.
– Joseph Campbell
Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France - photo courtesy of Luke M. Curley

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Narrative Viewpoint: Third-Person Obsolete

Once upon a time the most common narrative viewpoint was called third-person omniscient. The story was told through the point-of-view of an all-knowing storyteller who played no actual role in the novel except to relay story events. This was the rave back in the nineteenth century and in much of the twentieth century too, used by famous writers such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. In my opinion, however, the time for this narrative viewpoint is long past. It needs to go the way of the manual typewriter. The goose quill pen. And, dare I say, fresh-scraped vellum. These things have no place in today’s writing world.

Leave omniscient narration to divine beings!
Because the omniscient narrator plays no role in the story, this viewpoint is the most detached from the characters who struggle through the novel. An omniscient narrator can reveal any character’s thoughts at any time, constantly jumping from one character’s head to another, telling the reader everything and anything the omniscient narrator feels is important, even if it’s something the characters themselves wouldn’t even know. Bouncing from one character’s mind to another’s, however, can be dizzying and distracting. We never get to know the character intimately like we do with first-person point-of-view or the good version of third-person point-of-view – third-person limited, where shifts in viewpoint never occur until after a scene break or chapter break. (If you need an example, read any chapter from George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.) Instead, we’re stuck with this distant, storytelling narrator. We’re not living the story with the characters, we’re just listening to it.

Third-person point-of-view done right!
One of the paramount rules of writing is: show the reader the story, don’t tell it. Good writing  immerses the reader in the novel. We want to experience the story, not have it lectured to us. Yet telling is inherent in third-person omniscient because the storytelling narrator is doing just that: telling us a story. Even in the hands of a gifted author adept at “showing,” third-person omniscient will never do this as well as third-person limited or first-person point-of-view. So with two superior options available, why oh why would an author these days ever chose a viewpoint that makes showing the story more difficult and the experience less intimate for the reader?

Sometimes third-person omniscient narrators even address the reader directly, as in this passage from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis:

Most of us, I suppose, have a secret country, but for most of us it is only an imaginary country. Edmund and Lucy were luckier than other people in that respect. Their secret country was real. They had already visited it twice; not in a game or a dream but in reality. They had got there of course by Magic, which is the only way of getting to Narnia. And a promise, or very nearly a promise, had been made them in Narnia itself that they would someday get back. You may imagine that they talked about it a good deal, when they got the chance.

Good for 1952; now, not so much.
This may have worked in 1952, but it would drive me crazy today. In fact, the only time this would ever work now is when it’s done intentionally to mimic this archaic style of writing, such as in Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon. Yet as I wrote recently, you probably need to have the gravitas of Stephen King to pull this off. Everyone else should avoid it. Like the plague.

So my suggestion to authors is to stay away from third-person omniscient at all costs. This might not apply to every type of literature, including literary fiction. But in my view, fantasy and historical fiction is best told through the third-person limited or first-person viewpoints. As for third-person omniscient, I have only one word: B-bye.

Monday, May 21, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #15

This week’s “beginning” comes from Anne McCaffrey’s 1968 novel Dragonflight, the first book in her Dragonriders of Pern series. The late Ms. McCaffrey was one of the all-time great fantasy novelists, and her books are among the top fantasy classics in my view.

Lessa woke, cold. Cold with more than the chill of the everlasting clammy stone walls. Cold with the prescience of a danger stronger than the one ten full Turns ago that had then sent her, whimpering with terror, to hide in the watch-wher’s odorous lair.  
Rigid with concentration, Lessa lay in the straw of the redolent cheeseroom she shared as sleeping quarters with the other kitchen drudges. There was an urgency in the ominous portent unlike any other forewarning. She touched the awareness of the watch-wher, slithering on his rounds in the courtyard. It circled at the choke limit of its chain. It was restless, but oblivious to anything unusual in the predawn darkness.

– Anne McCaffrey, Dragonflight

Although this is a vintage novel, you’d hardly know if from her writing style, which has more of a modern day feel than some of the other vintage fantasy beginnings I’ve featured on this blog. Still, the question remains: does this opening have the elements of a great beginning? Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Narrative Viewpoint: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Lately I’ve been reading a mix of vintage and more recent novels in the historical and fantasy fiction genres, and I’ve come to realize I can get quite annoyed with narrative viewpoint. Even damn near curmudgeonly about it. Although there are several different types of narrative points-of-view, there are only two I really like, and the others are starting to drive me nuts.

I'm on the warpath against bad narrative viewpoint!
I intended to write this as a single post until I realized it was going to be way too long. So I decided to turn it into a series of four posts, some more ranting than others. Today I’ll start on a positive note with one of the narrative viewpoints that doesn’t stick in my craw: first-person point-of-view.

