I’m super-excited to share this guest post with you guys–Garrett and I were college buddies who reconnected years later through Twitter and a shared love for spec fiction. He has a brand new novel coming out March 5th called Dreamwielder–check it out!
Novels with multiple viewpoint characters are common enough, but for some reason you don’t see a lot of discussions or guides on how to write them. So, when Wendy kindly asked me to write a guest post here at Ink Punks, I figured it was a fantastic topic to explore. You see, the multiple viewpoint character is sort of becoming “my thing.” My new novel, Dreamwielder, has five main viewpoint characters and a slew of secondary viewpoint characters. My portion of the mosaic fantasy novel, The Roads to Baldairn Motte, co-written with Craig Comer and Ahimsa Kerp, has three viewpoint characters. And hell, even my newest piece of short fiction, a novelette titled “Page Fault,” has four viewpoint characters. It wasn’t a deliberate authorial direction I made, but the trend is there, and I suppose there are worse “things” to be known for.
Handling multiple viewpoints isn’t easy (and not even desirable in some stories), but it gives you more narratorial flexibility and lends itself well to sprawling, epic tales. If that’s what you’re after—and if you’re willing to give me the levity to make up words like narratorial—then let’s jump into it.
I was six when Return of the Jedi came out, and the climatic sequence—where Luke and Vader are duking it out at the same time Han and Leia are leading the Ewok attack on Endor and Lando is leading the space attack against the Imperial fleet—left an indelible impression on me. I was blown away by how the movie shifted seamlessly back and forth from three different battle scenes. Several years later, I was similarly awed reading The Return of the King for the first time, specifically the three chapters “The Siege of Gondor,” “The Ride of the Rohirrim,” and “The Battle of Pelennor Fields.” I was completely entranced by how Tolkien navigated the battlefield, shifting back and forth from a half dozen or more viewpoint characters. It doesn’t get more epic than that.
So how does this help us? No one will ever write a story like Tolkien did, and writing fiction is a far cry from writing a movie script.
The answer is in thinking cinematically. If you have a story with a complex external plot or a sprawling milieu, then utilizing multiple viewpoint characters and thinking of your story as a sequence of scenes gives you much more flexibility and power as the storyteller. You can skip across time and space, from one character to another, just as in a movie. This concept is sometimes enviously called “bestseller POV,” but I think that’s a bunch of BS. In the early days of cinema, movies were little more than stage plays on film, more or less shot on a single set with little in the way of editing. Filmmakers began to figure out how to effectively utilize their medium though, and now no one complains when a well-crafted movie uses scene breaks and multiple settings to weave a compelling narrative. Why should it be any different with fiction? Sure, you probably don’t want to be the Michael Bay of fiction, where the scene cuts are there solely for the purpose of bombarding the reader with gratuitous explosions and T&A shots (or maybe you do—I’d trade my paycheck with Bay’s in a heartbeat), but the fact of the matter is you actually can write a story with complex characters and a meaningful plot using cinematic techniques.
Using Chapter and Section Breaks
Modern readers and editors are accustomed to stories with close and tight viewpoint narratives. Flip through any novel or short story mag that’s come out in the last couple of decades and you’ll find that this is almost universally the case. Having a close and tight viewpoint has many advantages, namely that it keeps the story focused on what one particular character is experiencing at any given moment, and simultaneously gives the reader access to that character’s thoughts and feelings, thereby coloring the narrative with the character’s voice.
The way most authors maintain this close and tight viewpoint when handling multiple viewpoint characters is by utilizing chapter breaks and section breaks, just like a screenwriter utilizes scene breaks in a movie. Essentially, each chapter or section is told through a single character’s viewpoint. A great example of this is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which is renowned for how each chapter is from a specific character’s viewpoint. In Martin’s expert hands, this technique builds a sprawling world of conflict and intrigue along with a complex cast of characters who blur the boundaries between good and evil. There are limitations to Martin’s self-imposed restrictions though. In a lecture he gave last year to students at the Orange County School of the Arts where I teach creative writing, he said that he’s often stuck having to summarize an important plot sequence through dialogue and hearsay because he has not established a viewpoint character who was part of the event firsthand. In addition, I find limiting your viewpoint switches to chapter breaks minimizes your ability to speed up the pacing and build tension at the climax of your story.
