How to Write Multiple POVs the 'Game of Thrones' Way
Tracy Gold is an editor, writer, and teacher who loves helping writers realize their visions for their stories. She edits children's books, literary and genre fiction, and memoir.
Tracy has kindly let us reprint her notes for this webinar. If you're looking for an editor to help you with your epic fantasy novel, take a look through her profile and send her a request!
I’m an editor of adult fiction across genres, memoirs, and young adult novels. I am a writer myself, with many stories and essays published, and I have my Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Baltimore. I then taught writing at the University of Baltimore for several years. I worked for a literary agent, and I’ve been doing one kind of editing or another for about 8 years. I’ve worked on books that have been published by Delacorte, Bloomsbury, and Simon and Schuster.
Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot of epic fantasy with ensemble casts and multiple points of view. Just like the controversial Game of Thrones. I often use Thrones as an example when I write to my clients, and I thought I should share the wisdom. Say what you will about the final season, the books have a lot to teach about writing multiple POVs. Now, I read all of the books a long time ago, and I have to admit that recently, I’ve only reread the first book and a half. They’re long! It takes time! Thus, this webinar will focus mainly on the first book, A Game of Thrones.
SPOILER WARNING This webinar might spoil the plot of the books and TV show, so consider yourself warned!
What is Multiple POV: When multiple different characters take turns narrating a novel, as they do in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series.
I want to note that while these types of ensemble casts frequently happen in fantasy, these notes will help with other genres, too. Karen McManus’s One of Us is Lying, a YA Thriller, has four POVs. Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, is an epic sci-fi with multiple POVs, many of which are from the point of view of spiders. EEK! So while the main focus of this webinar is on a fantasy book, it should help anyone who wants to write multiple POVs.
1. Choose the right character to narrate a chapter
Note that I’ll talk about chapters, not scenes, here, as Martin only changes POVs between chapters. This is a good strategy, as readers can get whiplash if you switch too quickly between narrators.
I normally encourage writers to choose the character who:
- has the clearest goal;
- has the most to lose;
- changes the most; or
- drives the chapter with their actions.
If a character meets all of those criteria, that’s great, but they should ideally at least meet one.
Try not to choose a character who is just going along for the ride or watching the action, unless you have a really good reason to do so. For example, in A Game of Thrones, there are many characters who will ultimately have POVs present in the first chapter, but Bran narrates, and if you’ve seen the end of the show, maybe you think that was planned far ahead. While he seems to be going along to watch an execution, his role is actually more complicated. He changes the most in the chapter, as he's probably the only one there who's never seen an execution before — he is the most affected by the action. He has a clear goal: to not embarrass himself in front of his father and the rest of the party. He would lose their respect if he acted in an embarrassing way. Then, after the execution, when the group finds direwolf pups, Bran’s goal is to convince his father to let him keep the pups. He wants the pups more than anyone else there. He has to speak up against multiple other characters who think the pups should be killed. So he does drive action that turns out to be very important to the book and series.
2. Ensure POV characters deserve to have a section.
A character with a POV section should have a clear character arc and goal in the book. One of the most common issues I see with multiple POV books is when a character gets a POV scene and is never seen again in the books. Authors often do that to show situations where the main characters aren’t present. This can be a little frustrating for readers who get invested in a character who narrates a few POV sections and then disappears because they’re not needed for the rest of the book.
Also, readers care about big action scenes because they care about what is going to happen to the characters. If you swap to a character readers don’t care about to narrate a scene that’s supposed to be high tension, you’ll ruin the moment. Of course, this doesn’t mean all of your narrators have to be protagonists or good guys, and that’s one of the things George R.R. Martin is so good at. He makes us root for the bad guy — though we don’t actually see a POV from anyone who is obviously a villain in the first book. Catelyn blames Tyrion for her son’s attack (remember that important dagger!), but because we also get Tyrion’s point of view, readers know Tyrion is (probably) innocent.
Now, that doesn’t mean you can never use a one-time POV. GoT does this in the prologue, which establishes the threat of the Others, known as White Walkers in the show. However, we’re not left wondering what happens to this one-time narrator for long, as he’s executed by Ned Stark in the first chapter.
Martin doesn’t do this too often, though. In The Battle of The Whispering Wood, Martin uses an existing narrator even though she’s not in the thick of the action, instead of switching to a one-time narrator to show readers more blood and gore. The show did not often make that same decision—remember we’re talking about novel writing here, and not screenwriting. Catelyn Stark narrates this battle even though she waits it out in hiding. The battle comes at the end of the book, and Catelyn is the only character present who's had previous POV sections.
