When the Point of View is Not Carried by the Protagonist

First, let me credit Elli for helping me write this post. I always have someone next to me while I type, and today it was Elli. (I mean, and others. But Elli got the spot directly next to me today.)

Oh, and let me show you Elli as she looks when I’m holding a snack rather than my laptop:

VERY into snacks, my Elli.

Elli is not actually mine, or not only mine. She’s twelve years old. I placed her as a pet way back when she was a puppy, and now she’s spending the occasional month or so with me while her Real Owners deal with other stuff. I always have room for another Cavalier on my couch, so here she is — she’ll go back to her real home this weekend. That’s fine! I have many other dogs to help me write, and Elli will be delighted to see her Real Owners again!

But now, on with the actual writing-related topic for the day! Let’s think abut books in which the POV is not actually carried by the protagonist.

We can probably all agree that the protagonist generally meets one or more of the following criteria:

–The protagonist has the clearest character arc; changing the most over the course of the novel; and

–The protagonist’s decisions and actions are instrumental in causing the story to move forward; and usually but not always

-The protagonist carries the point of view. Either the reader is sitting behind the eyes of the protagonist, in her head; or at least the camera is sitting on the protagonist’s shoulder.

From time to time, however, the role of the pov character is separated from the role of the protagonist. We don’t see this very often! But it’s such an interesting technique. Assigning the point of view to some character other than the protagonist allows the author to do either or both of two things:

First, the author can provide a point of view that is more accessible to the reader than the protagonist’s point of view would have been. This is similar to the technique of providing a human point of view in a novel where most of the characters are nonhuman, as CJ Cherryh does in her (magnificient) Foreigner series. But that isn’t quite the same. In the Foreigner series, Bren is the protagonist as well as providing an accessible point of view

However, alternatively or in addition, by separating the pov from the protagonist, the author can provide a new source of tension by concealing the mind and motivations of the protagonist from the reader. An example of this is seen in the (also magnificient) Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett.

I read that series a long time ago — several times — and I was very much struck by how Dunnett made Francis Crawford into the primary protagonist without letting him carry the point of view. His motivations and thoughts are opaque to the pov characters and therefore opaque to the reader as well. At the time, I had never seen that done in any other novel or series. (I have since, and I’ll provide a very short list at the end of this post, but at the time, this technique was completely new to me. It was also something of a revelation.

I really wanted to try it myself. So I did.

When I wrote the Death’s Lady series — it’s really one very long story, which I cut up when I decided to publish it — anyway, when I wrote this story, I was deliberately trying to do the same thing Dunnett pulled off so well: separate the roles of the pov character and the protagonist. In the Death’s Lady trilogy, the pov is carried by a person from our world, but the protagonist — the person who both has the strongest character arc and who most clearly drives the action — is not that person. She never takes the point of view.

So in this story, I’m really doing two things at the same time: I’m providing an accessible point of view by means of a character who’s from a familiar world, and I’m concealing a whooooole lot about the actual protagonist, who is not that character.

I was doing other things as well. Death’s Lady is a portal fantasy, or actually a double-portal fantasy, with a tremendously important backstory. You can think of it as a story that asks the questions, “And after the hugely important quest has been achieved, what then? What if destroying the Dark Lord was seriously traumatic? Where do you go from there?” I basically took a big epic fantasy and put the whole thing in the backstory and then moved on from that point. And I did the whole thing without ever letting the reader inside the head of the protagonist.

I wrote this story long before I got interested in self-publishing. I must have completed the first draft at least ten years ago, maybe more. At the time, when Death’s Lady went out on submission, as I recall, two different editors said something on the close order of: “This is beautiful, but it’s too innovative and we don’t know if it will sell.” I have always suspected that redacting the protagonist’s pov probably contributed to why they felt that way. It’s certainly not a common technique. But you do see authors use it every now and then. Below is a very short list of examples.

1) I’m mentioning the Lymond series again here just so I can provide a link to Marie Brennan’s tor.com post about this series: Five things epic fantasy authors could learn from Dorothy Dunnett. I enjoyed this post a lot back when it first appeared and went looking for the link when I wrote this post today.

2) I can’t leave Dorothy Dunnett without mentioning her other giant historical series, the Niccolo Rising series. I don’t like it as well, but it’s also well worth looking up. Probably many of us are familiar with both of Dunnett’s big historical series. Her murder mysteries, the Dolly series, also make use of this technique to a more limited degree. But Dunnett isn’t the only author who’s made great use of this technique.

