A Matter of Perspective

It seems that my last entry has sparked some discussion amongst us writer types. Matt Keefe has written an interesting piece on the use of omniscient versus limited narrative on his site, and this got me to thinking about the narrative form used in most modern novels too. Graham McNeill is threatening to view his thoughts too, so keep nagging him until he does so.

On a simple level, I think that the predomination of limited viewpoint prose, particularly in tie-in fiction, is not because it’s the easiest to write or read, but because it places a strong focus on the characters of a piece, as opposed to the setting or plot. Through this style of writing the reader finds the characters and their (hopeful) development more accessible. With a limited viewpoint approach such characters are forced to take centre stage and our reader can become exceptionally involved with them. By its nature, though, a limited perspective can also hinder the reader’s understanding of the story or setting.

From forays onto the Black Library forums one often sees new readers asking the membership for suggestions on what to read first in order to gain a broader view of the Warhammer world or the Warhammer 40,000 galaxy. Often the replies will simply trot out the list of the most popular series from the range – Gaunt’s Ghosts, the Eishenhorn trilogy, Gotrek and Felix, and so forth. Such recommendations also usually come with the health warning that these novels only deal with a somewhat narrow aspect of the particular universe. It is the nature of the limited narrative to provide only a small window onto the world, as long pieces of exposition or ‘info-dumps’ are regarded as clumsy and interrupting to the flow of the writing.

Occasionally some wiser forum-goer will recommend the rulebooks or supplements produced by Games Workshop. This is entirely sensible if a reader is looking for a broader approach to the setting. Large portions of these books contain information written in what is often termed ‘word of god’ text – that is to say they are not from an in-universe voice. Often this term leads some to believe that what is presented is absolute and incontrovertible, but this needn’t be the case. In this regard perhaps the viewpoint should be considered omnipresent, in all places at once, rather than all-knowing. With the word of god or omniscient approach it is perfectly possible to write myth and assumption, opinion and interpretation without ever needing to clarify whether any of these are an absolute truth. By doing so, the writer can ‘paint with a broader brush’ than with the limited narrative, creating context for the actions of the characters in a way not available to the limited viewpoint. Drama and tension can be created through this external view, revealing actions that threaten our characters without their knowledge, without reverting to the creation of a new character simply to relay that information.

For example, if an assassin is creeping up on your hero there are two approaches to take. The first, limited viewpoint, is to tell events from the perspective of the assassin as he gets closer and closer, draws his blackened blade and gets ready to strike. This certainly creates tension but also draws attention away from the intended victim and places it on the assassin. The presence of the assassin character interrupts the reader’s connection. The second, omniscient, allows the writer to describe the peril of the hero without ever moving the reader’s eye from the main character. In this style, one can describe the same events whilst keeping attention divided equally been assassin and victim. In this manner one can keep the piece free of foreground characters whose existence is owed purely to the need to portray events outside the knowledge of the main protagonists.

The downside of the omnipresent approach is that it can be used for the wrong reasons. It is all well and good using the eye-in-the-sky to paint this amazing picture of a world or universe, but it should be used to contribute to the reader’s understanding of the characters or narrative. Too often one reads fantasy works, in particular, that exist purely to show off the creation of the author (usually sub-par in originality and flavour) rather than to tell a story. Much of the first swords and sorcery writing and early science fiction was serialized in magazines and as short stories, meaning that the worlds and mythos created were done as a mosaic or patchwork, lending them a relevance to the characters often missed by the modern doorstep trilogy that sees princesses falling in love with dragons. If the world the writer has created is rich and interesting enough, this should not be expressed purely through description, but by the characters interaction with it and its affect on them, just as the real world affects and is affected by all of us.

On an entirely different note, thanks for the comments so far, and the mouse-trapping advice. I shall let you know how I get on.

To Leonid – I’m afraid that I no longer have access to the documents on which that list was based so I can’t provide the answer. The fact that there is such a contradiction I feel is entirely appropriate for the 41st millennium and perhaps, as I’ve mentioned above, both are true. Conflicting dogmas are the stuff that could trigger all kinds of cool narratives!

Published in: on March 28, 2008 at 10:33 am  Comments (9)  
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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. It is interesting that you should discuss POV at this time. I have been ranting a bit about the use or misuse of POV in Warhammer on Amazon.com for some time now. I think POV is the most important decision a writer has to make. Because I read so much Warhammer fiction, I would like to hear what the other Warhammer writers have to say about POV and its use in science fiction and fantasy. I was especially impressed by Ben Counter’s use of multiple limited point of view in Galaxy in Flames and I appreciate your use of two alternating limited points of view in Angels of Darkness. I prefer a single limited point of view or a first person narrative (as you know both are very difficult to pull off). For my money Dave Gemmell is the best on multiple points of view, while Michael Moorcock is the master of the first person narrative. Great Blog by the way and best regards.


  2. […] Person Ltd. Gav Thorpe has posted some thoughts on the use of different forms of narrative over on his (we)blog, Mechanical Hamster. As part of the ongoing debate, the question has arisen as […]


  3. Gav – I don’t know which part of your weblog post satisfies me more: the part where you bolster BL’s statement that all and any background is open to contradictions and falsehoods; or the part where you imply that there is a document regarding the Mechanicus which self evidently hasn’t been published, and seemingly serves as a guide to further background (perhaps springing from your Inquisitor article). 😀

    Although most of this discussion on limited and omniscient narrative is new to me (I stopped English after GCSE for a reason ;)), it is very interesting. I’m bookmarking this for sure.



  4. For what it’s worth, Mechanicus, I stopped English lessons after GCSE, too – that doesn’t mean I stopped reading, or writing, or thinking about the language though.



  5. Thank you for answer!

    (Eagerly waiting for Angels of Darkness reprint!)


  6. Matt; a fair point.

    I do read a lot, but most of the time, I’ve never really thought about the processes behind it; possibly because I’m not much of a creative person, and so writing (and English) has never really appealed to me. Perhaps strangely, a large proportion of my friends do write, however.



  7. […] a lengthy but hopefully excusable aside, in response to these comments, I should point out that I re-sat my English Literature GCSE once and my English Language GCSE […]


  8. Hi,

    I’m afraid I can’t really add too much input to this discussion, my own writing is still rather crude and undeveloped. However, as an American, I have a question about a term or slang you used.

    Doorstep trilogy? Is this referring to post-Lord of the Rings (or post-Dragonlance) habit of releasing fantasy/science fiction trilogies?



  9. […] Doorstep Salesmen A response to Lost_Heretic’s comments. […]


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