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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

How to have nine point of view characters in one series

The thing about epic fantasy is that it tends to have an epic cast. I could have had, easily, over a dozen point-of-view characters, but I decided that nine was probably enough--especially since I started out with three and thought that was probably enough. Here's what I've learned about having so many voices in one book or series.

1. Make it organic
Worry less about a plan that says "this person has this chapter" and more about a natural flow to the story. Have you been focusing too much on one or two people so that you're ignoring other plotlines? Go back to those other plotlines. Suspense is good, but avoidance isn't at all. Try to make it flow from one point of view to another--pass off a scene, or check in with someone the last PoV was thinking about or who has vital information for the previous plotline, Don't just jump all over the place; make it make sense that this is the next person who's head we're in.

Also, make sure it's clear who's head we're in. I see a lot of books where the chapter names include the name of the character; in Married to the Wind, I just made sure their name was in the first sentence as often as I could so you knew exactly who was speaking. And I made sure they all had distinct voices so it was pretty obvious even without the name.

2. Make sure they're tied together
The more characters you have on stage at once, the more you need to be sure your plotlines matter to each other. Plot A informs or comments on or offers alternatives to Plot B, which does the same for C, which does the same for D, and etc. And I suppose I should say, in case it's not obvious, that each point of view character should have a plot of their own. It doesn't have to be as in-depth as the Main Plot, but they need something they're doing for themselves, based on their own views and goals, that either helps or gets in the way of at least one of the other plots. Make what everyone does matter to the overall story! Why else are they there?

3. Don't overuse anyone
Sometimes side characters want to take over the whole story--and that's a problem. Either they're better suited as the main protagonists and you have a structure issue, or you're giving them too much of the cool stuff. Spread it around! Everyone is likely to have a favorite character to write, but if you give everything to that one person, the rest will be left wanting--and so will their scenes, their plots, and their space in the book!

Make sure all main characters have roughly the same number of scenes, and all secondary characters have roughly the same, too. They don't have to be identical, they don't have to be spaced evenly--sometimes someone will be needed at one place in the story more than they are in other places--but just don't let one person hog all the screen time. Page time? That's what a single protagonist and single PoV character does, not part of an ensemble cast.

4. Be clear on who your main characters actually are
Which, really, is a sub-point of the point above. Main characters are main because they're the most important in the story. Mine, in Married to the Wind, are Annissa, Glorisa, Ardeth, and Benni. If I cut out the five other points of view--and replaced them with other ways of conveying the important information brought by Senni, Hiri, the Oracle, the Regent, and Tchenu--I'd still have a story that makes sense and is complete. But, I think, less interesting, which is why they're there. But because those first four are the main characters, they have more scenes than anyone else in the book. Sometimes it's hard to remember to keep putting them in, especially in the thick and sticky middle of the book where there's so much going on and you have no idea how anyone is getting out, but if they're main characters, they should have the main part of the story.

5. Combine other characters who want to speak
Sometimes, you'll wind up with a lot of other characters who want to have PoV roles in the book, but after a certain point--approaching ten, for me, your mileage may vary--you'll start seeing that there are too many people talking. Things get muddy. It's hard to tell where the stories matter.

That's when you combine characters. Just mash similar characters into one, and one PoV. Or put characters with similar goals together in one plotline, and then only one of them needs to talk about it in narration. You can be artfully complicated without having to be self- or reader-infuriating!

Most books have one or two point of view characters, probably mostly for space and timing concerns. But here's some perks of having LOTS of PoV characters:

  • Lots of characters means lots of scenes, which means lots of space taken up. If you want a longer book, add more PoV characters!
  • It lets you have several really well-rounded characters in one story, and to live inside their heads the same way you do with one.
  • It automatically complicates plots.
  • It gives you many, many different places to get and keep information--especially if your characters are separated for some or most of the story, and especially if information isn't instantly-transmittable. Think how things can go wrong if someone receives the info they need late, or someone else doesn't share it at all, or the two people working on the problem don't know each other yet.
  • Dealing with interpersonal stuff, I think, is the point of writing stories about people, so more people acting and reacting and narrating what it means and why automatically gives all your interpersonal stuff more weight. It's not just one person's views, it's five, and they all want different things and come from different places.
  • It lets you cover more literal ground--characters can be continents away, and the story can keep going without having to get your one dude from one side to the other. Things can happen simultaneously!
  • More PoVs means more worldbuilding! Each person can be from a different part of the world or the society or the class system, looking at it all differently.
  • When you're stuck, you can drop into someone else's head and continue the story--and, often, doing someone else's scenes can help you write your way back around to that first problem. It gives you more to work with!
And that's how I have nine PoV characters. How about you?


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