This is not necessarily the most prevalent viewpoint – especially in fantasy fiction – but when it’s done right, it really works. Here, the narrator is often the main character and we only experience the story through his or her eyes. The #1 benefit of this viewpoint is that it’s the most intimate with the reader. We get to know this viewpoint character perhaps better than in any other narrative point-of-view. A great example is Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Tales series. All six of his novels are told through the first-person viewpoint of the protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg. By the end of the first novel, the reader feels as if he or she knows Uhtred like a close friend. We can hear his voice in our head and we know what fuels his fears and passions. In these novels, first-person point-of-view works masterfully.

First-person point-of-view at its best!

But pulling off a good fist-person point-of-view requires a lot of skill. The narrator’s thoughts, mannerisms, and life have to be fairly distinctive or this character runs the risk of coming off generic and boring. It’s downright painful to spend 400 pages in the head of a dull character or one that frets too much or continually makes stupid decisions. All of this can drive a reader batty!

On occasion, however, a first-person viewpoint from a less-than exciting character can work, but often this happens when the narrator is the sidekick to the main character, yet is still distinctive enough in his or her own right to make the novel interesting. A good example of this type of narrator is Adso of Melk in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Adso’s not the star of the show – William of Baskerville is – but his situation (including an unexpected encounter with a peasant girl) – is interesting enough to keep us engaged. A tremendous puzzle-like plot helps a bit too.

Adso of Melk makes a good narrator!
The other time this viewpoint will not work is when the story has a complex plot that requires the reader to see things from multiple points-of-view. All of the intrigue in A Game of Thrones would never have worked if the entire story was told through the viewpoint of Catelyn Stark. We’d never know Tyrion Lannister except as Catelyn sees him. And all of those rich scenes in King’s Landing, on the Wall, and in the Dothraki Sea would have never been portrayed because Catelyn was not there to view them. The same could be said for complex stories like Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. If Tom Builder would have been a first-person narrator, well let’s just say the novel would be a lot shorter and too much of the story would be lost. And if Stephen King’s The Stand was told only through Stu Redman’s eyes, we’d miss the scenes with Randall Flagg and the Trashcan Man, all of Vegas, and the novel's climax. How fun would that be?

My advice to authors is to save first-person point-of-view for stories where the only facts a reader needs to know can be observed through a single character’s eyes. Usually these stories are more character-focused, less epic in scope, and generally less complex in terms of plot than novels best told through a different point-of-view. Even then, only use first-person when you’re willing to invest in a character distinctive enough from the rest of us to draw the reader in. I know this advice might not apply to modern or paranormal romance stories, but that’s not what this blog’s about. If it’s fantasy or historical fiction, and were stuck with a single character’s viewpoint for the entire novel, for the love of everything make that person interesting!

So one viewpoint down, three more to go. And next week, may the ranting begin …

Monday, May 14, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #14

Continuing my posts on the “beginnings” of vintage works of fantasy fiction, I’m featuring the opening passage from Stephen R. Donaldson’s 1977 novel Lord Foul’s Bane, the first in his Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series. Because the story begins in the modern day, this beginning may read differently than that of the other vintage fantasy novels I’ve featured. For those unfamiliar with the story, Thomas Covenant is a leper who is magically transported from our time to a classic fantasy world whose inhabitants believe he is the reincarnation of an ancient hero that long ago saved the land from its greatest enemy, Lord Foul the Despiser.

She came out of the store just in time to see her young son playing on the sidewalk directly in the path of the gray, gaunt man who strode down the center of the walk like a mechanical derelict. For an instant, her heart quailed. Then she jumped forward, gripped her son by the arm, snatched him out of harm’s way. 
The man went by without turning his head. As his back moved away from her, she hissed at it, “Go away! Get out of here! You ought to be ashamed!” 
Thomas Covenant’s stride went on, as unfaltering as clockwork that had been wound to the hilt for just this purpose. But to himself he responded, Ashamed? Ashamed? His face contorted in a wild grimace. Beware! Outcast unclean!
– Stephen R. Donaldson, Lord Foul’s Bane

Of all the vintage fantasy novels I’ve featured so far, I believe this one comes closest to capturing the elements of a great beginning. But that’s just my opinion. Let me know what you think – how good is the beginning to Lord Foul’s Bane?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Eyes of the Dragon

Last week I read that Syfy network is planning on turning Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon into a movie or miniseries, perhaps trying to follow in the footsteps of HBO’s Game of Thrones. For those who haven’t read it, The Eyes of the Dragon is one of King’s fantasy novels, and the one with the most classic fantasy elements, including a medieval setting, kings and princes, and an evil sorcerer. It also invokes several of the archetypes I discussed in my series on the Top 5 Clich├ęs in Fantasy Fiction. Given the Syfy announcement, I thought it was a perfect time to post my review of the novel.

