Anomander Rake and Point of View
My very first draft of Gardens of the Moon stalled after about three pages. I spent ten minutes re-reading what I’d written to that point, and then I hit the delete button. Not a typical start for me. By this point I’d done an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing at the University of Victoria and a Master’s at the University of Iowa. I’d found a publisher for my first collection of short stories and I’d received a major Canada Council grant. Normally, I started on page one and just kept going until whatever I was working on was finished.
So, what was the problem? Here I was, about to launch into the Malazan world and I knew that world backward and forward. I knew its players, its history, everything I needed. I’d even drawn up a wall-chart for my scene-by-scene march through the novel. And lastly, I had a feature film script in hand that detailed at least a third of the novel, maybe more. Just what was this brick wall I’d run headlong into?
In short stories (where I’d cut my teeth), one usually holds to one or at most a few points-of-view (POVs). That is, a central character’s take on the tale. And typically my POV choice and control was pretty good: that had initially been an instinctive ability of mine (ie I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was doing it right), and later, once the whole concept of POV had been drilled into me, I was pretty confident that it was one of my writing strengths.
POV is a curious thing. There are variants and all have been used at one time or another. Basically, POV is the vehicle the reader rides into the story. It is composed of voice, style, diction level and characterization. It also derives from narrative stance and these have labels: First Person (using the ‘I’ as in ‘I walked into the pool of lava’), Second Person (using ‘you’ as in ‘’You walked into the pool of lava’), Third Person (‘He walked into the pool of lava’). There are subdivisions, taxonomic variants called ‘Omniscient’ and ‘Limited Omniscient’ that can be applied to the original labels with varying degrees of efficacy (First Person Omniscient: ‘I am Fred and here I am, walking into a pool of lava. I die. Now I am Sally, look at me walking into a…’ Or Second Person Limited Omniscient: ‘For reasons you’re not prepared to explain, you walk out into the middle of the street until a truck runs you over.’ Or Third Person Omniscient: ‘He’d hated school ever since Gloria Dweeb made a face at him in Second Grade and now he was thinking of Gloria Dweeb and that face she’d made as he ran out and jumped into the pool of lava in the middle of the street. Because the world sucks and what’s the point to any of it anyway?’).
There are two dominant conventions these days in fiction: First Person Limited Omniscient and Third Person Limited Omniscient. Limited Omniscient basically means you (as author and then as reader) possess the privilege of getting into a character’s head, eavesdropping on their thoughts, fears, motivations, rationalisations, etc) and, just as importantly, seeing the story/world through that person’s eyes. The First Person approach to that invites you to identify rather directly and intimately with the ‘I’ character. The Third Person approach gives you a bit more wiggle room, though basically you’re hanging out with a particular character and you write scenes from their eyes.
One of the key points to ‘Limited’ is that as author you can choose to reveal a little of a character’s internal world, or a lot; and you need not be consistent (much) depending on the scene at hand (though generally, consistency is good. That said, there may arrive certain instances where you want to pull back – and pull the reader back with you – in order to achieve the emotional effect you’re looking for: if I had any advice to give in that direction, don’t do it too often, lest you find your narrative style falling into the habit of aversion which could in turn repeatedly unplug the emotional impact of your writing). Or you might want to be highly selective in drawing super-close to a character, going there only in those moments when you want to hammer home the visceral experience that character is going through.
Unlimited or Full Omniscient (a common style of a century or two ago) effectively thrusts the narrator fully into the story, armed with levels of awareness and percipience that are, simply, godlike. This style’s fallen out of favour, at least in popular fiction, but still shows up every now and then. With Full Omniscient the narrator knows the internal world of every character and probably has an opinion on each of them, which will show up in tone and style and voice (or not, if the narrative voice is flat, toneless and reportorial). Implicitly, Full Omniscient narration projects superiority, and often barely-disguised contempt, for the characters (the exception being, again, the flat reportorial style). And this is one of the reasons it may not be very popular these days, as we readers would rather make up our own minds, thank you very much. That said, a Full Omniscient story written with dripping contempt can, on occasion, be a lot of fun to read.
The flat, reportorial style mentioned above is probably the dominant style in contemporary, literary fiction. It’s a clinical, cameral approach. Writers of that approach can argue with me all they want that they’re being objective with that style. I don’t buy it for a minute. We aren’t cameras and even pretending to be one involves a slew of distorting filters that you either have the honesty to acknowledge or the audacity to pretend they don’t exist. A camera feels no pain behind its unblinking eye: can a human say the same? If so, that human is a monster.
That said, it’s often the first line of defense when a writer is challenged for writing a particular scene, usually an objectionable scene (ie characters doing objectionable things): in effect, ‘I’m just writing it as I see it in my eyes. It’s not my job to judge. That’s your business.’ In a general sense, that’s a decent first line of defense. A writer seeks verisimilitude, after all, a sense of ‘this is how it is and maybe you have the privilege as a reader to look away, but as a writer, I don’t.’ I’ve used it myself on occasion (a certain hobbling scene in The Malazan Book of the Fallen, or a rape scene in Forge of Darkness). The author must not blink, and the style invoked in those scenes is as reportorial as possible, stripped of emotion and brutally clinical: no matter how explicit the details, the psychic distance is pulled way back, made cameral.
I do consider that first line of defense as being valid. As far as it goes. But I would be a liar if I then said that I had no visceral or emotional experience writing those scenes. In fact, if that were true, I’d be a sociopath. The point is, writers have reasons for writing the scenes they write, and one can only hope that those reasons possess a solid moral foundation.