Show watchers might not realize that Robb Stark never has a POV section in the books, and Martin doesn’t make an exception here.
In my opinion, it's better to stick to an existing POV character than to create an entirely new one in a situation like this. While Catelyn can't really take action in this scene, she does have a lot to lose: her son's life, and potentially her own life and the entire war, if the battle is lost.
Avoid creating new POV characters just for the sake of action, world building, or dramatic irony. In the vast majority of cases, POV characters should have arcs of their own.
When you’re trying to figure out how many POV characters to have, keep Martin’s numbers in mind. He had NINE POV characters including the prologue, and this book is about 280k words. Now, there are conflicting viewpoints on word counts in fantasy, but I like to remind people that Martin had published many books before Thrones. I think a debut author is going to have a hard time traditionally publishing a fantasy book that’s too far over 150k. Different industry pros have different opinions. Can you do justice to almost 10 POVs in a book that’s only around 100k? I’ll leave that to you to decide.
3. Avoid confusing your readers.
One of the hardest things about writing multiple POVs is helping your readers (and let’s face it, yourself) keep the POV characters straight.
Sometimes this comes down to cutting or limiting POVs or making sure your story takes place in one geographical location and in one timeline, at least to start. Even though Thrones has 9 POV characters, they’re fairly contained. Every POV character except for Daenerys and Will from the prologue starts the book in one place and time: at Winterfell. This makes it easy to keep track of who is who, because we're getting to know the same group of characters even though we have multiple POVs. In future books, Martin adds more perspectives, but since we've had a whole book to get to know the core cast, it's easier to follow along. Though readers do still get confused, and Martin still hasn’t finished the last two books, so maybe he’s confused, too.
Once you’re sure that every POV character deserves to be there, and you’ve taken steps to make it easier for readers to get to know them, you should also find some easy ways to clue readers into who the narrator is.
One obvious way to do this is to label each chapter with the narrator’s name. Martin does this, but as the books go on, he uses various aliases as his characters take on new identities. In my copy of A Dance with Dragons, the character names don’t appear in the table of contents, because that would provide spoilers!
However, labeling each section with the narrator is not enough, especially because people read ebooks and audiobooks, and don’t have the benefit of seeing character names at the top of each page in the headers, like some print books have. Later, we’re going to talk about how to keep each character’s voice distinct, and that’s one way to help your readers keep track of who is narrating. You should be able to flip to any page, and pretty easily be able to guess who is narrating because their voice is unique.
However, the first few sentences of each chapter are the most important to help avoid confusion. They should very clearly orient us in that narrator's perspective, and tell us a little bit about where the narrator is in space and time, and what they are doing.
We’ll talk about writing in third person vs. first person next, but one of my favorite tricks in a third person book is to simply use the POV character’s name before any other character’s in the chapter, and make it clear that we’re getting their perspective.
Let’s look at some examples from Thrones:
Chapter 1, Bran:
The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded, twenty in all, and Bran rode among them, nervous with excitement. This was the first time he had been deemed old enough to go with his lord father and his brothers to see the king’s justice done.
Here, Bran is the first name, and we get his emotions, which is a clue that he’s narrating. We get WHAT they are doing and WHEN they are doing it (the end of summer). We also get why the book starts here — this is Bran’s first beheading. Like a Westerosi bar mitzvah. I don’t love that the book starts with weather, but since the Stark words are "Winter is Coming," I’ll forgive it.
Chapter 2, Catelyn:
Catelyn had never liked this godswood.
Here, we get the name, emotion, and location. Boom.
Chapter 3, Dany:
Her brother held the gown up for her inspection. “This is beauty. Touch it. Go on. Caress the fabric.”
Dany touched it. The cloth was so smooth that it seemed to run through her fingers like water.
Here, everything is seen through Dany’s POV — we get “Her” brother, and then her name and emotions.
It can be a little harder in first person, which leads to our next section:
4. How to choose between first and third person!
Let’s start with first person. One recent popular fantasy book that did this well comes from the YA world, where first-person present-tense POV is really popular, Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone. However, Adeyemi only has three points of view, which makes her task less challenging than Martin’s.
First-person POV adds a sense of immediacy and makes your readers feel like they are your characters. I love first-person POV.
However, it can be very difficult to differentiate your narrators when you have multiple first-person points-of-view. It's challenging to create even two unique first-person voices, much less four, five, or ten.
