POV and Voice in Classic Fantasy

If you don’t know what POV and voice are, here is a quick recap.

I am writing a YA fantasy and have been experimenting with whether it should be in first or third person.  While I’m thinking about this, I thought it might be a good idea to have a look at how POV and voice is used in some classic adult fantasy novels, YA fantasy novels, and YA novels generally.  This first post outlines some examples and observations about the use of POV and voice in traditional fantasy.

Fantasy and the sneaky tour guide:

Fantasy generally uses some kind of device to assist the reader to ease into and orient themselves in the unfamiliar fantasy world.

Most blatantly this is portal fantasy (where a character from this world discovers a gateway to another world), so you literally transition there and then have someone who can explain everything to you in terms to which you can relate. The portal fantasy is the 20th-21st century version of a ‘boys own adventure’ story (which, in the US, evolved into the ‘Western’), except instead of Englishmen heading off to explore ‘strange and savage lands’, you have someone from ‘our world’ (meaning the society you presume your reader will be from) dropped into other worlds.

With a portal fantasy, you have the option to write in first person or stick to a single POV character (the person travelling through the portal) and your story will still be easy for your reader to follow. Tolkien showed people you could have the benefits of a portal without an actual portal by creating an imaginary Englishland (the Shire – which is basically a quaint pastoral village), from which the characters could easily set off on their adventure to exotic lands, and conceal the ‘tour guide’ function in wise old people who can explain things to the fish-out-of-water Englishy folk, and a disguised third person narrator.

The POV in The Hobbit has an actual omniscient narrator of the traditional kind that actually discusses what it thinks of Bilbo’s actions. But in The Lord of the Rings, the omniscient narrator is much more sneaky and unobtrusive. The narrator is still there – it just operates by controlling the story and your gaze, and filtering your experience through its choice of words, rather than declaring itself and its views didactically. It slips in to give you ‘fun facts about the world of X’ or ‘did you know there’s a story behind the way they’re eating eggs?’ and ‘if you look to the left you’ll see a great panoramic view of the valley’, except it does so in a way that it seems almost as if these thoughts just happen to occur to you or the character while you’re there.

This ‘hidden narrator’ makes your experience of the story much more structured, and adds layers of knowledge neither you nor the character would really have. For example:

The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful. His hair was dark as the shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars. Venerable he seemed as a King crowned with many winters, and yet hale as a tried warrior in the fulness of his strength. He was the Lord of Rivendell and mighty among both elves and men.

In the middle of the table, against the woven cloths upon the wall, there was a chair under a canopy, and there sat a lady fair to look upon, and so like was she in form of womanhood to Elrond that Frodo guessed that she was one of his close kindred. Young she was and yet not so. … [It goes on, so I’ll skip a bit].

So it was that Frodo saw whom few mortals had yet seen; Arwen, daughter of Elrond, in whom it was said that the likeness of Luthien had come on earth again; and she was called Undomiel, for she was the Evenstar of her people. Long she had been in the land of her mother’s kin, in Lorien… [etc]

Whose POV are we in? It’s kind of Frodo’s and not Frodo’s. The writer is describing where Frodo is looking and some of his thoughts (‘Frodo guessed…’), but having Frodo know Elrond’s face has in it ‘the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful’ is a bit of a stretch. When we get down to Arwen we get a full diversion into information about what Arwen has been up to, which is odd, because in the previous paragraph Frodo describes her like he doesn’t know who she is.

To illustrate the point, if you were strictly in Frodo’s limited POV, it would more be like this:

The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young. His hair was dark as the shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars. Venerable he seemed as a King crowned with many winters, and yet hale as a tried warrior in the fulness of his strength. He was the Lord of Rivendell and Frodo knew he was considered mighty among both elves and men.

In the middle of the table, against the woven cloths upon the wall, there was a chair under a canopy, and there sat a lady fair to look upon, and so like was she in form of womanhood to Elrond that Frodo guessed that she was one of his close kindred. Young she was and yet not so.

You wouldn’t know who anything more about the mysterious woman, because Frodo doesn’t. If you want the reader to know, you’d have to inform Frodo. eg:

“That’s Arwen, daughter of Elrond,” Sam said.

