I wrote this on a forum but I might as well post it here since I think it’s relevant and I won’t have to go in the detail if I get to write some sort of review at a later point.

If we were to pick one the most important elements that may make Erikson unpalatable for a bigger public it would be the high number of PoVs within a single book. These guys here know perfectly what they are talking about, they are good exactly because they understand so well the expectations of the public and how to meet them. At 43:05 Rothfuss begins talking about PoVs and how they can kill a book for a reader. I’ll transcribe the relevant part (but suggest to watch the whole of it because it’s quite good and interesting):

Rothfuss: You are right that the first person or the narrow third-person is one of those things that you have almost as a standard in Urban Fantasy that the opposite is true in like, Traditional or Epic Fantasy, where it’s more like, well, you have like Tolkien or Martin where… I mean, you’ve got eight… I don’t know how many points of view Martin has… And Martin can pull it off, because he’s really good at his craft but I see a lot of novels sometimes, and I read them, and I’m like.. Wow… Man… You’re NOT Martin. Please don’t have eight points of view in your story because that means effectively you’re telling eight stories at once, and you have to be nigh God-like in your powers as a writer to pull it off.

Emma Bull: And with every one of those characters who gets to tell a story the reader has to invest in them and then the reader has to be prepared to let go of them, reluctantly, when you switch point of view and get invested in the new character, and then the same thing happens again at the end of the scene in which you let go of that character and… after a while the reader goes: Ahh, screw it. There are too many people at this cocktail party.

Rothfuss: That’s actually a great analogy. I hate parties. Too many people, too much noise, too much to keep track of. Whereas I really enjoy a gathering. The same thing is true with my books where if it’s a gathering of three or four, as we have here, we can have a nice conversation. But if I had eight people? It would be madness and we don’t really get to know anyone really well.

This is actually quite true and when I heard that part I thought it applies extremely well to Erikson in describing some readers’ reactions, so that’s one element. But as usual with these things, especially writing as an “art”, so extremely hard to pinpoint, good rules like this one are never “absolutes”. They are more like guidelines and warning signs that simply tell a writer to only cross when there’s a really good motivation to do so. As if saying: take your risks, but be wary of consequences, because there will be consequences.

It’s also worth noticing that this discussion came up after discussing the popularity of Urban Fantasy, and narrowing down to a matter of accessibility and meeting the readers’ expectations.

Yet I’m relishing the fragmentation of PoVs in The Forge of Darkness (Erikson’s latest). I’m enjoying reading this book a lot more than the five in the main Malazan series I’ve read. 85 pages in, but I continue to think this is the best Erikson I’ve read and so much better writer than the supposed apex of Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice. Page by page I’m simply having more fun reading, even if it’s really a different flavor of book. I have no idea where the plot is going, but I don’t care because the book holds me page by page.

Example, page 86, there’s this PoV about Faror Hend, at this point a nondescript character that appears marginal in the story, so a perfect candidate to complain about unnecessary PoVs. But it’s so great to read. She starts musing about Gallan’s poetry and how its meaning becomes a personal and suggestive thing. A moment later she talks with her cousin about some acid sea and its mysterious properties, and they mention that Mother Dark could be the answer to it. So she quotes Gallan:

“In unrelieved darkness waits every answer.”

This obviously associates Mother Dark with the theme, and the mystery of the Vitr. But the comment of the cousin is interesting:

“Even a bare handful of words from a poet, and I lose all sense of meaning. Such arts are not for me.”

The dialogue that follows just gets better and better. She says: “One learns subtlety.” And she’s then outperformed, by the cousin who was playing coy the whole time, because that obscure line of the poet isn’t anymore a comment on Mother Dark and the Vitr, but the suggestion of sex in the dark, giving in to passions that her cousin so obviously read in her.

And it all brings back to the beginning:

These were the truths that found their own flavours and made personal the taste, until it seemed that Gallan spoke directly to each and every listener, each and every reader.

This is just delicious and an example why I think it’s so good. In four pages Erikson set up a new context and environment, tied it back to previous scenes in the book, introduced great characters that feel real in an handful of pages, handed smoothly information about the setting, sprinkled with great dialogue and great scene’s closure.

