I will now put forth a premise that I shall seek to support:
You cannot love both The Hobbit and The Silmarillion in the same way.
I don’t mean to say that you cannot enjoy both – it is possible, and indeed I myself do enjoy both. I am saying you cannot love both in the same way and,
arguably (though I am less certain on this score), you likely cannot love them the same amount. The reason for this is narrative distance.
In The Hobbit, you are right there with Bilbo every step of the way. You learn his quirks, his thoughts, his every move. You are tired when he is tired, full when he is full, and so on and so forth. The narrative distance is small. Granted, Tolkien does maintain a certain distance from his character (the narrator often has little asides to the readers about this or that), but for the most part you are deep in there, in the trenches of Bilbo’s adventure. It begins and ends with him, and it is told in that way. Heck, the name of his memoir is There and Back Again. Indeed, one could argue that at least half the uproar against Peter Jackson’s…well, let’s just say indulgent adaptation is that so much of the story eclipsed Bilbo’s journey, his growth, and his triumph.
In The Silmarillion, things are different. This is not the story of an individual (though there are many important individuals to like). It is not the story of a single act or battle (there are numerous to choose from). The Silmarillion is a epochal tale, spanning a full Age of the Middle Earth (or two). The characters, though personified, are not people. You don’t know how Feanor likes to drink his tea. You don’t know what it was like for poor Galadrial to walk across Helcaraxe with the other Noldor when the world was young. Was she cold? Frightened? You have no idea. The story doesn’t tell you and, what’s more, doesn’t treat such details as important. The Silmarillion is a book of history and myth for a fictional world and, therefore, the individual is subsumed beneath the tides of peoples and ages. You are observing the world from an extreme narrative distance granting you unparalleled breadth and scope of narrative, but no intimacy. When Gothmog smites Feanor down, you couldn’t give a shit.
You’ve probably noted that I have a bias, here, but I’m trying not to. There is nothing wrong with a broad, mythic approach to storytelling. Many wonderful stories are told that way – The Iliad, much of the Old Testament, and many modern fantasy and science fiction novels, as well. It’s a totally different flavor, though, than the intimate tale. I contend that you can’t love them the same way, because they are fundamentally different things.
Recently, I read Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem and, following that, read Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings. Both of these stories maintain a pretty healthy narrative distance between the reader and the characters. Even though Three-Body Problem runs a fairly close Third-Person Limited point of view, you don’t feel close to the characters. Your connections with them are mostly businesslike, with the exception of one character (one of the first ones you meet). Likewise, The Grace of Kings tells a sweeping saga of rebellions and empires and battles and politics, but only one character really captures your attention and, even then much of what he does is held at a distance from the reader. You do not live in Kuni Garu’s shoes. His struggles are not your struggles. You like the guy, sure, but you are only mildly disappointed at his setbacks and modestly gratified by his victories.
I’ve come to the conclusion that, personally speaking, such styles are not for me. I am in it for the character, ultimately, and the character alone. I can extend my concern to a group of characters, certainly, but there is only so close I can get to so many. One of the reasons why I am drifting away from George R.R. Martin these days is because there are so many POV characters in Westeros that I’m losing interest. Martin, to his great credit, has spent about five books having his cake and eating it too – telling a sweeping narrative of historical proportions while also keeping you emotionally connected to (most) of the protagonists. That, however, is a slippery tightrope, and he’s losing his footing for me. I don’t think I’m alone there.
My closest inspirations for my own fantasy work are the likes of Robert Jordan (who wound up having much the same problem as Martin is struggling with at the end), Patrick Rothfuss, and Scott Lynch. For them, character – the individual – is the key to the story. Tell as many generational tales as you like, but I want to be able to feel at home with the protagonist. I want to hear Kvothe sing, I want to trade dirty jokes with Locke and Jean, I want to get in arguments with Nynaeve and watch her tug her braid in frustration. If I can’t have that – if I can’t make a personal, intimate connection with the characters I’m supposed to be caring about – I’m not going to get invested in the story. I might enjoy the story, but I’m not going to love it the same way.