As soon as you pare it down to what Frodo could really know in limited POV, the ornate, old-fashiony language starts to stick out oddly. This is because limited POV comes across as a representation of the character’s thoughts, even if it’s in third person. The flowery language seems weird because it’s hard to imagine Frodo (or anyone) thinking or speaking in those words. It’s a ‘written’ voice, rather than one of speech / thought.

This is the voice of someone who likes old-fashionedy language and has had some time to reflect and compose their metaphors. It has the personality of someone who feels that the world has become a bit ugly and detached from its natural roots, who revels in the language of old epic poetry, and believes there is a moral order to the universe. It reads like it’s written by someone who likes beautiful arrangements of hymns in echoey Cathedrals, but also doesn’t mind an Irish jig and a pint. It is a voice distrustful of technology and industrialism, and not remotely interested in efficiency. It is preoccupied with but ambivalent about violence, at once hating it and yet unable to see how it is not a necessary evil.

In short, this voice is Tolkien himself.

However, Tolkien obviously felt compelled to explain the POV and voice he was using, because near the end of the book he gives an explanation: Here Bilbo’s hand ended and Frodo had written:


(as seen by the Little People; being the memoirs of Bilbo and Frodo of the Shire, supplemented by the accounts of their friends and the learning of the Wise.) Together with extracts form Books of Lore translated by Bilbo in Rivendell.

(This explanation doesn’t entirely make sense because exactly the same narrative voice continues after this point, even though the last pages are allegedly written by another person whose worldview and level of education is very, very different.)

But, ignoring that, it actually is a pretty good explanation of the kind of POV and voice that has come to be standard in modern fantasy writing. That is to say, most modern fantasy is written in past tense, in a single voice, as though events are being reconstructed by someone who has been lucky enough to obtain detailed accounts from all the main characters about what they went through, but has also done their research, and so has also acquired photographs of locations, snippets of folklore, and the kind of historical data that helps to make sense of the story.

All fantasies must give some thought as to how they will help the reader understand and appreciate what is happening.

Overt narrator for comic effect:

In The Once and Future King by T H White, a retelling of King Arthur which is more or less contemporary with The Lord of the Rings, the author creates a narrator that literally translates things to his audience (which is presumed to be his English contemporaries):

“Don’t mind at all,” said Sir Ector. “Very kind of you to say anythin’. Much obliged, I’m sure. Help yourself to port.”

“Good port this.”

“Get it from a friend of mine.”

“But about these boys,” said Sir Grummore.

“How many of them are there, do you know?”

“Two,” said Sir Ector, “counting them both, that is.”

“Couldn’t send them to Eton, I suppose?” inquired Sir Grummore cautiously. “Long way and all that, we know.”

It was not really Eton that he mentioned, for the College of Blessed Mary was not founded until 1440, but it was a place of the same sort. Also they were drinking Metheglyn, not port, but by mentioning the modern wine it is easier to give you the feel.

Although present, the narrator in The Once and Future King has the unusual characteristic of sliding into the actual language of different characters in the narration, which is done in a way that it is not confusing, but more like a comedian doing impressions:

In the afternoons the programme was: Mondays and Fridays, tilting and horsemanship; Tuesdays, hawking; Wednesdays, fencing; Thursdays, archery; Saturdays, the theory of chivalry, with the proper measures to be blown on all occasions, terminology of the chase and hunting etiquette. If you did the wrong thing at the mort or the undoing, for instance, you were bent over the body of the dead beast and smacked with the flat side of a sword. This was called being bladed. It was horseplay, a sort of joke like being shaved when crossing the line. Kay was not bladed, although he often went wrong.

When they had got rid of the governess, Sir Ector said, “After all, damn it all, we can’t have the boys runnin’ about all day like hooligans—after all, damn it all? Ought to be havin’ a first-rate eddication, at their age. When I was their age I was doin’ all this Latin and stuff at five o’clock every mornin’. Happiest time of me life. Pass the port.”

Sir Grummore Grummursum, who was staying the night because he had been benighted out questin’ after a specially long run, said that when he was their age he was swished every mornin’ because he would go hawkin’ instead of learnin’. He attributed to this weakness the fact that he could never get beyond the Future Simple of Utor. It was a third of the way down the left-hand leaf, he said. He thought it was leaf ninety-seven. He passed the port.

