For today’s post on my tour to support my latest release, Ice and Embers, I’m going to attempt to tackle what can be tough and prickly subject: point of view.
A lot of readers and reviewers consider “head-hopping”—switching from one character’s point of view to another—an error and an amateurish mistake. In some cases this is true; in my other role as an editor I see it often and suggest authors change it—when it isn’t used consistently or with good reason. That is to say, when it’s actually an oversight and not used intentionally by the author to convey something.
The third person omniscient point of view is a method of storytelling in which the author dips into the heads of all the characters and knows their thoughts and can look through their eyes. One of the most famous examples of this type of fiction is Anna Karenina. Terry Pratchett also uses it frequently, and it is a legitimate, if difficult to pull off, point of view. Of course the author has to be very careful to let readers know which character’s head they are in, and it can become confusing unless the narrator is very clear.
Third person limited point of view sticks to looking through the eyes of a single character, and it’s the style of storytelling I usually prefer. When I wrote Ash and Echoes, the book before Ice and Embers, I realized early on that my characters were so vastly different that each of them needed his own voice. I decided against the third person omniscient point of view because the characters had such disparate thought processes and world views. Instead, I chose the third person limited, though I opted to alternate between the characters, just not in the same scene. I chose to stay with a single character within a scene and switch to another when the scene changed.
I took some heat from some reviewers for this decision, as they felt it was “head-hopping” and assumed I just didn’t know any better. Even so, I chose to stick with this approach for the second book in the series. Why?
I believe everything a person, or a character, experiences colors how he sees the world. People are, to an extent, the sum of their pasts. This can affect everything from what a character thinks or feels in a given situation down to the details he notices. An excellent example of how peoples’ perceptions can dictate how they view events is Akira Kurosawa’s stellar 1950 film Rashoman, in which several characters recount their experiences regarding the murder of a samurai. Because of their different backgrounds, each of these people tells a vastly different story. The film poses the question of what is truth, and whether truth is different for each person based upon his or her perceptions. After all, a notorious criminal will see things differently than the wife of a murdered samurai.
I’d like to make it clear that I’m not comparing myself to Kurosawa! But his insight into the human psyche is valuable to anyone hoping to depict the human condition. Who we are, what we believe, what we’ve experience, and what we value affects how we perceive the world. This is why I needed to give readers the opportunity to look through the eyes of each of my characters. Their backgrounds are varied, and it colors not only what they think and feel but how they see the world and the events around them. Yarrow, my mage, grew up as the third son of a noble family and was largely ignored and dismissed. This taught him to rely on himself and his own opinions over those of others, and it made him a little defensive. Duncan trained for the knighthood from a young age and holds close to the sense of honor he learned there. Sasha was raised almost from birth by a cult of assassins, and they taught him to suppress and mistrust emotion. In some ways, he’s the polar opposite of Duncan. I wanted my readers to have a chance to experience the world through each of the character’s very different minds and perceptions.
Sasha doesn’t see the world as Duncan sees it. A prime example of this occurs when Duncan is meeting with his vassals in his hall. He sits in an alcove surrounded by three tall windows which afford a wonderful view of the sea. Duncan and most others see the beauty in the architecture and the surroundings, while Sasha sees a strategic weakness: those windows are a prime opportunity for an archer and hard to protect against. Because of how he has been brought up, Sasha looks for potential threats everywhere and formulates plans to defend himself and his friends. It isn’t easy for him to abandon this mindset and start to appreciate the pleasures the world can offer.
It’s been said you can’t know someone until you walk a mile in his shoes. I want my readers to know my characters by walking in their shoes and seeing through their eyes, and that’s why I chose to alternate between their points of view. Authors, how do you differentiate characters from one another? And readers, what point of view brings you closest to the characters? First person? Third limited to a single character? Omniscient? What do you prefer and why?
Don’t forget my Dreamspinner Press titles are all 25% off from March 15th to the 22nd in celebration of this release. You can see what I have on sale here: http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/store/index.php?cPath=55_366
And stop by my blog and sign up to win a copy of Ice and Embers and a cell phone charm or bracelet!
And here’s the blurb and an excerpt from Ice and Embers:
Despite their disparate natures, Yarrow, Duncan, and Sasha united against overwhelming odds to save Prince Garith’s life. Now Garith is king and the three friends may be facing their undoing.
Distraught over Yarrow’s departure to find the cure to his magical affliction, Duncan struggles with his new role as Bairn of Windwake, a realm left bankrupt by his predecessor. Many of Duncan’s vassals conspire against him, and Sasha’s unorthodox solutions to Duncan’s problem have earned them the contempt of Garith’s nobles.