I'd suggest starting with third person if you're going to build a large ensemble cast, because it will make it easier for readers to keep track of who is narrating. If you choose first, know that you're in for a challenge.
You can still make your readers feel very close to your characters in third-person POV, but sometimes authors are confused about how to do this. One issue that trips authors up is when to switch to first person and use italics to show character thoughts. The answer to that, in my opinion, is rarely. Martin does this extremely sparingly, instead choosing to keep character thoughts in third person.
For example, this is from when Catelyn is watching over Bran when he’s in a coma: “She had been shouting, she realized with a sudden flush of shame. What was happening to her? She was so tired, and her head hurt all the time.”
Now, what I see a lot in client writing is something like this: “She had been shouting, she realized with a sudden flush of shame. ITALICS What is happening to me? I’m tired, and my head hurts all the time. END ITALICS”
Now, you can do that, and in some places, Martin does. But it’s very rare. That’s because every time you ask readers to swap back and forth between first and third person, past and present tense, you risk breaking them out of the story. If you find yourself doing this even once a page, consider whether you might feel more comfortable drafting in first person. I even know writers who draft in first, and then switch to third when they revise! It’s a common revision area.
5. How do you make each voice distinct?
Not only do distinct voices help keep your readers from getting confused, they help build your world, and make your characters memorable. You wouldn’t have BuzzFeed quizzes about which GoT character you were if the characters weren’t extremely distinct. (I’m Arya.)
No matter whether you use first or third person, each narrator should have their own distinct voice that's informed by their background and culture. Think about your character’s religion, family, and values.
Martin does a great job of creating distinct voices, and leaving room in those voices for characters to change and grow.
For example, to continue the example from Dany’s first POV scene, Dany thinks, of the dress, “She could not remember ever wearing anything so soft. It frightened her. She pulled her hand away. ‘Is it really mine?’”
FIRST, could you imagine Season 8 Dany being FRIGHTENED of a dress? Martin sets up her character arc in even this tiny detail—how she interacts with a dress. This is her starting point. Oh boy, will she change. SECOND, we already have a sense of what Dany’s life has been like — on the run, begging for help, unsure if anything is really hers to keep.
Compare Dany to Sansa, who’s close to her age in the books. In Sansa’s first POV section, she feeds her direwolf bacon at the table, and her direwolf “took it from her hand, as delicate as a queen.” This shows that Sansa values delicacy, and sees a queen as delicate. I don’t think Season 8 Sansa would agree, so here, already, we’re seeing Sansa’s character arc. What shows her as different than Dany, is that when her Septa chastises her for feeding her “dog” at the table, Sansa says “She’s not a dog, she’s a direwolf.” Sansa has had the kind of loving upbringing needed to speak up for herself, whereas Dany has known cruelty and hardship.
Beyond paying attention to how each character views the details of their world, one trick Martin uses is giving his characters catchphrases. The obvious example of that is all of the house’s words: “Winter is Coming,” for Stark, “Fire and Blood” for Targaryen, and “Hear me roar,” or the more commonly used “A Lannister always pays his debts,” for the Lannisters.
But that’s not such a great help when so many characters are from one family.
Beyond the official house words, we hear Arya frequently saying phrases she learned from the water dancer, Syrio Forel:
“Quiet as a shadow,” “Calm as still water,” and “Fear cuts deeper than swords.”
Then there’s Jon Snow. He often thinks about how he is a bastard, with lines like:
“There were times—not many, but a few—when Jon Snow was glad he was a bastard.”
This is from when he was allowed to drink at the feast while all the Stark children had to behave like lords and ladies.
Eddard often thinks of the promise he made to his sister, repeating “Promise me, Ned.”
While building distinct voices infuses every single word of a story, this trick makes Martin’s characters even more memorable, and it’s good for merchandising too.
On that note, that’s the end of our five points. As a quick recap, here are some key takeaways:
- For each chapter, choose the narrator who most deserves to have the POV
- Stick to your main POV characters; avoid unnecessary POVs!
- Make it easy for your readers to keep POVs straight: simplify your story, and give lots of clues
- Choose first or third depending on how many POVs you have and how you like to write character thoughts
- Make each voice distinct with attention to detail, character backgrounds, and catchphrases
And that wraps up the formal part of our webinar on writing multiple POVs the Game of Thrones Way!
Do you use multiple POVs in your writing? What tips do you find useful to keep your character balanced and readers riveted? Let us know in the comments below.