Sir Ector said, “Had a good quest today?” Sir Grummore said, “Oh, not so bad. Rattlin’ good day, in fact. Found a chap called Sir Bruce Saunce Pité choppin’ off a maiden’s head in Weedon Bushes, ran him to Mixbury Plantation in the Bicester, where he doubled back, and lost him in Wicken Wood. Must have been a good twenty-five miles as he ran.”

As can be seen in the first paragraph, the narrator himself usually speaks in an educated but pared back style, but in the paragraph about Sir Grummore he adopts Sir Grummore’s patois to give a clearer sense of the character.

Looking at T H White’s and Tolkien’s excerpts side by side highlights the differences in their voices. T H White’s voice is dry, funny, and to the point. Tolkien’s voice wears its shining idealistic heart on its sleeve. T H White’s voice has a Seinfeld-esque type eye for everyday vanities and everyday language. Tolkien has a cheesy love for nobility and beauty. (I’m a Tolkien fan, but outside your local Society For Creative Anachronism, waxing lyrical about fair maidens and the nobility of one’s brow is the stuff of comedy.)

Speaking of comedy, a witty, present narrator works quite well for comedy, but can become a challenge if you want to convey tension, horror, excitement, romance, or basically any strong emotion. The pleasure of reading T H White or Terry Pratchett is primarily cerebral.

This doesn’t mean that it can’t be deep or profound, but it does mean that it holds you at a nice, safe distance from your own emotions, so that you’re always kind of conscious that you’re reading the story and not actually there. If you want to create a more immersive experience, you have to tone down the clever commentary and get your voice out of the way so the reader can start experiencing the world vicariously.

Unobtrusive narrator becomes standard in adult fantasy:

The fantasy writers that followed Tolkien adopted the ‘sneaky tour guide narrator’, but gave them a more contemporary voice, avoiding obtrusive olde-worlde purple prose.

For example, here is the opening to David Eddings’ book Pawn of Prophecy:

The kitchen at Faldor’s farm was a large, low-beamed room filled with ovens and kettles and great spits that turned slowly in cavernlike arched fireplaces. There were long, heavy worktables where bread was kneaded into loaves and chickens were cut up and carrots and celery were diced with quick, crisp rocking movements of long, curved knives. When Garion was very small, he played under those tables and soon learned to keep his fingers and toes out from under the feet of the kitchen helpers who worked around them. And sometimes in the late afternoon when he grew tired, he would lie in a corner and stare into one of the flickering fires that gleamed and reflected back from the hundred polished pots and knives and long- handled spoons that hung from pegs along the whitewashed walls and, all bemused, he would drift off into sleep in perfect peace and harmony with all the world around him.

The center of the kitchen and everything that happened there was Aunt Pol. She seemed somehow to be able to be everywhere at once. The finishing touch that plumped a goose in its roasting pan or deftly shaped a rising loaf or garnished a smoking ham fresh from the oven was always hers. Though there were several others who worked in the kitchen, no loaf, stew, soup, roast, or vegetable ever went out of it that had not been touched at least once by Aunt Pol. She knew by smell, taste, or some higher instinct what each dish required, and she seasoned them all by pinch or trace or a negligent-seeming shake from earthenware spice pots. It was as if there was a kind of magic about her, a knowledge and power beyond that of ordinary people. And yet, even at her busiest, she always knew precisely where Garion was. In the very midst of crimping a pie crust or decorating a special cake or stitching up a freshly stuffed chicken she could, without looking, reach out a leg and hook him back out from under the feet of others with heel or ankle.

As he grew a bit older, it even became a game. Garion would watch until she seemed far too busy to notice him, and then, laughing, he would run on his sturdy little legs toward a door. But she would always catch him. And he would laugh and throw his arms around her neck and kiss her and then go back to watching for his next chance to run away again

He was quite convinced in those early years that his Aunt Pol was quite the most important and beautiful woman in the world.

The objective of this style is to give the impression of being in a character’s POV without a narrator, but to still be able to slip the reader useful bits of information.

