The Peter Principle of POVs - and why Robert Jordan was great

There is something known as the Peter principle which basically is the idea that people get promoted to their level of incompetence. When someone is competent at what they do they are rewarded by being promoted to a new position. If they are still competent at what they do in their new position they get rewarded with a promotion again. This keeps happening until they get promoted to a job they are not good at. That is when the promotions stop and that is where they stay.

There is a similar pattern that can be observer in the use of Points of Views in books, especially in epic fantasy series. Juggling multiple POVs is tricky. Handling the different plot threads and POV switches without ruining the flow and pacing of the story telling is a challenge. It seems to me like there are many fantasy authors that keep adding POVs until they can't juggle them anymore.

A prime example of this is Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. That is a series that by the end was drowning in POVs. It is a common criticism of the Wheel of Time series that it had too many POVs. But this post is not a complaint about how Robert Jordan had too many POVs. Rather, I want to highlight how well he did, and how many POVs he was juggling before he became overwhelmed. I will try to avoid spoilers as much as possible.

Many authors seem to struggle once they go beyond three POVs. Robert Jordan was successfully juggling fifteen in the middle of Wheel of Time. I thought I would take a moment to see what he was doing that let him juggle so many POVs so well. The Robert Jordan rules of writing POVs, if you will. To be clear, the these are my thoughts on what he did. I don't say he would agree with me.

I must start with a couple of disclaimers/clarifications:

  1. Robert Jordan dealt with POVs differently in prologues/epilogues as compared to the main chapters in the book. In the prologue/epilogue He would often drop in to some completely unknown POV in order to give the reader some piece of information in order to set something up or foreshadow something. I am going to ignore this and focus on how he dealt with POVs in the main chapters of the books.
  2. He broke all the rules I will lay out here in one instance or another, more so in latter books in the series, probably because it became harder to keep to them when the number of POVs grew so great.
  3. Due to Robert Jordan's untimely passing the final three books were finished by Brandon Sanderson. How to portion out credit/blame for those books is something I won't touch upon.

So, without further ado, let’s get started with Robert Jordan's tricks of writing POVs.

Robert Jordan used third person limited narrator in his Wheel of Time. This means that, even though the narration was in third person, it would be limited to the kind of information the POV had. He would also color descriptions based on this. Like descriptions for a blacksmith's POV would include detail about the quality of the metalworking of the tools people were using, or the solider would notice if someone's sword had been properly cleaned and maintained. While Robert Jordan had his own voice as an author, he would flavor it differently for different POVs, in descriptions, words, thoughts and deeds.

He is also not mechanical in how he switches between POVs. Some authors mechanically switch to a new POV every chapter, whether it makes sense or not. Robert Jordan would be a lot more dynamic than that. Often, he would keep to the same POV for many chapters in a row, while in other situations he would switch POV many times in a chapter. This also has an interesting effect on the tempo of the storytelling. Staying with one POV for a long time is a more leisurely pace, while constant switching would feel more hectic. He would often switch POVs more towards the climax of a book. This would partially be because of the obvious reason that various storylines were converging, but it would also give the climax more tension, make it feel like more action.

Another thing that Robert Jordan does, that helps more the more POVs and POV-switches there are is that time is strictly increasing. What I mean by that is that time in the story is always moving forward, no matter where or how the POV switches. Every event described happens after the pervious event. For POV-switches this means that whatever the next POV after the switch sees or does happens after whatever the previous POV, from before the switch, did or saw. By avoiding going backwards in time, or even sideways, where the same time point is described from two different POVs, he greatly eases the readers ability to keep separate POVs in sync. Besides helping to keep the POVs in line it also helps keep the story moving forward. There is always momentum. Sadly, this rule completely falls apart in the last three books, which were originally supposed to be one book, but got split up into three. The split ended up completely messing up the timelines. Not just does this hurt especially bad with how many POVs there were by then, but because time starts flowing at different rates in different parts of the world due to "plot-reasons". Having abandoned strict time just before time gets wonky made things a lot worse.

Robert Jordan uses strict time and POV switches in a clever way to avoid too big time jumps but at the same time to avoid dead time. Strictly increasing time doesn't prevent time jumps if the jumps are forward in time. Robert Jordan often did time jumps between books in Wheel of Time but tried to avoid very big ones in the middle of books. This can be a problem in this sort of medieval fantasy book because there is a lot of dead time while characters are travelling between location, mostly by ship or horse. Robert Jordan uses POV switches to mask this. For example: some POV heads off with a ship on a trip that will last a week. He masks this time by switching to some other POV and follow that for a week and then switch back once a week on time has passed.

Related to how Robert Jordan handles dead time is how he switches between plot threads. Some authors, when switch plots threads, leave the previous plot thread on a cliffhanger. Cliffhangers on plot thread switches in books are like jump scares in movies. They reek of desperation. A good horror movie does not need jump scares to be scare. A good book does not need cliffhangers on switches between plot threads to keep the reader hooked. Robert Jordan usually stuck with the same plot thread for several chapters in a row, only switching away when the plot thread had reached some sort of resolution or at least a pause. This made each set of chapters following a single plot thread feel like a short story.

One of the most important things Robert Jordan did to manage so many POVs was to introduce the character before the character was introduced as a POV. By having an existing POV get to know something about a new character before that character becomes a POV the reader also starts the new POV with some notion of how the new POV fits into the story. This also made plot lines branch out from one line in a tree type fashion, rather than dumping a bunch of unrelated plot lines on the reader and hoping the reader keeps them straight. Now, Robert Jordan did have different ways of introducing new soon-to-be POV characters. The most straight forward way was to have existing POV character meet and interact with a new character, and then, later, switch to that new characters POV. Another way he did it if the characters couldn't meet was to have an existing POV character hear about some new character before that new character became a POV. If he wanted to keep the new character mysterious he would have an existing character do something somewhere and then switch to a new POV watching the existing character covertly. That way there would still be some tie to an existing character to keep the branching structure in place but keep the reader in the dark about the new POV.

To help smooth over POV switches Robert Jordan does something I call bridging. By this I mean that he keeps the thread of events ongoing across POV switches by starting off new POV after the switch following on from the last event of the old POV from before the switch. Let me give an example to make it clear what I am talking about. We are following POV character A and something happens and as a result the character decides to run off to deal with it. At this point the POV switches to another character B. It starts with POV character B reflecting on having just seen character A run off and continues with what B does after that. Because of strictly increasing time after the switch to character B cannot involve B seeing A run off, because that already happened for POV A, but it can still tie in to it by B reflecting on it. This way even though the POV switches, the chain of events remains unbroken, by having the new POV start of from where the previous POV left of. Robert Jordan mainly used this trick in two sorts of situations. One was when he did a lot of POV switches in one chapter between different POVs involved in the same events. The other is when switching to a new, never before seen, POV. Have some existing POV character meet a new character and interact with them. Then switch to new character's POV with the new character leaving the meeting and reflecting on it.

These are not the only tricks Robert Jordan used to handle his many POVs in Wheel of Time, but these are the ones that stood out to me. It is also not like it is required to use tricks like these for handling multiple POVs in books, at least not when the number of POVs are limited. Once the number of POVs start increasing beyond three to four something extra becomes useful to help the reader handle them.

The Wheel of Time series is remembered for how it drowned in POVs, which is a shame. It deserves to be remembered for how well it handled multiple POVs.