POV, Filtering, and the Evolution of Writing

Alright, fantasy nerds, when was the last time you read Lord of the Rings?

I hadn't read the (holy) trilogy or The Hobbit in, let's say, over a decade. I did, recently, and I was shocked by what I found.

My father first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to me when I was two or three. Over the years, I re-read them many times. I mean, many. I would finish Return of the King and within a few weeks I was starting Fellowship again. My family would listen to the books on tape (back in my day, that's what they were called) on road trips. I was obsessed.

Then life caught up with me. Or adulthood. Or my love of video games. Whatever it was, the amount of time I dedicated to reading plummeted. So when I started reading again, I had to make hard calls. Given the choice between reading Fellowship for the 20th time or reading something new, I forced myself to read new things. I still struggle with that.

A few months back, I needed to do some research for my upcoming novel, Rat. Research on medieval and fantasy battles, to be precise. I immediately thought of the battle of Helm's Deep. As a kid, I thought that battle was awesome. So, I re-downloaded The Two Towers onto my Kindle and started reading.

Wow. What a difference a decade makes.

It blew me away how much harder it was for me to get through those chapters. It felt distant and thin. I wanted more. It was a battle and I felt completely detached from any of the drama going on. It read like a battle summary. I just finished The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie not too long ago, also for research, and the difference was stark. It was like the difference of hearing a debriefing in a command tent of a battle versus being a soldier in the middle of the melee.

And what, in my opinion, was to blame? Point of view and filtering.

Point of view is obvious. We've moved from third person omniscient points of view to close third. No longer do we have this bird's eye camera over the entire book, this distant author who can see all and tells us a story like we're around a campfire. Instead, we want our fiction in close, third person. We want it so much that we've even come up with the term "filtering" and have collectively turned our nose up at it. These older fantasy novels are filtered as hell. We are listening to a narrator telling us a story, so we're experiencing it through the narrator.

And that was okay for the time.

Imagine if we'd gotten close POV on Gimli and Legolas as each racked up their tally of kills? A few paragraphs of Gimli grunting and the numbing sensation in his hands as his ax cleaved another orc head. Then a few paragraphs of Legolas zeroing in on targets, near and far, loosing arrows to hit particular areas, his fingers straining against the bowstring. It would be awesome. Instead, the action is narrated distantly and we get filtered action.

In the end, what I had filled in with my imagination was far more detailed and exciting than the words on the page. Sorry Tolkien, I still love you!

Even now, as I'm listening to Raymond E. Feist's Magician: Apprentice, I notice the same thing. I'm never in one single character's point of view. What worked then, gives me whiplash. Never mind all the "he saw"s. It's disorienting.

And there was a time where I wouldn't even have noticed it.

That is one of the hardest things I've had to learn on my never-ending journey as a writer. I grew up reading filtered, distant narrator novels, but that's not what we do now. We are now in the action, in the heads of a single character, experiencing things as if we were them. Look at George R. R. Martin. He's got a bajillion and one point of view characters, but when you're in their POV, you are in it.

And that's what we want. At least for now.

A.P. ThayerComment