Multiple Perspectives

Writing from multiple perspectives is often a very rewarding way to convey the complexity of a plot. In stories that involve a lot of world-building, like high fantasy, it’s a good way of expanding the world you’re creating. You can better develop concepts like the reality of social status if your story that includes slaves isn’t entirely written from the viewpoint of a princess. You can also mess with readers. You can have a blacksmith plan to manipulate a swordsman, but when the actual manipulation is happening, it’s told from the swordsman’s oblivious perspective. There are few better ways to create those exciting situations where the reader knows what will happen but the character does not. There are even fewer better ways to orchestrate an event in such a manner that even the reader is unsure if what they’re reading is true, which of course keeps them reading.

Platitudes aside, there’s a massive, massive trap that everybody can fall into (and I most certainly have in the past) concerning multiple perspectives: too many viewpoints.

Consider this. You’ve come up with a world, you have your map, you mostly know what you want to happen, and you start writing. The general gist is a classic “Let’s overthrow the Villain,” where a whole cast of characters is developed through the archetypes of Hero’s support, Villain’s support, collateral damage, etc.

First we meet the Hero. This is where you describe the Eastern Flatlands the Hero’s living in. Then we meet the Thief, who’s out picking pockets in the Central Capital. Then comes the Villain, scheming in a remote castle on the Northern Coast, then the Mercenary trudging through the Western Alps, the Hunter in the Ancient Forest in the south, the Peasant in the Bread Bowl that’s consuming said forest…

Well that’s a wonderful lesson in geography, but I can almost guarantee you that people reading won’t give a damn about a single person from whose perspective the story has been told so far. That means there will be no investment, and when bad things start happening, they won’t care.

Why? Because the story’s being spread too thin.

When people invest in something, they expect returns. The first thing introduced is the Hero. The Hero will obviously be important. Afterwards, we have the Thief, Villain, Mercenary, Hunter, and Peasant. That’s five people established in their own separate geographical locations. If each person gets around 1500 words, then that’s at least seven thousand words about random people we don’t care about in places we can’t relate to, because the places are all new and the people are not the Hero. Before you know it, nearly 10k of your story has already gone by and you still haven’t even gotten around to the point where the Hero’s mentor dies. Not that we’ll care, because the last time we met the hero was thirty pages ago. By now, we’re already in love with the idea of a romantically attractive killer-for-hire in the mountains and wondering why he was replaced so quickly by boring hunters and peasants trying to feed their families.

So what happened here? It could just be that kind of story: you have six or seven big players around the edges of the world symbolically traveling towards the centre where they will find each other, interact, and blow our minds with how masterfully their stories end up weaving together. After all, in the grand scheme of things, 10k isn’t that many words, and if you develop the other voices well enough and make us invest in all of them, we probably won’t care as long as it’s good.

Ooooooor you spent so much time coming up with your world that your plot fell by the wayside. Moving on to a different character is less of a conscious decision and more of a way to procrastinate. Less, “This is excellent! I know exactly what will happen when I come back to the Hero!” and more “Mmmmmlet’s see…what does the Hero want now…I wonder what the Thief is doing…”

Because you know your world better than the people in it, you’re taking more time exploring it than your characters, and you end up writing about what it’s like to live in the Flatlands, on the Coast, or near the Alps, instead of focusing on your Kill the Villain plot. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this, just that it results in you writing an exploration of a land instead of writing what you originally wanted: a gripping tale of adventure and intrigue.

The point isn’t to explore the world. …Well, it is. But the bigger point is to explore the plot, and then what you see of the world through that is the icing on the cake. Focus too much on your world and you risk making your plot stagnate.

Admittedly, what I’m saying heavily relies on all of those perspectives being disjointed travel diary entries by characters of various vocations. It’s difficult to explain this without actually showing you a piece of fiction, because the skeleton of the work still has potential. But in the event that the cause of all these perspectives is, in fact, the helpless floundering of a writer with a world too large for the plot, there are a few things you can do about it.

First, admit it. That’s always the toughest, because by this point, you probably like all the character’s you’ve come up with along the way.

Second, kill off those characters. Or at least tuck them away for now. Keep them alive in your notes, but cut them down for the moment.

Third, and most important. Choose one character that will be the theme of your story.

Say the Hero is your theme. Spend time establishing that character so that we have some understanding of their life and motivations. Give them dreams and goals, and then gradually, gradually, LIKE REALLY GRADUALLY, start introducing more and more characters. But only if their story can somehow relate back to the story of the theme character. For example, the Hero needs to find X, and the Mercenary needs to find X. However, the first hint we hear that the Hero needs to find X isn’t until 10k into the story, and then we don’t find out what that X is until 50k in. So when would you introduce the Mercenary? After 10k, when the Hero has discovered that X must be found.

