A long time ago, on a podcast far far away, the Mythcreant hosts debated the merits of multiple points of view. Battle lines were drawn, harsh words were exchanged, and it was clear that the two sides would never see eye to eye. But it’s been five years and things change, so it’s time to check back in with our opinions about multiple POVs. What are they for? Should authors use them? Why are they such a big deal in the first place? We discuss all that and more, plus a lot of embarrassment about the silly opinions we once held.
Generously transcribed by Cindi at YourPodScribe.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is…
Chris: And before we get started just letting everybody know we’re looking for transcription volunteers. We’ll give you an automated transcript to start with. They’re not good, but they are funny.
Oren: They are hilarious to read.
Chris: So you’ll have that at least. If you’re interested just go to Mythcreants.com/transcribe.
Oren: So what’s the topic for today Chris?
Chris: Well I have to say this is something that, at least in the past, we’ve had very different viewpoints on.
Oren: Ooh! Drama.
Chris: It’s almost like we’ve reflected multiple viewpoints about this topic in a previous episode.
Oren: Chris, no.
Chris: [Using narrator voice] “So, over 200 episodes and five years ago…”
Oren: Jesus Christ, oh my God.
Chris: Oren and I had a debate on a podcast, over multiple points of view. If you want to listen, it’s episode number 22. That’s how old. It’s about an hour long. There’s also ableist language in it. Sorry about that.
Oren: Yeah, we’ve been slowly getting better.
Chris: So yeah, our former co-host Mike Hernandez was moderating a debate between us. In that debate, baby Oren argued for multiple viewpoints and baby Chris argued that they were bad and should feel bad.
Oren: I mean fair enough. [Chris laughter] I said some very silly things in that debate.
Chris: Yeah. Admittedly, our actual opinions were exaggerated a bit for the sake of debating each other. It’s a little hard to express nuance and also talk smack at the same time.
Oren: Maybe it’s hard for you.
Chris: Well, I was talking a lot more smack than you were in that debate.
Oren: That’s true.
Chris: Anyway, we thought it would be fun to revisit the topic since then and talk about it again.
Oren: Yeah, okay. So my views on multiple points of view have definitely changed somewhat since then. I used to be way more into it than I am now. And editing a few manuscripts with multiple points of view will do that to you. You know, it sounds great and then you then you actually see it and you’re like, “Oh no.” But first of all back then I said Discworld was multiple points of view, but it’s not, it’s omniscient. “God. What were you thinking Oren, in 2014? What’s wrong with you? “
Chris: It does follow different characters. It’s multiple points of view in the same way you could describe a TV show as multiple points of view. I mean technically it’s not really their point of view because it’s all omniscient narrator, but we do follow different characters in different parts and with different storylines, like a TV show would.
Oren: I was also like, “Ah because Game of Thrones is multiple points of view, multiple points of view must be good.” And I was like “Oh God dammit I want to smack you, why would you say that? “
Chris: [Laughter] I think I did point out that it’s also a problem in Game of Thrones.
Oren: Right. And I mean Game of Thrones has two problems with multiple points of view. One is series bloat, which you mentioned at the time, which just gets worse as the book goes on and there’s more and more characters. It’s not as bad as Wheel of Time, but it’s pretty bad. But frankly in retrospect, I think Daenerys is a problem. I think that most of the characters are involved in the same plot in Westeros, and then you have Daenerys who’s just off by herself doing her own story that may or may not eventually link back to what everyone else is doing.
At least you can sort of see how they’re related because you know that Daenerys is after the throne that the rest of them are after but it really doesn’t seem like she’s ever going to get there for most of her storyline.
Chris: The funniest part for me listening to that old debate cast is actually when I mentioned Orson Scott Card’s plot framework MICE. Since then I have evolved beyond all need of MICE. Instead I have ANTS. Muhahaha! [Oren laughter] Okay, MICE and ANTS are modeling completely different things. They’re not actually competing with each other in any way. It’s just funny to say…
Oren: ANTS are better than MICE, let’s just put it that way.
Chris: Yeah, I mostly have the same opinion as before but I’d like to think that these days I express it with more sophistication and nuance.
Chris: …than simply saying “Multiple viewpoints is really boring and it made me mad!” Which is true, but we can do a little better.