When word reaches Duncan and Sasha that Yarrow is in danger, they want nothing more than to rush to his aid. But Duncan’s absence could tip Windwake into the hands of his enemies. In addition, a near-mythic order of assassins wants Sasha dead. Without Yarrow, Duncan and Sasha can’t take the fight to the assassins. They are stuck, entangled in a political world they don’t understand. But finding Yarrow may cause more problems, and with his court divided, King Garith must strike a balance between supporting his friends and assuaging the nobles who want Duncan punished—and Sasha executed.
THE bairn of Windwake cast off his golden ceremonial cloak emblazoned with the crag eagle livery and let it fall heavily to the stone floor of his chambers. Duncan collapsed into an upholstered chair by the inglenook and rubbed his forehead. The fire had long ago diminished to embers, leaving the expansive suite dark and chill on this early spring night. Ruling Windwake had turned out nothing like he’d imagined, and the stresses of yet another day of listening to the demands of squabbling nobles wore on him. When Duncan had been granted his lands and title, he’d anticipated protecting and providing for his people, much as he’d done when he’d been a knight. The reality clashed hard against his expectations. He’d rather face an entire field of soldiers than those nattering, duplicitous aristocrats any day. At least men with swords were honest about wanting to destroy him, and he knew how to counter them.
Duncan had no sooner let his eyes fall shut and his head rest against the padded velvet of the chair when he heard a sound, even softer than the flutter of a night bird’s wings, on the balcony opposite his hearth. He tensed, his exhaustion replaced by alertness. Many of his vassals couldn’t be trusted; he found them avaricious, their only loyalty to their own treasuries. Some of them still owed fealty to Taran Edercrest, the traitor whose mantle Duncan had assumed after the man’s death in a failed attempt to overthrow Selindria’s true king. Duncan knew at least a few of the backstabbing nobles might stoop to murder if they could profit from it. He crept as quietly as he could to the weapons stand and picked up his greatsword. He held it in both hands as he approached the balcony, ready to defend himself.
With the sole of his boot, Duncan nudged the wooden double doors, and they swung open with a rasp and a groan. The red-tinged crescent moon provided little light as he glanced from one end of the parapet to the other. Nothing moved except a few leaves tumbling across the stone in the light breeze. Duncan blinked hard as sweat dripped into his eyes. He knew he’d heard something, but now he wondered if the combination of his weariness and the ever-present threat of treachery toyed with his mind. He’d never been a paranoid man, but as he stood looking out from the western side of Windust Castle, over the deep, round Barrier Bay, sheltered on three sides by high cliffs, he heard nothing but the gentle lap of the waves against the strong, gray ironstone that made up so much of Windwake. On a clear day, Duncan could see almost to the southern shore of Lockhaven from this balcony, but the gloom of the night and the chill mist rising from the water restricted his vision to the dozens of ships huddled close to the shore, bobbing gently on the calm tide.
“You should be more careful.”
Duncan started and turned toward the low, velvety voice. He scanned the shadows but couldn’t locate the speaker. Then, at the opposite end of the terrace, a sliver of shade separated from the wall, and a lithe silhouette tiptoed along the thin, stone railing before leaping down in front of Duncan without even disturbing the leaves. His boots met the stone silently, and the leather armor he wore didn’t even creak or rustle.
Duncan blew out an extended breath and lowered his weapon. “Goddesses, Sasha. Why must you sneak around like that? I could have cut you in two before I recognized you.”
Sasha answered with a sensuous laugh devoid of any genuine amusement. “I don’t think you could have.”
“Perhaps not,” Duncan conceded, his happiness at his lover’s return trumping his slight annoyance. Besides, he knew Sasha spoke not out of arrogance but simply stated the truth. Sasha had been trained by a cult of assassins so legendary and feared most doubted they even existed. The Order of the Crimson Scythe held mythical status throughout Selindria and Gaeltheon, and Duncan had witnessed Sasha’s lethal skill on more than one occasion. If he’d been inclined, Sasha could have cut Duncan’s throat while Duncan stood watching the boats like a dull-witted child.
Sasha’s training was also responsible for what Duncan saw when he stepped closer to his partner: a face that, while exotically beautiful, betrayed no hint of emotion. Shrewd, black eyes offered no clue of the intentions behind them. Though they hadn’t seen each other in weeks, Duncan looked into the cold face of a killer, not the warm smile of a lover. He tried, unsuccessfully, to staunch the hurt by reminding himself Sasha had been taught almost since birth not to feel love or attachment, let alone show evidence of what he’d been told was weakness.
Duncan reached up and stroked the soft, black hair that fell to Sasha’s slender shoulders. Sasha batted his long, thick lashes and smiled mischievously. He had the most amazing, full, dark lips Duncan had ever seen, and the sight of them curling up and parting slightly sent a tremor of desire down Duncan’s spine. He hoped Sasha showed sincere pleasure at his touch, as much pleasure as he experienced feeling the smooth skin of Sasha’s cheek again after what seemed like forever. Sasha had no reason to perform with Duncan, but Duncan knew old habits held on tenaciously sometimes, like a cough that lingered after the fever had passed.
