Some Readers like a story told from the perspective of one Main Character. Other Readers prefer the variety of a slew of Characters and their interactions during a story arc. This session is dedicated to the use of Multiple Viewpoints within a novel.
Let’s first examine this concept from real-life examples. If you were described by your loved ones, by your friends, by your casual acquaintances, wouldn’t there be a host of differing opinions? Those differences are equivalent to what happens when getting information from a crowd of onlookers who witness an event. Depending on the vantage point and the personality of the individual asked, the details of the event are colored by the perceptions of each person who gives an account. Most of us know that—even in scripture—there are four books about Jesus Christ (Matt / Mark / Luke / John) that chronicle his life and ministry years. Each writer addressed who he was from the standpoint of his own understanding. Yet, with those views combined and taken as a whole, we have a much more detailed picture of this one man.
My wife and I witnessed this first-hand when our youngest daughter passed away. Though we knew her on a daily basis, she interacted with so many people, did so many other things, and held so many private conversations with folks outside our family, there was so much more to take into consideration. Hundreds of people came to us afterward, telling us how she’d affected their lives. Her friends from her school years shared stories of how she’d helped them, or the fun times they used to enjoy. Her co-workers at Walgreens remarked about her constantly up-beat attitude; and some of her customers actually approached us to let us know they appreciated her exactitude and congenial manners. We’ve also been able to see the broad reach of her relationships through recovering conversations and pictures from her social media connections. All these sources provided a broader, more well-rounded picture of who she’d grown to be as a young adult.
From these examples, you can see there are myriad things you’ll need to tackle when you write a story from Multiple Viewpoints. This can be a daunting challenge and it might seem you could be easily overwhelmed. Don’t let that scare you or stop you from writing a story in this style. I’m going to show you a handful of key aspects to make this achievable. Write them down, place them near at hand, keep them in mind as you work.
One of the most critical aspects of switching characters is to have a clearly defined break that’s evident to the Reader. That can be the start of a new chapter each time the viewpoint changes. You could also place a “horizontal line” across the page, or use “asterisks” centered between the sections, or any other distinctive markings to show the change-over. There’s nothing more aggravating to a Reader than to be chugging along in the story line, watching it unfold from behind the eyes of one character, when there’s a sudden jarring “jump” into someone else’s head. Let your Reader know you’ve shifted focus—from one character’s observations to that of another—by a simple visual cue.
Who’s on First? Who’s on Third?
Before you sit down to craft your tale, determine if the viewpoints are all going to be from a “third-person” or a “first-person” perspective. The difference is watching the characters from an “outside” vantage point (3rd Person) versus experiencing the action from “inside” the thoughts of one character at a time (1st Person). Let me provide a personal example from two of my novels, one completed, the other still in the works at the time of this blog.
In Chasing the Dragon, the viewpoint is 3rd Person Limited, focusing on one of the characters in each chapter, but seen from outside themselves, as if by an observer. In Seeds of Mankind: Universe 242, I’m devoting a chapter to each of ten characters, from behind their eyes and inside their heads. The first novel was a good Fantasy, but there was still a certain amount of “distance” between the character and the Reader, despite the fact I worked hard to “show” the events rather than just “tell” about them. In the Sci-Fi novel, I’m finding there’s more “immediacy” to the writing; the Reader experiences what the character sees—from that single viewpoint—in “real-time.” Each event unfolds in an even more limited perspective, colored by the personal biases, particular knowledge, and internal desires of each person.
That’s a short example, from my perspective. But you deserve a more in-depth treatise on how to handle this in writing. Here’s a link to Reedsy, and a truly marvelous blog that gives even more detail to help you see (visually) how these viewpoints work.
Can You Guess My Name?
This next bit deals with your creativity as a Writer. If you change chapter or split the narrative with a visual cue, will your Reader pick up on “who” is now telling the story? You have to ensure each “person” in the novel has a distinctive “voice” while relaying the events, so your Reader doesn’t feel like it’s all one wallpapered milquetoast bland monotone recital that quickly puts them to sleep. You want your characters to have different accents, or patterns of speech, or catchphrases they typically use in their conversations.
It’s akin to the effort you put into describing the physical attributes of each character. Have you visualized each one independently, noting their height, weight, hair color, eye color, strengths or weaknesses, identifying tattoos or scars, choice of clothing or lack thereof? Then you should also invest in knowing the rhythm and pace of your speakers. What part of the world or country do they hail from, and is it easily discernible to the Reader whenever they’re “on stage.” Conversely, can you use similarities in speech patterns as a plot device to have one character “spoof” being another character?
That’s a little bit of a taste. I’ve included three links that do an even better job of helping you fashion the “voices” of your characters, but do come back here to finish this discourse, okay?
Kristen Kieffer = http://www.well-storied.com/blog/unique-voice
This is something you’ll need to flesh out in advance of setting events in motion for your characters. What does each character “know” or “feel” and how did they come by those perceptions? Can you say “back story?”
Consider the way a detective novel must inherently be constructed. As the Writer, you have to absolutely know Whodunnit, and you have to know how each character is involved in the intertwining threads of the mystery. What bits of past history does each person carry into the story? What tidbits will be revealed in spurts and surges as the tale progresses? Why are some characters blind-sided by a revelation, while others already had some foreshadowing of what might happen?
As the Writer, you’re responsible for each one of these people, their speech, their actions. So…you have to know what they know, and how it motivates them to act in particular ways. After all, if your hero has never picked up a longsword—until just now—how will dexterity, aim, and endurance factor into success or failure of this battle? If a character has only ever used math to balance a checkbook, what are the chances calculations for a rocket trajectory come bubbling to the surface to save the day?
Since we were on the topic of math and interrelationships, I thought I might dredge up these handy little diagrams. Remember how they’re used to represent the “overlap” of shared sets of information, as well as the areas that are separate, compartmentalized, and inaccessible from the other sets? Using Venn Diagrams might help you determine what your characters have in common, and what pieces of the puzzle they’re holding onto, independent of each other.
By using a visual representation, you’ll more readily be able to keep track of “who knows what” and then map out the “reveals” that can crop up at various points in your story. You’ll be able to remember who is surprised by certain events, and who can fake surprise (unconvincingly) so they don’t tip their hand. You can also use the diagrams as reminders to have back story elements come out at appropriate moments, as a character gets honest and shares a bit of info.
Your stories don’t always have to center on only one character, especially if the event is playing a major role in the story. When the circumstances actually become a driving force, almost like a character unto themselves, that’s a good reason to use Multiple Viewpoints. Because you may want to explore how differing personalities handle the same trials, and what success or failure each one encounters.
Remember to be explicit when changing from one character to another, by providing a visual cue for the Reader. Determine whether you’re using 1st Person or 3rd Person viewpoint, and stick to it throughout your story. Enlist beta readers and editors to help you spot when you stray, so you can fix it BEFORE publishing. Imbue your characters with well-defined characteristics. They may change and grow during their story arc, yet they should still retain their individual personality. Be certain of what each character knows about the world, and have them share when appropriate, perhaps adding to the synergy of a team. If you don’t use some kind of diagramming system, you may lose track of the disparate threads you’re trying to weave together. Be smart: find something that works for you and use it.
Let me know if there are any other tools you use while “herding cats,” from the opening sentence to the words THE END.