Six impossible things

Whose Turn Is It? (Mailbag #4)

From the mailbag::

I know some people who feel quite strongly about keeping to the main character's POV except when it's absolutely necessary to go to someone else, but I've also seen that rule (like so many others!)broken successfully. It can be so useful to show someone else reacting to the MC.

Any guidelines on choosing? I keep having to write these scenes in more than one version to see which is the right way.

OK, first off, single-character-viewpoint tight-third-person is one kind of viewpoint. There are lots of others. It’s a stylistic choice: does the writer want the focus and intimacy that comes with sticking to a single character’s view for an entire novel, or does the writer want the flexibility that comes with using multiple viewpoints or omniscient third-person?

From the way the question is phrased, this particular writer is probably using a third-person multiple viewpoint structure. I call it a structure rather than a type of viewpoint because one can obviously do multiple first-person as well as multiple-third-person, or even do a mixed multiple viewpoint, with some of the viewpoint characters told in first person and others in third person. Or, I supposed, second person, though that would be very unusual…and is getting a little off-topic.

Back to multiple viewpoint. I group this into several loose categories: a) the ensemble cast, where the viewpoint characters all have their own storylines and importance; b) a plot-centered book with a wide-ranging plot that really needs to be seen from multiple angles; c) a character-centered story with a main character who needs to be seen from multiple angles; and d) the braided novel, where three or four plotlines interweave and overlap a bit, but may not come together until the end.

How the writer picks the viewpoint character for the next scene depends on what kind of story she/he is telling.

A straightforward braided novel that has, say, one viewpoint character for each of three plotlines, might go in strict rotation: a scene from A’s viewpoint, then B’s, then C’s, then back to A, repeat until they all come together at the end. If one plotline is more central than the others, it will likely have more scenes (perhaps A-B-A-C-A-B-A-C), or the A scenes may just be longer than the B or C scenes. Not all writers like to be tied down to a mechanical rotation like this, but if it’s right for the story, one can learn a lot from doing it…and it makes the question of whose viewpoint to use in the next scene really simple.

A plot-centered or character-centered book where there is a central thread that the writer wants to view from several directions is more complicated. A multiple-viewpoint, plot-centered story is a lot like a football game – the person who has the ball is the one who’s important, the one who’s moving the plot forward. So for each scene, the question is “who has the ball here?” Which character is moving the story forward? Who did the quarterback (your main character) hand the ball off to this time…or did he/she throw a pass to someone else, or run with it him/herself? Or has the other team intercepted?

A character-centered book is similar, except that instead of moving a plot-football forward, the idea is to get ever more interesting and deeper understanding of the central character, but from different angles. The first question here is therefore “whose opinion of the main character changes the most during this scene?” Which character does the scene make the biggest difference to, in terms of their relationship with or opinion of the main character?

An ensemble cast is, for me, the hardest kind of book to keep balanced, because you have all these people who are in the same place, who are supposed to be of equal (or nearly equal) importance. The one time I tried this, I found the balancing act very difficult – I had to look at it in all three ways – who’s doing the next plot-important thing? who do these events matter to the most? who’s had too many/not enough viewpoint scenes so far? – and then make a conscious decision each time as to which factor I was going to let have the most weight this time. (There is a reason why that story is lying mostly-abandoned on my hard drive…)

When all else fails – trust your backbrain. Go with what feels right. If nothing does, do the best you can; maybe later it will become clear what the right choice should have been. And yeah, rewriting a scene several times from different viewpoints is a pain … but I know more than one pro who does exactly that. So if it’s any comfort, you’re in good company.

3 Comments
  1. I’m working on a series that uses two different viewpoints in rotation, and my viewpoint characters are usually in the same place experiencing the same events. Revisions frequently involve swapping scenes around between the two of them.

    I actually find that fun. It’s just kind of cool to see how changing the viewpoint makes the scene come out differently.

    (Have I said this here before? I’m suddenly experiencing a strong feeling of deja-vu. Ah well, I guess I’ll post it anyway. If I did say it already, it must have been a good while back.) 🙂

    • Michelle – And it’s such good practice with characters! (That’s what I tell myself, anyway, when I have to rewrite stuff because I got the POV wrong.

  2. Thanks so much for the helpful answer, in spite of my mangled question! Mine is a plot-centered fantasy novel with a central thread. One character definitely dominates the action (and would like to do so more, but hey, if she had it all her own way there’d be no novel.)

    Watching the scene change, Rashomon-like, as I change POV is fun sometimes. I’d just like to get this book done before I qualify for Social Security. Though I suppose that would mean I had more time to write…

    It does help to know that I’m in good company.

    Back to work now.

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