It is different from first person or close third person.  The character of Garion himself did not think, as a child, that he was ‘quite convinced in those early years’ of things. These are reflections of another person who is writing about Garion from a more knowledgeable perspective. The vocabulary is simple, but Garion, who can’t be much older than a toddler in this passage, did not have a vocabulary that included words like ‘cavernlike’, ‘bemused’, or ‘negligent-seeming’. They are words chosen to give impressions of Garion’s experience; glimpses, not a truly sustained and limited perspective of being inside his head. It’s more that you feel you are floating in the middle of this kitchen, observing the bustle while exchanging notes with someone about memories of what it was like growing up there.

This is also a great example of the pseudo-portal fantasy device. Here, we open on a domestic scene that most of the audience would recognise. It’s a kid at home watching Mum in the kitchen. Ok, they’re using fireplaces a bit more than your Mum might have, but most of us could relate to being very young, looking up to our Mums as being beautiful, amazingly competent, and almost omniscient. Once the reader is comfortably oriented, the writer will start the adventure, and all the new places will have to be explained to Garion, who will know no more about what’s going on than we do.

A Game of Thrones by GRR Martin starts in a less familiar place, but by giving the impression of the perspective of a young boy as reconstructed through a past tense, third person voice, is able to convey the unfamiliar scene in a way that is fairly easy to follow:

The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded, twenty in all, and Bran rode among them, nervous with excitement. This was the first time he had been deemed old enough to go with his lord father and his brothers to see the king’s justice done. It was the ninth year of summer, and the seventh of Bran’s life.

The man had been taken outside a small holdfast in the hills. Robb thought he was a wildling, his sword sworn to Mance Rayder, the King-beyond-the-Wall. It made Bran’s skin prickle to think of it. He remembered the hearth tales Old Nan told them. The wildlings were cruel men, she said, slavers and slayers and thieves. They consorted with giants and ghouls, stole girl children in the dead of night, and drank blood from polished horns. And their women lay with the Others in the Long Night to sire terrible half-human children.

But the man they found bound hand and foot to the holdfast wall awaiting the king’s justice was old and scrawny, not much taller than Robb. He had lost both ears and a finger to frostbite, and he dressed all in black, the same as a brother of the Night’s Watch, except that his furs were ragged and greasy.

The breath of man and horse mingled, steaming, in the cold morning air as his lord father had the man cut down from the wall and dragged before them. Robb and Jon sat tall and still on their horses, with Bran between them on his pony, trying to seem older than seven, trying to pretend that he’d seen all this before. A faint wind blew through the holdfast gate. Over their heads flapped the banner of the Starks of Winterfell: a grey direwolf racing across an ice- white field.

Bran’s father sat solemnly on his horse, long brown hair stirring in the wind. His closely trimmed beard was shot with white, making him look older than his thirty-five years. He had a grim cast to his grey eyes this day, and he seemed not at all the man who would sit before the fire in the evening and talk softly of the age of heroes and the children of the forest. He had taken off Father’s face, Bran thought, and donned the face of Lord Stark of Winterfell.

The narrator’s voice is very well hidden behind Bran’s perspective. But its presence becomes apparent when you start to think about what would be different if present-tense 7 year old Bran really narrated the story himself. He would be more present on the horse and in his body. There would be a lot more cluttered, random, childish thoughts, not this mature focus on key political details of the landscape and characters.

Would a 7 year old think that a familiar man looks ‘older than his thirty-five years’? Unlikely. When you’re seven, a thirty- five year old is just old, and a man you see every day just looks as old as he looks. In real life, you’d be pretty impressed if a teenager came up with the last sentence, let alone a 7 year old boy. But Martin gets away with it because there is a convention that fantasy (and much other fiction) is written in this way. The character’s ‘real’ thoughts and experience come to us reworded, touched up, photoshopped, and edited for effect by the writer. This approach makes the experience more accessible, aesthetically engaging, and dramatic.

Overtly first person memoirs:

A similar effect is achieved by using first person and a polished past tense as though the character (now, conveniently, a gifted writer) is writing a memoir. This offers the opportunity to recreate a sense of the historical language such a person might have used to write their memoirs. For example, here is an example from The King Must Die: A Novel by Mary Renault:

The Citadel of Troizen, where the Palace stands, was built by giants before anyone remembers. But the Palace was built by my great-grandfather. At sunrise, if you look at it from Kalauria across the strait, the columns glow fire-red and the walls are golden. It shines bright against the dark woods on the mountainside.