So I can see that an high number of PoVs is a turn off for many readers, but for me it’s another element that makes this book so great. Only 85 pages in, but not a page was wasted or felt flat or trivial.


  1. By chance I happened on this page yesterday, and spent a while thinking about point-of-view and the comments made by Rothfuss and Emma Bull that you quoted above, which are both fair as far as they go. So, if you’re looking at acquiring the maximum numbers of readers (and the big bucks), then their advice is good advice. But something gnawed at me about it, and still does. I suppose the key to the whole thing is that very premise of acquiring the maximum number of readers, as being the primary aim of writing fiction. On one level, sure, and I too would love to have millions and millions of readers for my novels. But on another level … I wonder what would have to be given up to achieve that.
    I ask myself: what is at the core of my need/desire to employ multiple points of view in my stuff? And to what extent was I aware of the potential to lose readers on the basis of my decision? If I think back to when and where it all started, for me, with Gardens of the Moon, and my contemplation of the ten book series begun with that novel, I honestly think I wasn’t considering the hit-miss risks of multiple points of view: nor was I beating myself up with notions of self-doubt as to whether or not I could pull it off (and to think some writer would perk up decades later to say something like ‘Only Martin can pull of eight points of view! And you’re not Martin!’ leaves me … well, still unimpressed, and no, I’ll not elaborate further on that).

  2. Sorry, hitting the TAB key ends up POSTING the comment — I still have a long way to go here. Where was I? Oh yeah. Unimpressed.
    Taken from another angle, Rothfuss and Bull’s exchange does highlight, at its core, the endemic conservatism of genre writers (and while I am a genre writer as well, I rail against the self-imposed constraints of genre, especially when they whiff of personal insecurities, as with the notion of ‘only a few are capable of this, or that,’ meaning, of course, that the rest of us are not worthy, or whatever. I mean, come on, get off it already). That said, the notion of what succeeds and what doesn’t is always a personal judgement, and both Rothfuss and Emma Bull are welcome to toss me off, on the basis of ‘losing’ readers, or not selling millions of copies, etc. To which they can then sit back, content in the knowledge that they’re right.
    So, let’s leave them behind for the moment, and talk about point-of-view. I would think any writer who spends any time at all thinking about her or his craft, would at some point observe that all points of view are inherently unreliable, and that includes their own. Further, this notion can be extended to saying that each and every one of us presents an unreliable point of view: there is no observable, factual, unobserved ‘reality’ that can be said to exist beyond our ability to experience it: or, rather, even if there is, we’ll never find it. By extension, while we are able to generally agree upon commonly perceived elements of reality (this chair, the floor, that sky beyond the window, etc), once we’re past the big, bulky stuff, things go quickly awry. All those disparate and contradictory eye-witness accounts you can read about attest to that readily enough.

    (I break here and post just to tell you that more is coming, and to take a moment and wonder if the previous section ever reached you!)

    • It seems that when you press TAB the focus moves to the “Post Comment” button, so if you then press Space or Enter, the comment gets posted.

      I’m wondering what exactly you were trying to accomplish by pressing TAB, though ;)

  3. Now, let’s tie that into narrative, and from there, into narrative structure. Since we live in a linear fashion, physically if not mentally or spiritually, we possess a natural inclination for narrative. We describe our lives via stories, and may well each possess an inexhaustible narrator inside our skulls who keeps the tale going until our last breath, and much of that narrative involves an ongoing argument with both the internal and external worlds: with our perceptions of a ‘reality’. And pretty much the entire human condition involves the interaction and clash of those narratives, those assertions of what each of us claims is the real ‘reality’ and in that interaction, in those clashes, we create society.

    So, the notion that we possess a proclivity for story-telling, and story-hearing, is what leads us, inevitably, to ideas on what makes for a proper story, a proper narrative. Those notions make jive collectively on the macro scale, but prove entirely individualistic on the micro scale. We may decide on the rules on the basis of what pleases the most number of people in an audience; or we may apply entirely different criteria in our analysis of what’s valuable and what isn’t. As an example, this is how the comparison between popular fiction and literary fiction is often described: a clash of value systems, one common in the denominational, democratic sense, and the other rarefied and even exclusive on the basis of intent and degree of sophistication, etc. No, I won’t go there.

