Managing multiple points of view

Here’s a post at Jane Friedman’s blog: How to Effectively Manage Multiple Narrators in Your Novel

This caught my eye because I generally have multiple point-of-view protagonists, but I don’t really think too much about managing this, it’s just how I (tend to) write. Let me see …

Winter of Ice and Iron has a bunch — more than usual. But actually, the much simpler City in the Lake also had more than two. So does House of Shadows.

Black Dog just has two, I’m pretty sure. After that, I think every Black Dog novel has more than two.

Each of the Griffin Mage novels has two. Or more. Two main pov protagonists, but I believe each of them may in fact have one or two minor pov characters as well.

The Mountain of Kept Memory has just two pov protagonists, I think. I’m pretty sure. The Floating Islands has just two.

What does that leave? I think only three:

  1. The Keeper of the Mist has only one protagonist all the way through. I think.
  2. The White Road of the Moon definitely only has one protagonist.
  3. And, of course, Tuyo only has one protagonist.

That’s it. Three out of however many. My overall default is most definitely to switch from one character to another while building the early chapters and then braid their stories together until I get to the end. Obviously there are big advantages to having multiple pov protagonists. In particular, you can directly show the reader more stuff without having to invent far-seeing magic. I suppose there are disadvantages, in that the reader may not like switching from one character’s head to another or may actively dislike one of the characters, of find one of them boring. But I don’t really think multiple pov protagonists are hard to manage, as such.

Let’s see what the author of this post thinks:

This particular book, you see, was entirely first-person narration (“I did this, I did that, I thought this,” etc.) with a crucial tweak: multiple narrators. … But here’s the thing that kept bugging me: all the narrators sounded pretty identical. They didn’t have enough flavor to distinguish themselves, so I found myself continually flipping back to the beginning of the chapter to ensure I was imagining the right person telling the story in my head. That lack of distinct “voice” caused the multiple narrators to mix together.

Oh! Yes, that is indeed a problem. This can actually be a problem in third-person narratives too, if multiple pov protagonists use the same pronouns. It’s rather rare that someone actually calls someone else by name — actually, if you pay attention, you’ll see that this is surprisingly rare in real life in many normal social interactions, so making it happen in fictional dialogue often sounds strained. But I grant that this is (yet another) reason why first person narratives may present additional challenges.

I’ve read books where I had to flip back in the same way, and yes, I don’t like that either.

This post continues:

Everyone speaks a little differently—use this. For example, I say “ain’t” all the time at home, but not at work. I don’t have a huge vocabulary; I get by on a thesaurus way more than any professional writer should. On the other hand, my wife uses a lot more big words (she read a dictionary for fun once, so she’s got me beat there!). 

Again, this is true for third-person narratives just as much as first-person narratives. Very much so. It’s not just the protagonists who ought to sound distinctive; it’s everybody. Can you imagine a dialogue where you couldn’t tell whether it was Grayson speaking versus Thaddeus, even if there were zero dialogue tags? No. No, you can’t. Their speaking styles are tremendously different.

You know what this is making me think of, though? Not exactly a first-person narrative, but kind of. It’s making me think of Freedom and Necessity by Stephen Brust and Emma Bull. This is an epistolary novel with four different narrators, and the speaking (writing, whatever) style of each character is quite distinctive. I’d say this is a good example of do this. Also, it’s a really great book in a lot of ways, if you want a whole lot of historical context and a tiny, tiny bit of fantasy.

Okay, the post continues:

As if planning out chapters wasn’t hard enough to begin with! Now, you have to make an even more crucial decision: who tells this part of the story? A single mistake here can come back to bite you during revisions, potentially throwing off the entire novel! So what do you do?

And that made me laugh a bit, because what you do is: write the chapter. And then, every now and then, rewrite it from someone else’s pov. And then, hopefully even less often, sometimes rewrite it again in yet another character’s pov. Wow, can that get tiresome. I think I swapped one scene in Copper Mountain four times, which may be a record, but there were several pov characters present in that scene, so it could go one way or another.

This post finishes up in a way I appreciate: with five examples of novels that do a great job handling different voices. This is the one that I particularly noticed:

The Shadows Alex North switches between third and first-person narration at crucial points. While it may feel jarring at first, this is becoming a more commonly accepted form of narration, so it’s worth studying from the best.

I noticed that because I’ve started a big, complex, fantasy novel in which I do this, and I’m glad to hear that this is becoming more accepted, because I was pretty tentative about trying it. I hope I will have time to pick up this particular project in the coming year.

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1 thought on “Managing multiple points of view”

  1. The epistolary novel puts particularly hard demands on distinct voices.

    Then, if two characters are discussing something, their purposes may be distinct enough that you can tell who is who even without distinctive speech patterns.

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