The Mercenary, who was once just a random hot dude wandering the Alps, is suddenly the Hero’s direct competition for X. That’s what makes us care about him. Now, slotting him in from time to time to break up the voice of the Hero will not only be an effective way to develop the western part of your land, but also a way to tease the reader with what the hell X could be and how it relates to the Hero.

As your plot develops, do the same with the other perspectives. If the Hero’s reading a rare book 4k into the story, and the book is one the Thief, all the way in the Capital, desperately needs, there’s your in for introducing the Thief. Then 35k later when the Hero’s finally visiting the Capital with the book in hand, let the Thief be a Thief and have them make contact. This will also give you the fascinating opportunity to recreate the city from the eyes of the country bumpkin Hero after dozens of scenes of the city through the eyes of the savvy Thief.

The idea is that even though these characters are so far away from each other, even though they have no clue who the other is, they’re all connected to the theme character through their desires and ambitions. They all relate back to something about the Hero whose influence, like a catchy hook of a good piece of music, can be found even in the parts of the story focused on other characters.

Another thing this will do (just by virtue of it being done) is drastically improve the flow of your story.

Alternatively, if you don’t approve of the idea of a theme character, you scrap everything I’ve said above and do this instead: make it so that the multiple perspectives are from characters who know each other. This usually depends on them being in the same geographical location, but if you don’t want a theme character and you have the luxury of the characters being in the same place, here is a different way to write your multiple perspectives.

Pick up all your characters: Hero, Thief, Villain, Mercenary, Hunter, Peasant. Drop them all into one place. Create relationships between them: the Hero and the Thief are friends, the Thief buys meat from the Hunter, the Hunter also sells meat to the Mercenary, who works for the Villain, who owns the land the Peasant tills. This way, they all indirectly know each other. Which means that the first scene with the Hero can maybe include the Thief. The next scene with the Thief can include the Hunter, etc. If the Hero’s perspective includes a character who later contributes their own perspective, at best it’ll be freaking awesome to know what that character was thinking while you were in the mind of the Hero, and at worst it’ll be an interesting addition that adds depth to the complexity of your story. Also, in this way, you don’t have to worry about how people will remember who’s who since they’re ever-present within the perspectives of the others, not only within their own.

But, like I said, it depends on their geographical location. It also depends on if they know each other at all. It depends on the kind of story you want to write, and if you’re at all willing to bend to the idea of a theme character.

Moreover, it depends, as always, solely and entirely on your plot.

     

4 Responses to Multiple Perspectives

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Jan 30 2015 at 10:01 am #

    I discover my plot as the characters wander through the story. I usually start with one guy who is doing something, and then I bring in other characters as they relate to whatever it is the guy is trying to do.
    In a different type of story, a sequel (so many of the characters were already known), I had a single event in chapter three that was felt by all of them, wherever they were. Each then started on their own separate story thread, so the chapters after that were in three parts. At various times, characters on one thread would suddenly jump to a different thread, or interact in some way with characters on a different thread, so that the plot moved forward a little bit by moving from thread to thread. Then at the end all the threads came together and the group moved forward as a single thread.

    • Biljana
      Biljana Feb 9 2015 at 10:00 pm #

      Sounds like a lot of fun to write. I tend to discover things similarly, but I know a lot of people that really need to plan out their stuff before they can start writing. I at least need to have some kind of goal, so that even if my characters are wandering around discovering, they’re bee-lining towards where I ultimately want them to go.

  2. Carrie-Anne Jan 30 2015 at 2:47 pm #

    My genre is historical saga, so I almost always use the classic, traditional default of third-person omniscient, along with ensemble casts. I love how so many different characters and story threads can be woven together and all ultimately come together. That’s so much better than this modern-day trend of bopping around among narrators or POV characters, one chapter at a time.

    • Biljana
      Biljana Feb 9 2015 at 10:24 pm #

      Third-person omniscient is a style I like reading, but I’ve never felt a draw to write it. I really love writing third-person limited, because I think you can fool around with expectations more, and moments of suspense become more intense. I don’t mind the modern-day trend as long as there’s no weird head-hopping or confusion. One chapter at a time has its place, and when it’s done well, I think it’s pretty awesome. It’s a window into one character’s world, uninterrupted by other perspectives, which means fewer distractions and a more focused view of how one person lives their life in the land the author has created and why it’s different from another’s. Definitely has its merits.

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