    One element of narrative structure — the one being discussed here — is point-of-view (POV). There are variants. First person, third person omniscient, third person limited omniscient, second person, and so on. Obviously, each is a conceit, a convention, and each follows fairly strict rules of conduct. As was noted in those quotes in your original post, there is a convention of third person limited omniscient for certain subgenres of Fantasy (although, in general, that convention holds for most of modern fiction, with even First Person becoming increasingly infrequent), but one in which only a single character is adopted: while Epic or High Fantasy (‘Traditional?’) often takes on multiple character POVs. It is then asserted that most of those multiple POV High Fantasy novels result in some sort of ‘failure,’ as defined by losing readers: ie, Readers say screw this and give up (meaning, presumably, that the readers who decided to pack it in are more important than those who don’t; that their decision has greater value, in fact, than the decision of those readers who roll up their sleeves and stay in it for the long haul: an assertion I would contest down to the very core of my shredded, labouring heart).

    Maybe I’ve stepped back too far in this essay. Let me make a couple declarative statements and then get on with it.

    1. Given the premise that all points-of-view are inherently unreliable, to proceed telling a tale from a single POV imposes two unreliable POVs (not one). One belongs to the character in question; the other belongs to the author. So, two views of the world: two views of reality and how it works. Two assertions, two arguments, two levels of engagement lie at the heart of the narrative. If the writer does his or her work, the two aren’t one in the same (and when they are, ugh, it really shows). In the telling of the tale, then, we are given the created, invented world two filters, often blended seamlessly into one, and it is through those filters that the reader is shown that invented world, all flavoured with the attitudes, the motivations, the personalities of character and author. Given that the world is indeed invented and therefore unfamiliar to the readers, what we are offered is a tunneling through that strange landscape. We see only what the character sees, know only what the character knows.

    2. Decent world-building requires a multitude of POVs, a multitude of unreliable takes on reality, all clashing, all combining and interacting in order to convey a sense of authenticity for that world.

    Damn, cafe’s closing. Be back later, I hope.

  4. 2. Decent world-building requires a multitude of POVs, a multitude of unreliable takes on reality, all clashing, all combining and interacting in order to convey a sense of authenticity for that world. Every year I receive hundreds of emails from beginning writers who note the seeming ‘authenticity’ of the Malazan world, and who then ask me how I managed to pull that off. Well, I guess the short answer is: multiple points of view. From those, we hit the ‘world’ from countless angles, and each one adds a flavour, a tone, a perspective. This seems so obvious to me that I cringe even writing it out.

    It could be countered that electing a single POV for a fantasy world is somehow more challenging than employing many POVs. Well, maybe for you it is. For me, it’s not even interesting anymore (that said, my views may change. I have been challenged by a friend to tackle the Karsa trilogy from a single POV. But if I did, I’d need to find something interesting about it, something that stretches me in unexpected ways. I’m mulling on it, anyway, even though it’ll be years before I get to that trilogy. But I would add: even if I did go the one POV route, it would be precisely because I’ve already laid out the world via the ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen).

    Naturally the howls accusing me of arrogance are probably already echoing, but all I’m saying here is that I’m just not particularly interested in single third person POVs as a convention for writing fantasy. I’m much more interested in the clash of competing world-views, because to me this is what lies at the heart of the human condition. Can you tell a good story while exploring that clash? Of course you can. In fact, it’s almost a given. Contrast that with the single POV author/hero take, which in effect presents a story that is nothing more than one person’s battle with reality, inviting the us versus them simplicity, with bad guys at every turn and wish-fulfilment ever in the wings. Yes, that may well be inviting, and may well almost guarantee — in the hands of a competent writer — a huge following of fans. But it ain’t me.

    That said, I made the opening part of House of Chains a kind of thesis on a single POV, laying out the perils of following too closely someone else’s vision of the world: specifically, the peril of buying into it on the simple basis that it’s the POV we start and stay with.

    The key to writing multiple POV’s is to allow oneself to suppress one’s own ego and its world-view, and allow contrary personalities, opinions, attitudes, to rise in their stead — without judgement, without overt manipulation — and then watch the sparks fly. It forces the author out of that comforting tunnel, out into the sprawl of the world. It forces complexity on every issue, every argument. It forces conflict. It forces engagement. And, hopefully, from all that, comes a smidgen of humility (as opposed to fawning sycophancy).