If we’re really thinking cinematically and want to get those quick scene changes at the climax of our story, we simply utilize a section break—an extra line space between paragraphs (with the number symbol (#) centered on the blank line for layout purposes when you’re typing up your manuscript). This section break is a visual cue to the reader that we’re making a jump, either a jump ahead in time, to a different place, or to a different viewpoint character. Indeed, this is how Tolkien handles the battle of Gondor. Take a look at the chapters I mentioned and you’ll see how he uses section breaks to build up the pacing and tension as the battle plays out to a climatic end.
Establish the Pattern Early On and Build Momentum
One of the big problems I see with stories that utilize multiple viewpoints is that the author doesn’t establish early on in the story that there are multiple viewpoints. Lynn Flewelling’s first book in The Nightrunner series, Luck in the Shadows, suffers from this. Chapter 1 has multiple section breaks, yet stays in young Alec’s viewpoint the entire time. Chapter 2 begins in the very same viewpoint and by this point a clear pattern is established: Alec is our sole viewpoint character and protagonist. But then all of a sudden we have a section break and the story is in Serigil’s point of view. What the hell!?
In this particular case, it wasn’t a deal breaker for me (the story was good enough to keep me reading), but it definitely pulled me out of the story for a moment and doing that to your reader can be the death knell of your story. If you’re going to utilize multiple viewpoints, establish the pattern early on, preferably in chapter 1, certainly no later than the beginning of chapter 2. If we’re talking about a short story, I recommend that your first section break take us to your second viewpoint character.
Your second task is to slowly establish all the viewpoint characters as the story unfolds. It’s a balancing act. Bombard the reader with too many characters too soon and it’ll be overwhelming. Take your sweet time and you might find yourself with the Martin dilemma, sitting at a plot turn where you haven’t established a viewpoint character to show the scene through. It’s not easy, particularly considering you also have to paint each of your viewpoint characters in a realistic light. They don’t all have to be dynamic, rounded characters, but they do need to have clear motivations and each of them should act like they are the most important person in the story. My advice is to start by alternating between your protagonist and one more main viewpoint character who is integral to the inciting incident, and then after the reader has gotten a chance to know and like those characters, start filtering in the rest of your viewpoint characters.
As you near the end of your story and the climax, you’ll want to build tension and increase the pacing. To do this, utilize shorter sections and jump cuts to go back and forth between the different viewpoints more rapidly. If everything lines up well, you end up with one of those epic endings a la Return of the Jedi or Return of the King. Again, it’s no easy task. I’m not always a proponent of outlining stories beforehand, but if you’re going to write a multiple viewpoint story, you really should at least map out the major plot points and which characters you’ll be using to narrate each of the major sequences.
A lot of accomplished authors do this well, I think, and this is exactly how I handle multiple viewpoints in my short work, including the aforementioned “Page Fault.” There are still limitations to this method though. Utilize this method of alternating viewpoints and you’re often left with an awkward decision: whose viewpoint do you choose to tell a scene from when you have two or more viewpoint characters interacting? The default answer is to go with your protagonist, but even doing this sometimes results in wonky scenes where our favorite characters are seen in a skewed light thanks to our protagonist’s limited perspective. The only way to address this issue is to write a truly omniscient narrative.
Going Old School Omniscient On Your Ass
It’s a bit of rarity these days to find a true omniscient narrative. Because most readers and editors expect those tight, close viewpoints, most authors utilize the technique I described above of alternating viewpoints via chapter and section breaks. Outside of children’s books, you almost never see a modern novel or story with an omniscient narrator that weaves a tale by seamlessly switching viewpoints as the action unfolds. Indeed, when preparing myself to write Dreamwielder, I had to look to children’s books to figure out my game plan. I must’ve read through at least a dozen books doing my research, but the ones that stood out were C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsong.
The techniques Lewis and McCaffrey utilize are nothing remarkable. They do little more than “pass the POV baton” as I like to call it. No, the most important characteristic of these omniscient narratives is the narrative voice—a strong narratorial presence that’s captivating and in charge, one that makes the reader never question why we’re switching from one viewpoint to the next.