“I missed you,” he said, pressing a kiss to Sasha’s forehead. “But you could try using the front gate like a normal man. Or are you trying to impress me?”
Sasha curled his body against Duncan and brushed their bellies together. He rubbed his face against Duncan’s whiskers and whispered close to his ear. “Did it work?”
Duncan glanced over the railing at the sheer, four-story drop to the sharp rocks surrounding the fortress. A wide gravel road wound out around those cliffs from the docks to the gate at the southern wall, on the opposite side of the fortress. Aside from that entrance, Windust was virtually impenetrable. “I suppose it did. Did your—” Duncan still felt uncomfortable discussing Sasha’s work. “Were you successful?”
Sasha snorted as if insulted and crossed his arms over his slim chest. His devastating smile widened. “Pym Goodsal and his associates will cause no more trouble for your friend Garith.”
“His Majesty will be pleased,” Duncan said, taking Sasha’s gloved hand, careful of the thin blades hidden at his wrists and the razor-like spikes over his knuckles, and leading him inside.
Sasha shrugged. “So long as he produces the agreed-upon gold.”
Duncan almost asked what Sasha would do if Garith, High King of Selindria and Gaeltheon, the largest and most powerful kingdom in the known world, withheld the payment. He thought better of it, though, and went instead to add logs to the fire and stir up the coals. By now, Duncan knew Sasha regarded a prince and a beggar alike only as men who bled and died for his Cast-Down god.
Sasha removed his gloves, loosening the buckles and then tugging them off one finger at a time, while Duncan poked at the ashes in the hearth. Sasha unbuckled the belts over his hips that held daggers and pouches likely full of poisons, and then he unfastened the strap crossing his chest, along with the weapons it held, and let it drop onto a wooden bench. Sasha effortlessly disarmed himself in absolute silence. Duncan admired Sasha’s grace and fluidity of movement from the corner of his eye as he tended the fire. The room soon glowed warm and bright as the flames flickered and grew. Orange light reflected off the snug, deep-red leather wrapping Sasha’s slender limbs and made shadows dance across his face. The fire couldn’t melt the icy mask the assassin wore, but Duncan knew what might. He replaced the iron poker and crossed the room to Sasha, who stood only a few feet from the balcony door, as if waiting to be invited inside, seemingly unsure of his welcome.
Duncan curled his big hands around Sasha’s waist, almost encircling it. He drew Sasha’s chest against his, rubbed his palm up Sasha’s back to his neck, and guided Sasha’s head to his shoulder. Burying his face in the top of Sasha’s hair, he inhaled the spicy fragrance that almost masked the scents of leather, steel, and blood. “Sasha, this is your home as much as mine. I wouldn’t have any of it if it hadn’t been for you. You don’t have to enter it in secret.”
Sasha laughed icily, but his lips and nose felt warm as he nuzzled against Duncan’s neck. The tickle of his breath against Duncan’s dampening skin when he spoke made Duncan shudder. “So, you’d parade me before your nobles and officials? Claim me as part of your household, as your friend?”
Holding Sasha’s cheeks in both hands, Duncan tilted his face upward and made Sasha meet his eyes. He searched for some trace of emotion in those glittering, black orbs but saw only his own conflicted face reflected back at him in distorted miniature. “I would. Why do you make it sound so absurd? I’ll tell them anything you like, anything that will make you happy. Sasha, you know I love you.”
“I know.” The assassin tried to look away as he furrowed his brow and turned down his lips, but Duncan held him, not letting him hide what he felt.
A fake smile replaced Sasha’s concerned expression. “You’d lose your bairny if anyone discovered the nature of our association,” he said with false cheer. “I understand better than most the need for secrecy. It’s of little consequence how I enter the castle, anyway. I’m used to standing in the shadows.”
Duncan hated it when his partner walled himself off, but he didn’t know how to breach barriers that had been in place so long. Battering them down would not do, he’d learned. If he pushed too hard, Sasha would instinctively close him out, so he slid his hands down Sasha’s lithe arms, clasped his hands, and led him to the massive bed canopied in gold and black velvet. They sat facing each other on the edge. Sasha pulled his heel to his crotch.
“Are you hungry?” Duncan asked, stroking up and down Sasha’s thigh, savoring the feel of taut muscles beneath buttery leather. “Shall I have something sent up from the kitchens? My servants, at least, still respect my wishes.”
Sasha edged closer and draped his hand over Duncan’s knee. “Thank you, my friend. But not just now. Is there nothing on your mind besides food?”