    How then, is there humility in anything I’ve said here, or in any work of fiction I’ve written? Here’s a challenge: find in anything I’ve said an underpinning of certainty that I’ve not since unplucked. Go on, I dare you.


  5. About the theme of narrative/reality I find it curious because I was musing on the exact same things on Bakker’s blog (where these discussions are the norm).

    I also see all this strongly present in your work and recognized it as such. But I think you dodged the argument a bit. The problem is that re-creating that world requires a lot from both the reader and the writer. Rothfuss for example says he’s not contrary to multiple PoVs, but he’s contrary to the noise that comes up when the PoVs become a crowd. So you have less time to “ease in” a character, getting to know him well to the point you really do buy his take on the world. It’s not about the willingness to connect, but more a concern about the capability to do it in conditions not ideal. More about how to tell a story, than what story to tell.

    When you sit down to write a story, Forge of Darkness or whatever, you have to decide between the many characters which one is interesting, important or particularly different to deserve its PoV in the story. That’s a deliberate choice that you make accordingly to your own considerations.

    What happens is then that some reader reads the book and decides that x, y or z in the book was entirely superfluous and ended up only make the story more meandering (follow comments about editors not doing their work and writers not disciplined enough to make the recommended editing and cuts). Just as an example these days I saw people calling the Mhybe scenes in MoI painful and “unnecessary”. One of the comments was also amusing:

    It’s like riding the world’s greatest rollercoaster, except every 20 feet it comes screeching to a halt and I have to get off and do my taxes while listening to Coldplay.

    Now, even reading that the Mhybe is a character that should have been suppressed makes me CRINGE. Not only I do think that her scenes were the better written in the book, but I also think that she’s the most important character in that book, and even represents one of the founding themes of the WHOLE series. Maybe the most important if one considers the levels it plays on. The way she’s brushed off as a casualty of events greater than her, Kruppe’s compassion, the dreamworld (add in microcosm/macrocosm). That’s the single perspective crushed by the bigger picture, and the excruciating need to answer it. The interplay between these parts essentially contains ALL stories. This is another fundamental cypher of the series, but it is sometimes seen as “superfluous” and some readers end up skimming those scenes. Even the readers’ reactions are a theme within those scenes and that character.

    So I do agree that the success or failure of this is a personal judgement, but Rothfuss was mostly correct when he said that the specific task is god-like. The point isn’t multiple PoVs versus single (though it makes for an interesting discussion), but say ten versus five. There’s a point where signal becomes noise, a reader maybe manages to connect with some characters but not with others. And a writer could legitimately decide to limit himself so that a greater focus could enhance the transmission, since those characters would be more under the spotlight, characterization more precise, and the reader more forcefully thrust into that. Martin can do this successfully (because he can persuade more readers to make that effort) because he IS good and knows his readers. He can make the characters stand out, make them vivid, and gives them the 15-30 pages so that each PoV takes its time to tell a contained story (so he fights the sensation of fleeting-ness). And he’s good showing the different world through the different eyes.

    You put the argument on the basis of the principles, but I think Rothfuss was being more pragmatic and considering what can work best while serving similar ends.

    Besides this, I hope you don’t listen any of these suggestions, and, as I was writing on a forum, I appreciate the writer who always steps out of his comfort zone and pokes holes in the established boundaries with youthful recklessness ;)

  6. Hmmm, I like Coldplay.

    As to your other points, fair enough. But if indeed it comes down to a writer’s ability to deliver interesting characters over fifteen or so continuous pages, then you’re still left with the unanswerable and unpredictable decision among readers as to whether or not they like or are interested in that character — almost no matter what the author does or manages to pull off.

    You mention the Mhybe and the general dislike for that character, while you on the other hand appreciated what I was up to — but you and I are in a serious minority there (just as with Felisin in Deadhouse Gates). So the real question, and the only one worth answering from my perspective, is not ‘how many readers can I acquire,’ but ‘what can I do that both challenges and satisfies my own authorial/creative/imaginative needs?’ And if people climb on board for that then I have to be content with that, no matter how small a number of them there happens to be. Anything else is pandering, and worse, if leads me into the maelstrom of trying to predict what readers want and then catering to those predictions. But as soon as you step onto that slope, you’re doomed as an author, because not everybody wants the same stuff, and what if you as writer are just not interested in that stuff — won’t it show? I think it will.