Oren: Right. So in my opinion there are some things that multiple viewpoints are good for but multiple viewpoints come at a very high cost and they are very easy to get wrong. So you need a good reason to use them and the right circumstances and most stories just don’t have them. They’re just a temptation. They don’t really add anything but they do have a cost and the cost is that they dilute the story and bog it down and make everything more complicated. They seem tempting because it’s like, “Oh I could just have a character see something, then tell it to the protagonist, or the audience will already know.” And it’s just not worth it. That’s not enough.
Chris: I like to think about it similar to how I think about omniscient. The whole, I love this phrase, I say this phrase constantly – “With great power comes great responsibility”.
Oren: Yeah, sure Uncle Ben.
Chris: [Laughter] Having more than one of viewpoint is more powerful and flexible, but it turns out the limitations of a single viewpoint is actually really helpful to most writers. It helps them focus on what is important, and keeps them from being tempted into including things that are not important, into the story.
So once they get the ability to depict whatever they want by switching viewpoints, like an omniscient narrator can talk about whatever they want at any time, they consistently give in to temptation and include things they shouldn’t include. And of course there’s a big problem with writers just underestimating the power of sticking close to the protagonist and don’t realize how significant it is to be in that person’s shoes and the inherent cost with going farther away from the protagonist.
Oren: I feel like once you take one, it’s suddenly so much easier to take a second one and a third one. Once you take the first one it’s just easier to take more and that was definitely a problem in Spinning Silver, a book I finished recently. Spinning Silver is good in a lot of ways. It has really good wordcraft superb world-building, cool conflict. It has three characters who I see talked about in the reviews. Those three on their own are already kind of difficult because they spend large sections of the book not at all related to each other, so “I’m really interested what Miriam’s doing”; “too bad you have to read about Wanda now”. “I’m not that interested in Wanda”, “well deal with it”. Okay fine, I’m interested in Wanda now; “now you have to read about Irena”. “What about Wanda?” “No.” “Okay fine.”
Chris: Ah Oren, you sound like me five years ago.
Oren: Yeah. No. That’s exactly what it is. And then guess what? There are three more pov characters I haven’t seen anyone mention in like any of the publicity or positive reviews this book has gotten because they’re so ancillary. They contribute nothing to the story and I just don’t get why they’re there, other than the author had already given in to temptation and was, now I want more. MORE!
Chris: [Laughter] More!
Oren: It’s just honestly what it felt like. It felt like series bloat in one novel.
Chris: Yeah. Writers do have to be taught that every part of the story has to hold its weight and you don’t just add stuff to your story. You think about the core of the story and then you think about what that needs, what will make everything else stronger and contribute to the whole. But by default writers don’t think that way they’re just like “Hey, I could have these cool characters, let’s put them in here”. We have to teach them, no, you have too many characters. Is this character actually performing a function in the story? Okay, take them out. Multiple viewpoints makes it extra easy to include more characters that have nothing to do with anything else that’s happening that aren’t even relating to the protagonist in any way, which makes that whole process worse.
I do think in particular in writing culture and with novelists it’s particularly ingrained there will be multiple viewpoints. I see people describing their process for outlining where they automatically assume they have three viewpoint characters and I just cringe. Not because they couldn’t have a great story with three viewpoint characters, because they are assuming at the start of their story they will have that many viewpoint characters not thinking about what viewpoint characters they need in context of what they’ve already chosen.
Oren: Right. There’s doing it because it’s famous. People tend to associate it with big successful fantasy novels.
Chris: Which is actually funny. Because the thing that sells much better than those big successful fantasy novels with epic plots we think about is YA. I really do think that one of the reasons YA has gotten so popular, I mean it was meant for young adults, but it’s read by a lot of adult adults. There’s lots of people who read YA who are not young adults.
Oren: Yeah the old adults. [Laughter]
Chris: [Laughter] Part of the conventions of YA is that you typically have a shorter book with a single viewpoint character. The whole story is therefore tighter and has less things that are dead weight on the story, and I think that’s one of the reasons that sells so well.
Oren: When I have seen multiple viewpoints in YA stories, they at least feel more necessary than a lot of these big epic fantasy doorstops. There are two books that come to mind and they’re actually both romances, and the second point of view character is the romance interest. I think in those cases that’s fine, showing the romance from both sides is a good use of multiple povs.