The Eyes of the Dragon
explores the deep backstory to Stephen King's Dark Tower series, including a king named Roland, a kingdom named Delain, and a villain named Flagg – who also appears as the antagonist in King’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece, The Stand. The novel is told through the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator, which makes the book seem like it’s being told by an old storyteller sitting around a crackling fire. It starts out like a children’s book – indeed, the opening sentence is very close to “once upon a time” – but it quickly veers toward more adult topics, including a green Viagra-like potion the old king Roland must consume to have sexual relations with his beautiful wife.

The story is ultimately about two brothers, Peter and Thomas: the first conceived through a natural act of love, while the second is the result of a violent encounter fueled by a double dose of Flagg’s green brew. When the king is murdered years later, Peter is falsely accused of the crime and Thomas ascends to the throne. But Thomas secretly witnesses the king’s murder, plunging him into a moral quandary involving his feelings for his brother, the power he inherits, and the terrible truth behind it all. Given the omniscient narrator, there is little real mystery in this book, even as to the murder. Instead, the story boils down to the characters: the two brothers and the decision one of them must make.

The most enduring quality of this novel is that it never tries to be more than it is – a storyteller’s tale about two rival siblings and the evil that ultimately threatens them both. The story’s framework is somewhat elementary, and it may only work because it is written by Stephen King. Had any other author created it, without any connection to the mythology of The Stand or the Dark Tower, it likely would not have the impact it ultimately has. There is something about King’s mythology that keeps us wanting more, and The Eyes of the Dragon is just another morsel that satiates that yearning.

So if you’re a fan of the Dark Tower series, or want to read more about Randall Flagg, The Eyes of the Dragon is likely a must-read for you. Let’s just hope the Syfy series does it justice!

Monday, May 7, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #13

This week’s post on the opening passages of vintage works of fantasy fiction features the beginning of Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea:

The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-wracked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all of Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.
– Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea

First published in 1968, this book is certainly a classic work of fantasy fiction. Yet the question for today is whether it has a great beginning? Commentators are starting to note that these vintage fantasy novels approach beginnings somewhat differently than some of the other novels I’ve featured on this blog. So let me know – what’s your view on the beginning to A Wizard of Earthsea?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Artistic License & The Historical Note

Last July, in a post titled “Was Robert the Bruce a Traitor, and Does It Matter?” I posed the question of how much artistic license can an author take in historical fiction for the purpose of crafting a good story? A few months ago, this issue came up again in the comments to my review of Stephen R. Lawhead’s Patrick: Son of Ireland. Both topics generated concern among some of the commentators that when too much artistic license is taken in changing the details of actual history, a risk exists that readers may come to remember this “false history” as fact.

My example of artistic license from Braveheart was the depiction of Robert the Bruce betraying William Wallace to the English at the Battle of Falkirk, when in fact Robert did not side with the English at Falkirk and wasn’t present for the battle. Still, this change resulted in one of the movie's most dramatic scenes and heightened the conflict between two key characters. In Patrick: Son of Ireland, an example of artistic license may have been the portrayal of Patrick as a bard or druid (albeit of the Ceile De) instead of a Roman Catholic bishop. In both cases, the writers made these changes for the sake of their story, even if it may have altered “real” history for viewers and readers.

Personally, I support the taking of artistic license to craft more compelling fiction, but I understand why some readers may be bothered by it. One remedy to such concerns employed by many authors is the use of a historical note at the end of their novels. These notes do two things: first, they tell us which parts of the story comport with actual history – in other words, which parts are “true”; and second, and perhaps most importantly, a good historical note tells the reader which parts are fictional and where real history has been altered. The best historical notes also offer a reason for why the author exercised artistic license and changed a historical event or character.

Bernard Cornwell, perhaps my favorite author of historical fiction, frequently includes an author’s note or historical note at the end of his novels, and he admits when he’s taken artistic license and why he did so. Morgan Llywelyn included one at the end of Lion of Ireland, and Stephen R. Lawhead used one in Hood, his retelling of the legend of Robin Hood, though he did not include one in Patrick: Son of Ireland. Of course, anyone interested in real historical details could access any number of on-line encyclopedias and similar resources to learn more about what really happened. But I, for one, like hearing from the authors directly and gleaning a little insight into their creative design.

But let me know what you think? Does a historical note resolve any concerns you might have about an author taking artistic license in historical fiction?