    Yes, the Mhybe carried the underlying theme, not just for MOI, but also, as you say, for the rest of the series. But, it seems, readers can still stay on board for the series as a whole, while skipping or even despising the Mhybe sections. I have to count that as a victory, don’t you think?

    Five POV’s, eight POV’s, twenty POV’s — the challenge is the same: do them as well as you can and hope for the best.

    By the way, you’ve put together a helluva blog here…

    • It’s very important not to forget what kind of story you write and what you attempt with it. I had the pleasure of reading the Song of Ice and Fire Series and The Malazan Book of the fallen right after each other and while both series have multiple POV (Malazan having much more, so you win in this regard, Steven ;-)) they feel totally different. It’s hard to put into words (I’m not very gifted when it comes to writing anything). For me it felt like in ASOIAF the characters are very important for the story and as a reader it’s easy to care about them, while in MBotF there are a lot of strong characters but you are not so emotionally invested in them. I have to admit that I cared for only a few characters in MBotF, bacause the message of them was more important to me than their…”lifes”. In GRRMs series when someone died to me it was like “No, he can’t let him/her die! He/She was such a cool character!” in Erikons world: “Cool, the death of this person shows cool things about the world, philosophy ect. So next character, please.”

      Comparing MBotF and ASoIaF is like comparing Rembrandt’s The Night Watch to Dante Rossettis pictures. The one is such a huge and impressive work that you feel if you try to see all of it at once and you realise this is a good feeling, because it starts you thinking and the other is a work rich colour, beauty and emotion, that you can’t stop looking at it.

      Oh…for me Rothuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles is like the Mona Lisa. Nothing special at the first look, but when you see the details in it you become aware of the beauty
      you are looking at.

      As for Rothfuss comments. I don’t think he wanted to say that “ONLY Martin can pull it off”, but that it’s hard to do. Also, considering that the show/interview was meant to give tips to new authors, I think it’s a good advice to start with “easy things” and avoid trying to imitate ASoIaF because it’s your favourite series, when you don’t have a lot of experience.

      (BTW: english isn’t my first language so I hope I could still make clear what I wanted to say)

      • “The one is such a huge and impressive work that you feel LOST if you try to see all of it at once and you realise this is a good feeling, because it starts you thinking and the other is a work WITH SUCH rich colour, beauty and emotion, that you can’t stop looking at it”

        Sometimes I start wondering if I might become dyslexic with time…sorry for the mistakes.


    • I see that in your intention there’s the attempt to trigger some empathy with the Mhybe, so seeing readers refusing to do that could be intended as a “failure”.

      But I see it differently, because when I read those kinds of comments first I’m upset, as the Mhybe’s story is objectively INDISPENSABLE in the plot and it’s not a sidetrack in any way. And then I can’t avoid seeing them as inflicting on the Mhybe her pain twice. Negating that compassion is a further blow to the character. It’s kind of a Jesus-like character, and you can only watch passively the repetition of what happened (becoming a statement of man’s nature). The Mhybe’s story is another of those demands to “witness” and not forgetting, and then instead readers continuously negate that demand as if act of deliberate cruelty. I’m not saying that those readers are cruel, but that it’s what I perceive when I read some comments.

      I don’t see in this a failure, but actually a statement on the nature of the story. Because the way some readers react (which is legitimate), loops back into a theme of the story. The story proves itself, feeds itself. It’s a story about pain and that cruelty imparted by the readers essentially reiterates. So it doesn’t just become a story told, but a story proven. A story made real where the reader is an active part of it. The post-modernism thing, maybe. But there’s definitely the reader IN THERE, in Memories of Ice. As if the reader is explicitly stated in the story and one of the characters, acting (and the book is a dreamworld).

      And so, for me, when I see certain reactions to that story, I also see that story being reiterated, being reinforced.

      In that powerlessness (why can’t I make all readers compassionate?) there’s the authenticity and the true meaning.

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