EDIT: Apparently WordPress ate the start of a paragraph. It has been replaced.
Out at the Writers of the Future workshop, we had a couple sessions with Orson Scott Card. In one in particular, he explained to us (in great detail) why he felt the only POV and tense we should write in is Third Person Limited Past. The others, he asserted, were amateurish, gimmicky, and hard to work with and generally not worth the time. Now, a number of us present (judges as well as winners) disagreed with him to varying degrees. It’s notable that a number of us won the contest with first person narrations, at any rate, and that a great many good books have been written in present tense and with first person, and occasionally with both.
One thing I don’t think anybody is going to disagree with Card about is that writing in first person or in present tense is difficult. Deceptively so, actually, since it creates all kinds of narrative problems – in first person, you are locked into one character’s viewpoint with no real way to show anyone else; in present tense, it is very difficult to talk about the past (or the future), since you are so grounded in the immediate. So, unless you really, really know what you’re doing, you’re probably better off avoiding those odd POVs and tenses.
All that said, I’m in the process of writing a novella told in first person and, in large part, told in present tense. I’m not doing this as a gimmick so much as to capture a certain voice. I’ve had this character and this voice kicking around in my head for some time now, and I’ve been waiting for a good way to work it into a nice, meaty story. The novella is proving difficult, in part because of the tense more than anything else. See, this is a character telling us his life’s story, but he isn’t doing it in the exclusive past; he frequently forays into the present, especially when describing individual scenes. This is a kind of anecdotal style that we tend to use a lot in speech, but not in writing.
By way of example: If somebody starts a story by saying “let me tell you about this one time I…” and then breaks into “so this guy is, like, six feet tall, ya know? And his little dog is growling and barking and I’m like ‘control your dog, man’ and he’s like ‘make me'” and then they wrap up with “so that’s how I lost my left ear,” it all sounds natural to us, doesn’t it? We slide from the present to the past in speech all the time. We do it to convey a sense of immediacy. We stand up and start gesturing, trying to bring our audience to the edge of their seats. There’s a certain magic there. Consider this clip from Seinfeld, and notice how the writers have Kramer drifting in and out of past and present tense seamlessly:
There’s no confusion caused there. Nobody is under the impression that Kramer is driving the bus at that exact moment, nor are they confused over the timeline of the toe, the mugger, the bus, and so on. There’s gotta be a way to capture this kind of storytelling on the page, isn’t there?
Well, turns out there might be, but it ain’t easy, let me tell you. I’ve been breaking my brain over this thing for a couple days now, and progress is slow and occasionally frustrating. I’ll keep you posted. The point here is that I think it’s possible and, furthermore, worthwhile. I’d read a story narrated by Kramer, wouldn’t you? That would be a gas.
I mean, assuming it were done well.
Given that I seem to be inundating this space with basically self-promotional spam, I figure it might behoove me to just set up a little section here at the bottom of my posts to update you folks on the latest. Here we go:
- Hey! I’m at 1,002 followers here! Happy dance time!
- Pre-orders for my novel, IRON AND BLOOD, are on sale now! This is the second part of THE IRON RING, which together comprise the first chapter of The Saga of the Redeemed.
- The Writers of the Future Anthology, Volume 31 is selling well, but if you haven’t gotten your copy yet, you’re missing out. Come check out this incredible group of writers and learn a little bit about how to write scifi/fantasy along the way! Win/win!
- Speaking of which, Daniel J Davis and I will be signing copies of WoTF31 at the Barnes and Nobel: Prudential Center (in Boston, MA) tomorrow, May 9th, from 2pm – 4pm. Stop on by! I’ll have free candy! Dan will have dog pictures!
- Finally, I will be giving a talk on world-building in fantasy novels at the Adams Street branch of the Boston Public Library on Monday, May 18th, at 6:30pm. The event is free and I’ll be doing a reading from THE IRON RING, so it should be tons of fun. Hopefully I’ll see some of you there!