Erin Hoffman is a novelist and video game designer from California. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Electric Velocipede, Asimov’s, and others, and she writes nonfiction for The Escapist, a leading game industry magazine.
Well, hello! Night Bazaar — what a neat concept. Thank you for having me.
Oh, point of view. Den of thorns and shipwrecker of dreams. Actually, it’s not that bad.
Point of view in particular I think tends to be a matter of fashion, which can also be a matter of region, or in our case, subgenre. Mainstream fantasy tends to be dominated by third person, predominantly multi-perspective these days, with rare forays into omniscient third. First person seems to indicate literary aspiration. Then you jump over to paranormal romance and it’s all first person, an inheritance from mystery. All of this is mostly subliminal communication with the reader: I am familiar, I am what you like, I get you and we get it so let us dance together in the moonlight.
Sword of Fire and Sea is my first novel, but I’ve written and had published stories in a variety of points of view: first person, third person, omniscient/fable. Poetry, likewise, in a variety. I made a specific decision with the Chaos Knight to use an extremely close third that had mostly to do with pacing and characterization.
Partly in response to the 500+ page fantasies that have come to dominate modern fantasy — many of which I’ve quite enjoyed — Sword was intended first and foremost to be fast, part of an older tradition of fast-paced adventure fantasy. It’s single perspective, which is also unusual, but I thought was necessary so as not to sacrifice either clarity or speed. If a book is going to be fast, it had better at least be clear!
This simplified some things but presented many challenges in the narrative itself, and also in the characterization of the support characters. If the protagonist didn’t know what a given character was thinking, or if he was being lied to, or if he lacked information, I couldn’t just leap into another character to make that information clear. The story is experienced as he experiences it, which I think lends intensity even as it gives up some dimension to the narrative itself. There were times, especially in the second book — Lance of Earth and Sky, coming out next April — when I was crazy to pick up one of the other characters. But I kept to the promise set by the first book, which is so aggressively single-perspective that the descriptions themselves come only from the frame of reference Vidarian, the protagonist, would have; fortunately ship life provides a broad palette!
Beyond that, point of view is a funny beast. It’s interesting to have the topic come up here, because it was recently a “topic of the week” on the Odyssey mailing list, and I sent a long and probably bizarre treatise there about developmental psychology (how we develop layers of point of view as we age and develop first a sense of self, before which one assumes there is no first person, and then a sense of other, which gives us a ‘you’, and finally the comprehension of separation between self and other, which comes along with comprehension of death!). And my obsession with Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, a thriller that uses multi-perspective third person with incredible integrity owing to Stephenson’s phenomenal voice. Le sigh.
So! As with most things, duly pointed out by other fine posts here, there are no rigid bulletproof maxims. Only the right voice for the story. Or voices. It’s a great exercise to rewrite a story in a different point of view. They all have different advantages and disadvantages, and learning the ins and outs of one tends to strengthen the others. But you probably have heard all of this before.
Have a lot of fun!