It makes it easier to have characters who are antagonistic to each other, but are also both sympathetic because we can see what’s going on in both of their heads. In a romance that’s important. I don’t think that’s a good enough reason on its own but it’s useful if you have two characters falling in love. That’s that’s the sort of thing where it can be good.
Chris: If one of your central through lines for the story is a relationship arc between two people, then you have you have a reason that they’re both automatically involved in that plot. We haven’t really spelled this out yet, we kind of skirt it and we certainly said in the blog, that the issue is when you have multiple points of view they still need to focus on the same story. And as long as they’re focused on the same plot and the same story, there’re still consequences for leaving the shoes of the protagonist. there is, but the biggest problem that happens with multiple points of view is that they are used to completely wander away from the story at hand and do something entirely different. Do a completely different story.
Oren: Yep. I have never, ever, ever, heard the word interlude on one of my audio books and not been upset at what happened.
Oren: Because the interlude, the thing I’m embarrassed to put in a regular chapter…
Chris: And the other issue, and why this happens so often in novels, is that part of writing culture and just copying other authors out there, is this idea that it’s okay to do something in your book that’s slow and disconnected from the rest of the story as long as it pays off later. That’s like saying I know I’m hitting you in the head and it hurts but just wait, it’ll feel so good when I stop. That’s not good enough. It should have entertainment value and be a good experience all the way through. Something that is disconnected in the beginning should be connected in the beginning. We should know, at least, how it’ll come together.
For instance, Dark Crystal, which you’re watching through right now, we do have the characters in separate places doing separate things at the beginning of the show, but it’s very clear from the beginning how they are all involved in the same plot and tackling the same problems. We can already see how they’re connected together. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that for a book, but we can already see, we’re not waiting to watch how that comes together. It’s one of those things where writers get themselves into trouble because they want to do something that is clever.
Oren: Yeah, and if you were going to do this in a book one good example you could look at is the book Maplecroft by Cherie Priest.
Chris: Yeah, that’s a good example.
Oren: For one thing it’s epistolary, and epistolary is an interesting way of doing multiple points of view because like epistolary is a point of view that relies more on its framing device…
Chris: …on its premise. Yeah.
Oren: Yeah on its premise. The concept is that you are discovering the story through things people actually wrote down, which is a very different experience than having someone tell you the story which is the default assumption.
So in Maplecroft what we have is characters make journal entries and when you have a new character, for one thing it’s all the same problem, it’s all about these monsters that are attacking the small town in New England and the characters are all dealing with that. They all know each other and they’re all investigating different angles and working on different things. There’s kind of a handoff situation where there are points where it just doesn’t really make sense for one of the characters to have written down what happened but it does make sense for another one to have, and then you can get their epistolary. That’s a cool way to do it. I think that’s one of the better ways to use multiple points of view and everyone is involved in the story.
The sequel completely drops the ball and has a character who isn’t involved in the conflict for 95% of the book, but we keep cutting back to her anyway, it’s like, “Oh my God, no stop, I don’t care”.
Chris: Yeah, it works in Maplecroft because our three characters that we’re mostly reading letters from, are all clearly involved in the same struggle and they also start interacting with each other. It’s clear we have the same through line happening. Even in the first book there are some deviations to random documents from other characters I would argue some of them probably should be cut. So, again, with great power comes great responsibility, but for the most part the basic structure with those three characters interacting was good.
And there’s other books like that. Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris. We have two people in a romance. Initially even though they’re set up in a romance, they also have some competition, some antagonism between the two of them, because of competing interests.
Oren: Man, I wish I’d known about this back when we did our debate cast. I could’ve totally got you. If I’d known one of your favorite books uses multiple points of view!
Chris: I know. The other one is actually an antagonist. So tackling the problem from the other end. That’s the thing, in our old debate, you’re like, but don’t you want to have a villain point of view? Like no.
Oren: Uh oh.
Chris: [Laughter] Yeah, you thought you got me with that one. Nope, that’s a bad idea. That’s a bad idea.
Oren: More often than not that’s a bad idea.
Chris: And if I read Elantris again maybe I’d change my mind. But in this particular case it was sort of a sympathetic villain character and it worked okay.