“Show, don’t tell,” is an overused mantra amongst writing teachers, a mantra that is flat out misleading. It should be, “Mostly show, and when you need to tell, tell in a captivating way.” As I described in the previous section, most modern fiction relies on the viewpoint characters to color the narrative and give it a “voice.” A true omniscient narrative has its own voice, in tune with the characters, yes, but apart from them. It comes from the author, of course, but is unique and organic to the specific story. It’s a bit hard to explain I’m realizing. It’s like explaining what it means to have soul in blues music. You either feel it or you don’t. As a reader, I find myself drawn to authors who have soul, and it’s not just in speculative fiction. I’m indifferent about Hemingway, for example, because all he does is show in his distanced dramatic point of view. I adore Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolf though, because they know how to balance the act of dramatizing with artful telling—providing the perfect explanation or insight that only an omniscient narrator could provide. If you don’t believe me, read Wolf’s “Bullet in the Brain” and try to tell me the narrator isn’t in complete control as we replay the protagonist’s entire life story as he gets shot in the head during a bank heist.
The point of my digression is that if you want to tell an omniscient narrative, you need to have a strong, engaging narrative voice independent of your characters. Otherwise there will be no continuity to hold everything together as we switch from viewpoint to viewpoint. Authors of kids books succeed in this largely by adopting an old time story-teller feel. Lewis’s Narnia series starts out that way from page 1: “Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them…”
With adult fiction, you need to be more subtle than that. Your narrative voice needs to be sophisticated and balanced, and it needs to resemble that close, tight narrative feel modern readers are used to. You can’t get by with what children’s authors do. I don’t think you could even get by with trying to emulate Tolkien’s omniscient voice in Lord of the Rings—it would feel too antiquated. Instead, you have to be a magician of sorts, narrating action at one moment, revealing a character’s thoughts and feelings the next, then seamlessly shifting to another character’s viewpoint and slipping in choice pieces of exposition along the way, never getting caught because the language is so good and the story so captivating.
Hardly amateurish stuff, and hardly something that can be prescribed. Still, here’s a few tips that worked for me with Dreamwielder (at least I hope they worked!):
Start with setting – Chapter 1 of Dreamwielder begins, “Far from the soot-blackened walls and towers of Col Sargoth and the Sea of Gathol, south of the Forrest Weorcan and east of the sea-dwelling city of Kal Pyrthin, on a peninsula jutting out into the turbulent Esterian Ocean, sat a lone farmstead.” Where is this description coming from? Not from one of the characters, because we haven’t met any yet. It comes from the narrator and it establishes to the reader right from the start that this is a tale set in a fantastical world. It’s a gamble, for sure. I’m banking on the imagery and voice keeping the reader going until we meet Makarria in the next paragraph, which very well might not work for some readers, but it’s a gamble I had to take to establish my voice and tell the story the way I felt it needed to be told.
Pass the baton – This is the technique we use to shift viewpoint seamlessly without having to use scene breaks. It’s as simple as passing a baton in a relay race: you’re giving us the internal viewpoint of one character and then when that character interacts with another character you shift to that new character without fanfare. It’s no different than writing dialogue. Start a new paragraph when you switch POV and tag the new thoughts/feelings just like you’d tag dialogue, but with a verb that indicates thinking or feeling as opposed to speaking.
Trickle in exposition and narratorial statements – Not every bit of information or every opinion needs to be filtered through your characters. Just like with setting description, if you have something to say as the narrator, say it. It can be exposition where you explain something about your world or backstory, or it can be a narratorial statement of fact (e.g. Natarios Rhodas was greedy, but at the same time too lazy to do anything about it.) Just don’t linger too long. Info dumps and long narratorial asides will take the reader right of the story.
Utilize chapter and section breaks to your advantage – Combine these techniques with the cinematic techniques we discussed earlier. If you’re switching to a new setting or skipping ahead in time, then use a section break or chapter break. This gives you full narratorial power to weave a tale with both a strong voice and a cinematic build up to that epic finale.
Garrett Calcaterra is an author of dark speculative fiction. He teaches writing at Chapman University and the Orange County School of the Arts, and has written on the craft of writing in Writers’ Journal and MagicalWords.net. His newest novel is an epic fantasy novel forthcoming from Diversion Books on March 5, 2013 called Dreamwielder. You can learn more at www.garrettcalcaterra.com