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.
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.
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.