Monday, August 27, 2012

Game of Thrones - Thoughts on the use of Multiple POVs

A Game of Thrones
Author: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: Random House Publishing, 1996
Genre: High Fantasy

Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom's protective Wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens.

Here an enigmatic band of warriors bear swords of no human metal; a tribe of fierce wildlings carry men off into madness; a cruel young dragon prince barters his sister to win back his throne; and a determined woman undertakes the most treacherous of journeys. Amid plots and counter-plots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.

Thoughts on the use of Multiple POVs 

Game of Thrones story is narrated in third person limited from the point of view of eight different characters: Eddard, Catelyn, Sansa, Arya and Bran Stark, Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, and Daenerys Targaryen. The first time I read the book I didn’t give much thought to the characters used to present the story. All I knew is that I like some characters better than others, wanted to follow them always and couldn’t. After reading it this time around, I gave it a little more thought and came up with several ideas as to why these characters were chosen and the advantages of following multiple characters instead of one.

Game of Thrones, book one of the Song of Ice and Fire series, is essentially the story of the fall of the Starks of Winterfell. The beheading of Eddard Stark is a big part of what starts the game of thrones, and after that, things go horrible for all the Starks. From chapter one, we are shown their impending fall through the symbolism of the dead direwolf with the stag antler that tore through its neck. It makes sense then that six of the POVs belong to the Starks. But why the Starks?

Let me point out that not all the Starks get POV chapters. Understandably, we don’t get Rickon because he is just a little kid, and Robb is excluded. He’s almost a grown man, he’s very good with a sword, his wolf is the fiercest, and he’s the Lord of Winterfell when his father goes away. So, why didn’t he get a POV? Because he’s not an underdog. A closer look at each POV character and we see that the characters features are people who everyone underestimates. Eddard, who gets laughed at for being too concerned with honor, Bran who is a boy and a cripple, Jon, who is a bastard, Catelyn, who is a woman, Arya and Sansa, who are only girls, Tyrion, whose importance is disregarded because he’s a dwarf, and Daenerys, who is an exiled princess. Every single one of them is vastly underestimated. It’s like, for once, the losing side gets to tell the story.

Now, I’m not a big fan of multiple POVs but I can see its merits, and I think it works really well in the case of Game of Thrones because it’s such a big story. For me, the use of multiple POV characters in this novel was great for two things:

One: It kept me informed of the bigger picture. Through Jon Snow we know there is trouble brewing up in the North, and through Daenerys we know there’s possible trouble coming from the east. We know this, yet the other characters, the ones who are busy causing trouble or trying to disable trouble in the mainland, don’t. This creates a nice tension throughout the story because when Jon and Daenerys’s chapters come back we’re reminded of the trouble that’s coming. It also creates tension having to leave a character behind and not read about him for sixty pages or more. And just because we left that character several chapters behind, doesn’t mean the world stopped moving. When we see him or her next, other events—mostly of the tragic kind—will have passed pushing the character in a new direction. Like, when the Lannister men come for Arya and she escapes, we don’t hear to her until much later. When she reappears, it’s to give us the scene where Ned Stark is beheaded. But why Arya and not Sansa? This brings me to my other point.

Two: it keeps information from the reader without ‘keeping information from the reader.’ Depending on what kind of information you want to impart during each chapter, is the character you’ll choose. And Martin was very careful with whom he chose to use in what scenes. For example, when Bran discovers the Lannisters in the tower he isn’t sure of what he sees, and he doesn’t know the implications of it because he’s only a kid. Discovering exactly what the Lannisters have been doing is one of the important plots in this first book. If we’d gotten the scene from Cercei’s or Jaime’s POV then we’d immediately know what the problem is. Martin keeps the information from us not on purpose, but because his character didn’t know.

While at first I might not have liked the constant switching of POV characters, I really can’t deny that it’s a great way to tell a story. Choosing that many characters each with his or her own personality and way of seeing the world, allows for a richer narrative. Because it’s the underdogs telling the story, we get a lot of horrible stuff happening to them instead of them making things happen. But that’s just another way of keeping information from the reader, right? After all, if we had someone like Varys the ‘Spider’ as a POV we would know everything about everyone. And then, what fun would the story be?

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