Oren: There’s also another example of a book that I think uses multiple points of view pretty well is World War Z. Because World War Z is also a very unusual story in that it is very specifically about the entire world and how it deals with the zombie uprising for better or worse. So moving around, first of all each section is like a complete story. It’s very episodic and it actually is episodic. It isn’t just like we cut around willy-nilly and at the same time the stories build toward a greater arc of the world first descending into chaos and destruction as the zombies rise, and then slowly clawing its way out of it.
The fact that it’s about the entire world and not one person fighting the zombies is what makes World War Z different from most zombie stories. It’s something the movie absolutely could not figure out how to capture, which is interesting considering it’s a movie and visual mediums normally do multiple characters better than books.
Chris: So can you tell me more since I haven’t read World War Z, is it a collection, an anthology, is it episodic? What is the actual structure?
Oren: So it’s a conceit much like Maplecroft in that it’s a series of interviews. The author is interviewing people to find out what happened during the war and the author goes around and talks to different people and sees what was happening. This is what was happening in New York and then across the world, this is what was happening in Beijing.We get to see different ways the different countries deal with the zombie problem.
It’s not all great. The two Japanese characters we have are like a kung-fu monk and an anime super fan. So, not fantastic. The author at one point has Nelson Mandela show up to endorse his zombie plan, which I thought was kind of in bad taste. But whatever. It’s still mostly a fine book.
Chris: Okay, but does it have plot?
Oren: The overarching plot is the plot of how the world survived zombies. That’s the overarching plot, but it’s told through a bunch of different characters.
Chris: So it’s about humanity as the main character?
Oren: Yeah, basically.
Chris: Okay, right, like a collective. I mean that’s surprisingly possible. I just put a story on the site that is about a group and not a single individual.
Oren: Each story generally has a single main character but from the beginning told from a very zoomed out perspective makes it fit better. You don’t ever get super attached to one person.
Chris: So there’s an overarching arc about humanity’s struggle, but then there’s individual episodes that focus on different characters within that.
Oren: I think we sometimes come back to the same character more than once.
Chris: I’m a little worried when you have something like World War Z that is so unique because somebody’s going to try to replicate it and they’re going to do it wrong. And they’re gonna be like, World War Z did it.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, that’s a problem, right? Lots of places did weird unusual things they can get away with it, and that doesn’t mean everyone else can.
Chris: So the question is how did it get away with not focusing on a single main character and just looking at the the whole world? And it probably had fairly strong episodes if I were to guess?
Oren: Yeah, it had strong episodes. I’ve seen other manuscripts try to do this, not specifically with zombies, but with similar stories and the reason why it doesn’t work is, even though those manuscripts cut around all over the place, they still feel like there’s one story that we just keep cutting away from. Whereas this one somehow at the beginning makes it clear that the story is humanity, and there isn’t a single main character.
Maybe that’s the way the interview format is actually present in the story. It’s not just like an empty framing device. The interviewer asks questions sometimes, it doesn’t feel like here’s an interview and then we fade into a normal narration.
Chris: I’m gonna have to read it, sounds fascinating.
Oren: Yeah. I thought it was pretty good and a very unusual story. I thought it handled that well. It’s not something I would recommend most writers try to emulate immediately. Get a little more experience first.
Chris: Related to that, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about TV shows versus novels, because generally my experience is that multiple viewpoints more often than not, is just bad for novels. We’ve talked about a number of examples where they work out, but oftentimes they’re bad. Most TV shows follow multiple characters who often have what feels like multiple point of view, again like omniscience, not technically multiple points of view.
So why did they work so much better than it when it works novels? Again, it comes back to what we were saying where they are following the same story. There’s usually very little question how one character is connected to the other character. A lot of times when characters do have their separate B plot about that character, we’ve taken some time to get to know and like that character before we have a separate B plot around them. We get some attachment in there and some investment first. And also, TV show writers are better at plotting than novelists are, so they are better at making different viewpoints all interesting.
I had this big theory in our debate cast about the idea that authors when they introduce their second viewpoint character, they’re much lazier about it than when they introduced their first. I still think that’s largely true, that a lot of effort goes into making the beginning of your book an interesting hook, but then when a second viewpoint is introduced, it’s completely disconnected. It’s basically a new book opening but it’s never treated that way and it’s never made as compelling.