In any case, this is an example of how style can shift based on content. How does that relate to POV? Only to show that POV is malleable even as adheres to its basic rules, and that Third Person is probably the most flexible POV of all. Consider the Third Person Limited Omniscient POV I selected for the Malazan Book of the Fallen. All those characters! Well, if I had held to a single voice (and style), if I maintained a consistent diction level across characters, and if I had leveled out sentence rhythm, sentence pattern and length, and held to a strict depth of character internalization (we go into everyone’s heads only this far), the series would have been unreadable. Instead, consider the 3rd Person Limited Omniscient take on Beak as opposed to, say, Duiker. Peruse sentence length, diction level, depth of perspicacity. Compare and contrast, just like we all did in high school essays.
If you’re going to run with a lot of POV characters, mix it up some. No, mix it up a lot.
In writing fiction, POV is a decision on a macro scale, when everything else is on the micro scale (barring plot). For some reason, I understood that from the very start of my writing career, on some gut level, and my instincts on who to choose for a POV and when and how deep, was also instinctive for me.
So, why did I dump the first three pages on my first draft of Gardens of the Moon? Because I’d selected an impossible POV. Anomander Rake. Now, that was a seriously frustrating realization. Anomander was the first character I ever rolled up and played in AD&D. Through campaign after campaign, I lived and breathed the guy, dammit. For years!
Still, just ten minutes worth of thinking about it (prior to deleting those first three pages) gave me my answer for why it wasn’t working. How the hell was a twenty-something writer going to convincingly and authentically convey the POV of a character who’s a couple hundred thousand years old? Answer: he can’t. Oh sure, I could write stuff, lots of it, but not in a way that would satisfy my verisimilitude. Not for a minute.
Anomander Rake. That guy is remote. Hell, the first time we see him he’s standing on a ledge on Moon’s Spawn about a thousand feet from the ground. That intro produces an effect, and I’d been an idiot to not understand just what that effect was. And what it demanded.
Bring out the White-Out (remember that stuff?). Brush over Anomander Rake’s name as POV everywhere on that big chart. Can’t do it, so I won’t do it (being humbled as a writer is, no honest, a good thing! Just don’t flip being humbled into an attack on your self-belief. That’s not what it is at all – get over yourself! It’s a lesson and no lesson is worth anything unless you learn from it).
Sure, it sucked, dumping my favourite character. But, almost by accident, something else happened, quite unexpectedly, and in some ways I didn’t realize the full extent of that happening thing until long after the book was written and indeed, published (in other words, years!). But let me walk it back.
Anomander Rake still had his role to play in the novel (and the series), meaning he was going to show up again and again, usually in some badass way. And he was in line to make decisions (and mistakes!) that would rattle the world. But now, with his POV dumped, we were going to have to see him from the POV of others, lots of others. And still more POVs were going to hear about him, or have beliefs about him, fears and other visceral responses, too. In fact, everything we were going to find out about Anomander was going to come from all those POVs orbiting him. I’d made the macro decision, right? Rake’s POV was out.
Jump ahead years, and years. Gardens of the Moon finds a publisher, the book comes out, fans start discussions online. And I’m reading comments and I’m frowning. What’s this? Everybody going wild about Anomander Rake? They’re raving about his badassery. But … but?
Oh. Well, fuck me. In retrospect it all makes sense. And it has to do with something that’s integral to all fiction: psychic distance. You see, something curious happens when you push a character back, when you elevate his badassery through hearsay and fear and terror all coming from other character POVs. When people feel the effect of his arrival (Baruk). When relatively under-powered characters get to witness what Rake does (Crokus). When people run and hide just hearing his name (Quick Ben and Kalam). Because, via those POVs I selected, the reader rides into the world, and in that world, nobody fucks with Anomander Rake.
So, as it turns out, that first view of Anomander Rake, way up there against the backdrop of Moon’s Spawn, well, it was prescient as hell. In fact, it symbolically told you (me!) that’s as close as you’re ever going to get to Anomander Rake. Sometimes, how you write into a scene is a giant sign-post to yourself: PAY ATTENTION HERE, IDIOT. SEE? THAT’S ANOMANDER RAKE WAY UP THERE AND THAT’S RIGHT, YOU CAN’T REACH HIM. EVER. Well, I’m often an idiot about things, but not for very long. And that flashing sign-post was a lesson well worth heeding, so I did.
POV builds your fictional world. Who you choose for it is crucial. Can you write a badass POV? Sure. Of course you can, but bear in mind that by choosing that character for a POV, no matter how badass they are, they are being humanized (drawn down to the mortal reader’s level), and if you try and make them infallible, you risk much (unless you’re writing a spoof, cf the Stainless Steel Rat, Retief, Matt Helm, etc), and sooner or later, some fan’s gonna sneer and go ‘yeah right, tell me another one.’ Loss of verisimilitude, in other words.
But if you make them flawed, truly human and therefore vulnerable, well, that’s a different kind of badass. Both work, they just work differently, that’s all.
Now, those of you who’ve read the Malazan Book of the Fallen might now be thinking about Anomander Rake, and instances where POV got … muddied, and yeah, you’re right, I orbited very close to him every now and then.
And I think, just once (haven’t checked), I even cheated. Slipped right into his POV, but constrained by very strict rules of psychic distance, style, tone and all the rest. If you’re into a challenge, by all means try and find it. Soon as someone does, I’ll use the example to segue into Part Two of my essay on POV.
Lastly, I am open to your questions and I welcome discussion and debate, so ask away!