Sunday, April 01, 2018
Straying from the Party Line: The Power and Peril of POV in “A Game of Thrones”
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.