But at the same time occasionally TV show writers do mess up and silo one of their characters in a storyline that is separate from other characters, which is basically the equivalent of what novel writers are doing all the time and people do notice, and it’s bad.
So Stranger Things 2, we had 11 go off on her own with these people for a while and it was completely disconnected. What is happening here? That doesn’t feel natural, the plot doesn’t feel tight anymore.
Season one of the Magicians, aw, had this completely miserable, one character, one protagonist I guess she was, I believe her name was Rachel, basically spent most of the season off by herself. It would have been bad in any case, in this case it was especially bad because Rachel was a really unlikable person and she was going through hell. So we just got to watch bad things happen to an unlikable person. It was like why is this here?
Oren: Yeah, I guess maybe some people would get schadenfreude…schadenfreude? The German word where you like suffering, out of it, but I didn’t like her so I wasn’t sympathetic.
Chris: She was an unlikable person, but she hadn’t done enough bad things that we want to watch her be punished.
Oren: It went on for so long. It was really obnoxious.
Chris: Whereas I’m pretty sure The Game of Thrones TV show did some work to try to get Daenerys more involved. Because she, in the Game of Thrones books, was the one that was really siloed off on her own. Even so she’s very separate and that was not a good thing.
Oren: Yeah, not ideal.
Chris: So in a TV show all of those characters, they interact with each other a lot. They tackle the same problems together all the time and when they don’t it’s a problem.
Oren: Oh man, you know what the worst is? It’s when a book uses multiple points of view to drag out a basic reveal. I feel like the author is taunting me. I tried to read an Avatar Kyoshi tie-in novel because I love Avatar Kyoshi. I’m trash for Avatar Kyoshi, and I just wanted to know more about her so I read this tie-in novel, or tried to. And it would be like, “Hey Kyoshi’s around but she’s not the Avatar and she can maybe do bending but there’s some weird complication with it. You want to find out about that?” “Nope, other character now.” Come on. Then it’s “This guy, he’s the Avatar but he only earthbends”. Is that because he can only earthbend or is something else going on? Whoop, let’s go to another character. No. Stop, stop, stop, stop.
Chris: Think about this way, if normally a cliffhanger is annoying to the audience where you end a chapter on a deliberate thing to keep them reading, it’s doubly annoying when you end on a cliffhanger, and then you don’t even continue that same story in the next chapter. So now you have to read some completely other story before you can resolve the cliffhanger.
I’ve definitely more than once just, I’m going to skip ahead and see what the result of this is, then if I feel like it I’ll go back and read that viewpoint. I have had some books like Warbreaker, where I decided to start skipping an entire character’s viewpoint throughout the entire book. Maybe I’ll miss some things but I’m okay with that.
Oren: That’s the part that’s annoying is that the author will do the thing where they’re completely separate and not related at all until the very end when “Oh, hey, there’s this MacGuffin that you need to have been reading the other character’s chapters to know what it is” and that’s the extent of how connected they are.
At this point it just feels like you’re punishing me. At least if they were actually unconnected, I could read one and skip all the chapters I didn’t like. But I’m not allowed to do that because you hate me personally. I can only assume.
Chris: [Laughter] It’s funny because my hatred for multiple points of view. When we debated, I was the deviant one and you were the one who was saying the standard talking points on multiple points of view.
Oren: Yeah. I was.
Chris: I was the weird person. I’m not sure who else out there, other than Mythcreants is, anti pov in the way that we are. As far as I know it’s just us.
Oren: We’re fighting the good fight against multiple points of view.
Chris: We don’t care that it’s popular! It’s bad.
Oren: This is our hill. We’re gonna die on it and we will only die on it with one point of view. That’s it.
All right, that’s going to be the way we’re gonna have to end this episode because we are out of time. Before we go I want to thank a few of our patrons who, while they are important characters, do not get their own points of view. All right? Everyone understands that. All right, first we have Kathy Ferguson who’s a professor of Political Theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo and she lives at www.therambogeeks.com. If anything we said piqued your interest those of you at home, you can leave a comment on the website Mythcreants and we will talk to you next week.
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Chris: This has been the Mythcreant podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself, by Jonathan Coulton.
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