by Lizard is Writing
Anonymous asked: “Hi Lizard! I have an idea for a writing piece I want to do. I have characters, a majority of the plot, and a brief outline of the ending. The only thing is, I don’t know how to begin in a way that isn’t overwhelming to the reader. I have a bunch of different characters who all need to be in the same place at the same time. I don’t know how to write in multiple perspectives in a way that doesn’t drag on or go too quickly. Any advice?”
I can think of more than a few examples of books with multiple points of view. For instance, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, and most recently, See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt. There are countless other examples, I know, but there are a few reasons I bring these up. Examples like As I Lay Dying, All the Light We Cannot See, and A Visit from the Goon Squad are all fairly experimental.
Multiple points of view tends to complicate a story. Giving a character a point of view in a story elevates their role in the story. It’s a way for the writer to point at them and say, Watch this character. Their perspective matters. If that is not true for the story, you may need to ask yourself, Why include this perspective at all?
As I Lay Dying by Faulkner, though published in 1930, is still relatively radical. After the death of their mother Addie Bundren in rural Mississippi, her surviving husband and children are left to carry her coffin through the county, to honor her dying wish, to be buried in her hometown, Jefferson. Faulkner jumps from character to character. He shows the family in mourning and each of their interior conflicts. He additionally writes perspectives of characters outside of the family and even a chapter from Addie’s point of view, though she is already dead. See? Definitely radical.
So what do all these points of view do for the novel? Good question. Faulkner manages to cover a lot of ground in a fairly short book. He shows the family’s grief, their financial struggles, the drama of Addie’s past affair, Cash’s broken leg, Dewey Dell’s pregnancy, among so many other things. Every member of the Bundren family is struggling with something. Every perspective is also so incredibly subjective. Perspectives outside of the family shed light on how the family is perceived by the community and also, enable the reader to see this story again as the dark comedy that it is. It’s about a family carrying the rotting corpse of their matriarch through the countryside. It’s a little funny.
Anyway, with this example, no storyline feels neglected. Every character is the protagonist of their own drama and there is so much drama. The many points of view is the central vehicle that makes telling this story possible. Had it been told any other way, it undoubtedly would have been a very different book.
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More contemporary examples, All the Light We Cannot See and A Visit from the Goon Squad, similarly also skip around. As as a result, they are complicated novels with multiple protagonists. Like As I Lay Dying, there’s a lot to unpack.
It’s not actually that experimental.
Now let’s look at some examples that have more than one point of view that are less wild. I’m starting with See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt. This recent novel shares a possible version of the pinnacle days surrounding the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, father and stepmother to the infamous Lizzie Borden. While it is largely believed that Lizzie murdered her father and stepmother, she was never convicted of the crime. This novel delves into the mystery and accounts of persons involved.
In this story, the many points of view all seem to strive to claim their innocence as each person walks the reader through their account of what happened. While there are multiple points of view, the perspectives are straightforward. The style of story telling feels relatively traditional and why each character is privileged with a voice seems automatically clear.
How about another example? Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. In this novel, we’ve got two points of view. Two main characters, as suggested by the title, Eleanor and Park. It’s a love story. It’s adorable. And right from the start, we don’t question why we’re reading both points of view. Outside of just the love story, there’s a broader conflict that deeply effects both characters. They are both protagonists and the story feels relatively straightforward.
Why these points of view?
It can be fun following multiple characters through the world of a story, but it’s not always useful. Always be asking yourself, why is this character telling the story? It’s fine if there’s a reason, but there’s always the risk that you’re writing two different novels set in the same world instead of just one cohesive story.
Alternately titled On Writing Multiple Points of View.
Guest post contributed by Lizard is Writing. LiW is a semi-anonymous grad student working on an MFA in Fiction. Her stories have appeared in various literary magazines – some previously mentioned in posts, with some still forth-coming. She is a short story writer currently working on a novel.
I’d add that genre might influence if a multi-POV story works. Journey plots (travel type) I think work best with a single POV. Hero’s Journey also — one POV. But if you have major characters who need to have their individual needs and goals exposed, especially if they have either a physical or temporal separation from each other, then you really have no choice but to include multiple POVs.
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As a relatively new writer (6 years) I was guilty of “head-hopping” BADLY for my first novels and rightly got called out on it in some of my reviews. The issue for me was – and is – that I’m sort of sitting in a theater, watching a movie and am simply writing down what happens. If there was a character’s internal voice, I just wrote that down, too, trying to keep track of it it all.
I realized that if was work for me, it was asking too much of my paying customer, the readers. Aware of my weakness, I am much more careful to avoid it. There are simply times I cannot, so I devote additional description to make it very clear as to who is thinking, about what, and why.
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I think multiple POV adds great depth to the story/plot. It also allows a huge diversity in characterization. I love it for my largest books. It should tie in and be as seamless as possible, all viewpoints dove-tailing into the main story arc.
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Excellent post! Thanks!
I don’t always like multiple but definitely prefer more than one. It helps with insight. Good post
As another example of a compelling story with multiple points of view, I would add Gloria Naylor’s “Women of Brewster Place.”
The Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult used multiple POVs to show how unreliable each of the narrators are, some more than others; it really helped me understand at a young age how everyone sees themselves as heroes and how the “truth” can be murky. Emily St John Mandel uses multiple POVs in both her novels to show how we’re all interconnected even when we don’t realize it; her characters’ stories seem disparate and narrow, though individually rich, until we see how they connect.