3) Gillian Bradshaw is probably my favorite author for historicals, but she has also written a rather astonishing secondary-world fantasy quadrilogy that starts with Magic’s Poison. My enthusiasm for the first book in this series was somewhat muted. But, as soon as you realize that the various point of view characters are not the protagonist, the whole reading experience changes. It took me an absurdly long time to realize this; it suddenly leaped out at me when I began the fourth book. I bet many readers would enjoy the first two books more if they knew this going in, so I don’t hesitate to mention this up front. This story would not work nearly as well except for Bradshaw restricting the reader’s ability to see into the protagonist’s mind.

4) In his wonderful Shadow Campaigns series, Django Wexler provides many excellent pov characters. But the story works best when the pov is never given to Janus bet Vhalnich. It’s a bit difficult to say he’s THE protagonist. But he’s certainly driving the action. And, for quite a long time, we really do not know why. The first book, linked here, is self-contained and provides a beautiful example of a novel that separates the point of view and the protagonist.

5) Changing the subject from novels to movies, it is precisely this technique which makes The Hunt for Red October such a great movie. (Well, this and casting Sean Connery as Ramius). By reserving the truth about the Soviet captain’s motivation — by essentially eliding his internal mental thoughts and feelings and intentions and using Jack Ryan as the point-of-view character — the movie does a wonderful job ramping up suspense.

That’s five — not counting Death’s Lady. If anyone can add another example of a novel or series where the point of view character is not the protagonist, my all means drop it in the comments!

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When the Point of View is Not Carried by the Protagonist — 14 Comments

  1. John Galsworthy’s Forsyte books are sort of like this. You never get the point of view of Irene, but what she does, and what people think of her drives the whole series of books.

  2. Megan Whalen Turner uses it so we can be surprised along with everyone else when we see what Gen has been up to in his time settling in as king (and elsewhere in that series too).

  3. Leon Uris wrote a book about Ireland during The Troubles. The title eludes me at the moment.

    POV is in the head of the younger cousin who hero worships the Protagonist. When revelations come, they are more shocking because we don’t see motivation building, just statements of fact when they come. Little by little the POV character’s naivete is stipped away until we get the truth.

  4. Sara, I wish someone had pointed this out about “The Greats Gatsby” when it was assigned in high school. I didn’t like it at all, but even in high school, I think would have been more interested if I’d been thinking about this technique.

    SarahZ, I wish I’d thought of MWT in this context, because I very much admired what she did with pov in this series. I can’t think of anyone who handles pov in a more complicated way or to better effect than Turner in the Attolia series.

    Susan, I’ll have to look up the Forsyte books!

    • Yep. Holmes’s is the protagonist and Watson is the POV. And that series breaks another of the rules because neither Holmes nor Watson get any sort of character arc. Holmes is brilliant, obnoxious, and somewhat self-absorbed from beginning to end.

  5. Gatsby hits one of the common uses: Gatsby carries the external arc, but Nick has the character change one. It is, after all, Nick who decides that the East Coast is a place he should get quit of.

  6. another, in our genre, even: Hughart’s Bridge of Birds and sequels. Like Sherlock, narrated by ‘watson’, and not much character arc for the protagonist.

  7. I’m so glad you blogged about this as I just inhaled The Death’s Lady trilogy (it broke my reading slump and I enjoyed it immensely). I spent a lot of time as I was reading thinking about this very thing and why you made the narrative choices you did. The C.J. Cherryh mention is not a big surprise, though I had in mind her Morgaine books, which start with The Gate of Ivrel. There are quite a lot of similarities between Morgaine and Death’s Lady and the POV characters (Vanye in the Cherryh). I don’t want to say much more because of spoiler reasons. The Morgaine novels were hugely influential on me (you can glimpse this in my pen name — Cherryh, Kurtz and McKillip all have Morgaine/Morgan characters I read at a young age).

  8. Raf, thank you!

    I wasn’t thinking specifically about Morgaine, but I sure could have been! That’s another great example of separating the protagonist and pov, even though I never thought of it that way. I’ve read the Morgaine books several times (and Kurtz, and especially McKillip), but I didn’t consciously think of Morgaine and Vanye here, probably because I read that series when I was much younger and encountered Dunnett when I was a lot older and ready to consciously notice technique.

  9. Elaine, you’re right, and you could use Bridge of Birds as an example of a delightful and charming story where none of the important characters have anything much in the way of a character arc. That’s interesting right there and maybe I should blog about stories that work despite — or maybe in part because of? — not giving the protagonists a character arc.

  10. Yes, please do. I’ve put down several books recently where the character growth was clumsily handled and may not have been required – at least not in that way. So what makes a book work without such an element? Besides, it means rereading Bridge of Birds.

  11. Pingback: Stories That Succeed With Flat Character Arcs |

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