Our house is Hellene, sprung from the seed of Ever-Living Zeus. We worship the Sky Gods before Mother Dia and the gods of earth. And we have never mixed our blood with the blood of the Shore People, who had the land before us.

My grandfather had about fifteen children in his household, when I was born. But his queen and her sons were dead, leaving only my mother born in wedlock. As for my father, it was said in the Palace that I had been fathered by a god. By the time I was give, I had perceived that some people doubted this. But my mother never spoke of it; and I cannot remember a time when I should have cared to ask her.

When I was seven, the Horse Sacrifice came due, a great day in Troizen.

It is held four-yearly, so I remembered nothing of the last one. I knew it concerned the King Horse, but thought it was some act of homage to him. To my mind, nothing could have been more fitting. I knew him well.

Much fewer fantasy stories overtly indicate they are memoirs, because saying so tends not to add a lot to a fantasy.  It limits you from showing other viewpoints, and tends to diffuse tension by constantly reminding you in the middle of a scene of mortal peril that the character must end up doing all right. It also means that you inevitably start with sitting in a room, writing, which is not exactly the most riveting kind of beginning.

However, it can be done well.  Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb is an example of a story told as an overt memoir:

My pen falters, then falls from my knuckly grip, leaving a worm’s trail of ink across Fedwren’s paper. I have spoiled another leaf of the fine stuff, in what I suspect is a futile endeavour. I wonder if I can write this history, or if on every page there will be some sneaking show of a bitterness I thought long dead. I think myself cured of all spite, but when I touch pen to paper, the hurt of a boy bleeds out wiht the sea-spawned ink, until I suspect each carefully formed black letter scabs over some ancient scarlet wound.

Both Fedwren and Patience were so filled with enthusiasm whenever a written account of the history of the Six Duchies was discussed that I persuaded myself the writing of it was a worthwhile effort. I convinced myself that the exercise would turn my thoughts aside from my pain and help the time to pass. But each historical event I consider only awakens my own personal shades of loneliness and loss. I fear I will have to set this work aside entirely, or else give in to reconsidering all that has shaped what I have become. And so I begin again, and again, but always find that I am writing of my own beginnings rather than the beginnings of this land. I do not even know to whom I try to explain myself. My life has been a web of secrets, secrets that even now are unsafe to share. Shall I set them all down on fine paper, only to create from them flame and ash? Perhaps.

My memories reach back to when I was six years old. Before that, there is nothing, only a blank gulf no exercise of my mind has ever been able to pierce. Prior to that day at Moonseye, there is nothing. But on that day they suddenly begin, with a brightness and detail that overwhelms me. Sometimes it seems too complete, and I wonder if it is truly mine. Am I recalling it from my own mind, or from dozens of retellings by legions of kitchen maids and ranks of scullions and herds of stable boys as they explained my presence to each other.

Even though this is really well-written, and Robin Hobb is my probably my favourite fantasy writer – when you get right down to it I’m not sure that adopting the first person memoir style adds something important.  Fitz’s reflections of how secret and dramatic his life has been read a bit like one of those TV teasers where they try and make it look like something Incredibly Exciting is going to happen in the reality TV show after the ad break, whereas if it really is exciting I’d rather they just got on with it and showed me the exciting thing.

I suppose the memoir voice is used to add some reflections about the nature of memory, which are nice, but not uncuttable.  The memoir voice is used to show this is going to be an adult story despite the story initially being about a child.  However, as the excerpt from A Game of Thrones shows, you can start in a child’s perspective and it can still be completely clear that this is an adult story, but Hobb’s approach drives this home clearly.  I think probably the main thing the POV adds is to orient the reader that this is going to be a tragedy, and probably span many years.

I think it’s worth noting that this is a function of the memoir style – to signal that the perspective and insights will be from a mature adult, even when the subject matter is a child’s experiences – because I think it explains why YA tends to use a very different kind of voice.

Which brings me to the next one of these posts: POV and voice in YA fantasy.

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