Sunday, April 01, 2018

Straying from the Party Line: The Power and Peril of POV in “A Game of Thrones”

Last week I focused on the ways that George R. R. Martin intentionally (and boldly) broke the rules with “A Game of Thrones”, and mostly got away with it. This week, I promise, I will finally get to more of what the book does unambiguously right, but I thought I would feature one last broken rule, this one seemingly unintentional. But here it’s the exception that proves the rule, because it shows how well Martin does it the rest of the time.

I think one of the great strengths of these books is the use of strict third-person limited-POV with strong sensory writing. This is Writing 101: Build identification (whether in 1st or 3rd) by keeping us in one head and use all five senses to make that head come to life. And it’s especially important in a book like this that has a different POV each chapter. As with Tolstoy, the POV keeps shifting but while we’re in one head, we’re intensely and intimately in that one head.

Martin not only tells us what his limited-POV characters see, hear, feel on their skin, touch, taste, smell, and think, he also tells us how each sense affects the others. He tells us how thoughts affect senses: “It made Bran’s skin prickle to think of it.” And how senses affect thoughts: “The taste of cold iron in his mouth gave him comfort.” This is intimate. Here’s a classic Martin sentence: “His muscles cramping and his fingers numb with cold, he climbed down.” Two feelings, then an action. That’s a good ratio.

But let’s talk about the Martin’s odd prologues, and why he does them that way, and something he does on his first page that I can only describe as a mistake.

For 71 of his 72 chapters, Martin has a named POV at the beginning of the chapter, but he sets up a convention that he uses in each book: Only the prologue has no named POV. This is an odd choice. It would seem to me that the beginning is when you want a POV the most, to quickly bond us to a character when we’re seeking around for one. (Although Rowling does something similar, doesn’t she? The key difference there is that she adopts a truly omniscient voice for that first chapter, including a little authorial commentary, which Martin remains limited even in his prologues, with no authorial voice.)

So why does he do it? Possibly just because he’s going to kill these characters off, so he doesn’t name them so as to let us know not to care about them. All of his other POV characters return at least five times.

But here’s Martin’s bizarre mistake: You should never have a chapter that’s almost entirely from one character’s POV, but drifts into another character’s POV just once, even though you don’t need to. 

The first time we see into a character’s head, in the fourth line of the book, it’s the older man Gared: “Gared did not rise to the bait. He was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen the lordlings come and go.”  But then in the seventh line we enter Will’s head: “Will had known they would drag him into the quarrel sooner or later. He wished it had been later rather than sooner.” And then we’re limited to Will’s POV for the whole rest of the prologue. The subsequent non-dialogue paragraphs begin “Will could see…” and “Will shared his…” etc.

Martin was already a veteran novelist when this came out, but this is something I see beginners do all the time: Limit themselves almost entirely to one POV, only to slip into another character’s head just for a second. It ruins all the good work of your POV-limiting.

And indeed I was alienated by the opening pages of this book. The book didn’t grab me right away. It was only when we had settled into Will’s POV, and I started feeling his five senses, that I was finally able to figure out who each of these three characters were and how I should feel about them.

Martin in no way needs that slip into Gared’s head. Gared’s opinion on Royce could have been evident from what he says, what he does, or just a look Will sees in his eyes.  In fact, throughout the book Martin does a great job letting us know what other characters are thinking just using his POV character’s senses. Here’s an example with Will, looking at Ser Waymar: “Ser Waymar was panting from the effort now, his breath steaming in the moonlight.” Will sees and hears what Ser Waymar is feeling, simply by observing the outward manifestation of those emotions.

It doesn’t matter if the prologue has a named POV or not: If it’s 99% from one character’s POV, then it’s a bad idea to stray into another character’s head for just one line. An editor should have cut it.


Jodi Lew-Smith said...

Seems to me that Martin skirts a line here. Isn't it possible that Will knows Gared well enough that the observation is HIS? That the old man didn't rise to the bait because he'd seen lordlings come and go is actually from WILL's POV? In fact that's how I read it. I asked myself that exact question and then decided it was Will's view of what happened, not Gared's.

Which might have been wishful thinking for not wanting Martin to have made an error, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

If he'd tipped further into Gared's thoughts it wouldn't be possible, but it's right on the line.

Eric C said...

You know, Jodi, I actually always thought of that section as from Will's POV, describing what he thought was going on with Gared. I'm also pretty sure that that's what Martin intended.

But I can see where Matt's coming from on this. It isn't clear that that part is from Will's POV, especially not before you read on. Even if the chapter is written entirely from inside Will's head, if the reader can make the mistake of thinking that the viewpoint is someone else, and then feeling confused as they shift around before settling in Will's head, well, as far as the negatives Matt feels that a shifting perspective does, the damage is done anyway. Martin choice of phrasing for those lines could still have been improved.

The mistake technically being an unclear POV instead of a shifting one is an entirely academic detail at that point.

Matt Bird said...

Yeah, maybe deeper into the chapter, once we were firmly in Will's head, Martin could have gotten away with this line and we would see this as something Will was able to see on Gared's face.