Six impossible things

Proliferating viewpoints

Having lots of viewpoint characters is usually one major reason for a proliferation of subplots. Each viewpoint character is the protagonist of his/her own story, and that story inevitably has its own subplots. So if you normally find that your stories have two subplots, and your novel has three POV characters, you have three stories plus six subplots, for a total of nine storylines without even really trying.

If you’ve reached the middle of the story and suddenly find yourself with 64 viewpoint characters, trying to sort out all their plots and subplots is likely to be a nightmare. You have to start by sorting out the viewpoint characters, the scenes for which they are the viewpoint, and the reason why each viewpoint character is a viewpoint in the first place.

The simplest way to do this is to start at the beginning of the manuscript and make a list. What the scene is and who the POV character is are usually fairly easy to determine; why that particular character is the POV is not always so obvious, especially if there are other characters (especially characters who are the viewpoints in other scenes) present in the scene.

Most writers pick the POV for a scene either intuitively or else because they’re trying to do something specific that requires a particular character to be the viewpoint. Examples of the latter include: This is the first scene George appears in and I need him to be a viewpoint later; George is the only person present in this scene; what happens in this scene matters to George or affects his life more than it does to anybody else who’s a viewpoint character; it’s been five chapters since George’s viewpoint showed up and I don’t want people to forget he’s a viewpoint character; the scene progresses George’s subplots; or George is the only character in the scene who is already a viewpoint character.

When you have a complete list, the next question is: Does this story really need all these viewpoints? It is fairly normal to instantly react with “Yes, of course, it does!” because you wouldn’t have stuck them in if you didn’t think they were needed for some reason. Unfortunately, this reaction is not necessarily correct. It is also not necessarily incorrect. Similarly, your intuition or your conscious reasons for choosing particular POVs may have been fine for the scene, but not so good for the overall story. Which is why you have to set aside your instant reaction, look at your list of scenes, and think about them, both one at a time and collectively.

Among the things you may want to look at are: How many scenes does each viewpoint character have, and how much word count? Is he/she present in any scenes where there are other viewpoint characters? Is this person a POV character because he/she was the only character present at Critical Plot Event Q? If so, do you have to actually show Critical Plot Event Q, or will it work to have a panting messenger relate the events in detail for your protagonist or other major POV character? How many subplots does each character have, and how many of them involve other POV characters or themes/actions that are relevant to your main plot thread? What is the centerline of your story, and how do all these threads, scenes, and viewpoints relate to it? What does each scene, viewpoint character, and POV-related subplot add to (or distract from) the main story?

More than likely, if you do this seriously, you will find some scenes and POV characters that are nice to have in the story, but not truly necessary. If, for instance, you have a POV who has one “no other POV in scene,” three “subplots that only relate to this POV character” scenes, and two “scenes containing other POV characters” scenes, you can probably drop the subplot and switch the two “with other POVs” to a different POV. That leaves you with one “no other POV possible” scene; most of the time, you can drop this, but if it is truly necessary that it take place on stage, and not be related by a messenger or newscaster or someone, then remember that it is OK to have a POV character who has one and only one critical scene from his/her viewpoint. Even if you don’t kill that POV off immediately.

Finally, do you have an ensemble cast, a braided novel with a few extra viewpoints, a story that circles an event or McGuffin, or a “Game of Thrones” epic? If you’re writing like George R. R. Martin, but your story is really more of a three-strand braided novel, you may have a problem. (OK, if you’re writing like George, you probably don’t have a problem, but  you should still maybe consider structuring your story a bit more conservatively. A braided novel doesn’t need more than its basic strand viewpoints.)

If you’re writing an ensemble cast or a story with a central plotline that follows an event or a McGuffin, you may need to remind yourself that not every POV needs to have his/her own plot thread. (They’ll all want one, but you don’t have to give it to them.) Pick out the characters who are the most interesting/appealing/fun to write and/or who have the most interesting plotlines, and if there are still too many, rank them in order of interest/appeal/contribution to the main storyline. Trim from the bottom of the list up.

And study authors who are doing what you’re trying to do. For Kin, from the description I’ve seen so far, I’m going to recommend Lois Bujold’s Falling Free, which has a central plotline around which all the viewpoint characters rotate. And I think I’m going to go back to talking about subplots next post.

8 Comments
  1. Thanks for mentioning that it is all right to have a character with only one viewpoint scene. I have a back-burner novel where this is the case. It’s a scene that technically could be chopped -but I feel like failing to show the scene would confuse readers. It’d be too easy for them to gloss it over then go `wait… what just happened?’

    • First, have faith in your readers.

      Second, it’s part of the writer’s job to make sure that the important things get enough emphasis to register, even if they aren’t shown. “Showing” the scene can be the easy way out.

      • True, and I probably worded my reasons badly. I was originally going to write the story in first person, but I’ve been playing with the idea of using an omniscient narrator (I know- that’s a huge jump from first to omniscent. The whole thing is experimental). And that’s when it started to seem like if I was going to have my heroine’s sister escape and ride off and warn the king that the city had fallen, it might be a good idea to actually show her do it. As I said, an experiment in viewpoints, but the tight first person was not working.

        • Ack! I said experimental. I mean for me! I am thinking about experimenting in writing with omniscient viewpoint. That is why I appreciate you bringing up the subject of viewpoints. It is a matter I will have to think on -if I need the sister- but I like the way it expands the whole war instead of just holding down the home front.

  2. I think I know what you mean by ‘braided novel’, but could you name one or two just to make sure I’m on the same page? Thanks.

  3. Some examples of these types of novels would be helpful – Im not clear on braided and other types….thx

    • OK – none of this terminology is strict, for starters. For instance, alternating viewpoints is obvious: you have two POV characters and they switch off every scene or chapter or thereabouts. My The Seven Towers or Lois Bujold’s Mirror Dance would be examples. A braided novel is similar, but with three or occasionally four POV characters, each of whom has his/her own storyline containing roughly equal wordcounts and progressing at roughly the same pace, until they all usually come together at the end in a grand smashup. I believe Holly Black did a couple, but I don’t recall the names.

      An ensemble cast usually has four or more main POV characters and occasionally a couple of minor POVs; the main POV characters work like the cast on a TV show like Star Trek: Next Generation or NCIS where, again the multiple POV characters get roughly the same word count and register to the reader as more or less equal in importance (though one usually stands out as the main character or the boss). Bujold’s A Civil Campaign is like that. Her Falling Free that I mentioned above is a story with a central core plot that all the viewpoints revolve around; there’s a main character and lots of subsidiary viewpoints, but who gets the next scene really depends on which character’s situation will advance the primary plot.

      And epic – well, as I said, Game of Thrones. Massive wordcount and long series allows for a huge number of viewpoints and plotlines, which you pretty much need massive charts and lists and diagrams to keep track of. At least, I would; I don’t actually know how George does it.

      (Sorry about all the Bujold examples; I’ve been rereading, and they’re at the top of my brain.)

  4. Jo Walton’s PRIZE IN THE GAME is a braided novel, then. Probably Ryk Spoor’s (Seawasp, from Usenet) PHOENIX trilogy, too, especially volume 1. Three widely separate protaganists have adventures and eventually meet and join up.

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