Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Points of View

Today I wanted to talk about viewpoint.

Yes, I can imagine you all back-flipping with excitement now, can almost hear the hisses of “Yes! Finally, she gets to viewpoint…” The joy is palpable. But I have some questions for you about it, and if you can bring yourself to read through this, I’d really like to know what you think.

I’ve been considering VP as I get deeper into The Steel Walk. I’m at about 16,000 words now, so perhaps you might say that I really should have thought about it before now, but bear with me. I have three main characters; Eri, Saul and Joseth. All three of them are deeply involved with the story and change throughout the course of the book; they go on “personal journeys”, if you want to put it like that, which I wouldn’t. Eri is the obvious(ish) heroine of the book, and Chapter 1 opens with a fight she is involved in, told from her point of view. Saul is at the emotional heart of the story, a boy going through a sort of “coming of age”, complicated by an evil family and a populace that wants him dead. He already has a number of chapters told from his point of view.

My problem is with Joseth. Technically speaking, Joseth doesn’t arrive in the story until the middle act opens and he meets up with Eri and Saul. I like Joseth, and I know him fairly well, although I won’t know him properly until I start writing him, which leads to the temptation of introducing him in the first part of the book; I’d quite like to know what he is up to before he meets the other characters, and I want to see things from his point of view.

My questions are; how many main characters is too many? Once Joseth comes into contact with Eri and Saul, will his viewpoint be redundant? After all, they will be travelling around together for the most part, getting into scraps together and having blazing arguments- how many VPs do I need of the same events?

Do you prefer books that see things from the perspective of one character, or do you find multiple protagonists challenging? I’ve been reading bits and pieces of Anne Mini's excellent Author!Author blog, which gives fabulous advice for those writers who handle a big cast of characters in their books (really, go read it. I’ve learnt some hugely useful stuff there) and it has made me look closely at VP and how I use it.

I know that in the end the likelihood is that I’ll have to figure this one out for myself, but I’m genuinely curious to know how people feel about this, or if they even think about it at all. My reading habits suggest I’m happy with any number of character VPs; two of my favourite authors, Michael Marshall Smith and John Connolly both write largely from a First Person perspective, which nails your viewpoint down to one immediately. I also enjoyed Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself which has, I think, three major viewpoints and a large cast of supporting characters. That’s not even to mention George R.R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, that has… cripes, I’ve no idea how many main characters (they’re also some of the greatest books ever written, if you ask me).

Tell me what you like, what you don’t like.What's for dinner, where my locker key is, how many Nutri Grain bars I've consumed in the last two days...


  1. Personally I have no problem with multiple viewpoints. Some of my favourite books are told from over 3 VP's. I would try to introduce each of the VP's as early as possible though.

  2. I think that you should write your story the way it comes in your mind. As a quite prolific reader I find that I can appreciate each story I read as individual explorations, I haven't given any thought to the number of Main characters in the books I read, it just hadn't occurred to me before. .

  3. Just as long as one of them jumps Lelian.... no wait wrong thread.

    But thats the point isnt it ? Do you assume your audience cant cope or that you , like your audience, appreciate being treated like an intelligent and able individual who can cope with a complex story.

    My Vote is : Do what you want unless everyone tells you otherwise. Then just ignore them.

  4. Interesting question.

    I have found in my writing that the viewpoint naturally falls onto just one person. This isn't a particuarly conscious decision, but when I tell a story, I tend to tell the story of one person. Empire State is Rad's story. Ludmila, My Love is Ida's. Dark Heart is epistolary, but is mostly in Dr Jackson Clarke's words.

    Having said that, when I *do* make a conscious decision to use different viewpoints, it still comes logically out of the story. Seven Wonders needs to be told from Tony's point of view but also from The Cowl's, because the story is about how the roles of these two characters change in the city they both live in.

    But of course while a story can belong to just one's character's journey and is told mostly from their POV, that doesn't mean you have to stop the co-stars from having their bit. Ludmila has several chapters told from other POVs to show events Ida isn't involved with. In fact, it's only Empire State that really sticks to one character rigidly, although even then there are the odd, occasional scenes shot with someone else.

    I guess that's not really answering your question. Stephen King writes novels with 100 characters (Under the Dome) or 2 characters (Misery). The most important thing I think is to actually *find out for yourself* - if you story needs three characters, you'll find out soon enough. If the story demands just one POV, then one POV is all you will write. I think deciding from the outset that (just hypothetically) you're going to have four characters and each chapter will alternate between them is completely artificial, and it will show in the writing. Look at Soon I Will Be Invincible - the chapters alternate between the heroine and the villain, and part of that book's problem is that it feels so amazingly forced.

    Your second point about introducing characters - well, again, does the story need it? Going back to Ludmila, My Love (hey, it's all about me, right?), this is a book in three acts, and in act two a major character arrives, Zia Hollywood. From act two onwards, she's the second main character behind Ida.

    Now, like you, this makes me a little nervous because I haven't written her yet, so I'm not really sure what she's like. What if she's an absolute bitch? What if she's weak? What if she's egotistical and hollow? I won't know until she arrives.

    I have introduced her in Act One - not in person, but her arrival in Act Two is anticipated by everyone in Act One. I certainly don't think that all the main characters need to arrive early in the book. Sure, the second hero can't arrive in the second to last chapter, but if they arrive at some point midway *and need to be there*, then it'll work.

    I guess I'm trying to emphasise the organic nature of writing. As you and I know, characters come alive in our minds and start to do their own thing. So let them. If Joseth comes in during the middle act and hooks up with Eri and Saul, then I assume there is a good reason for it. And because Joseth has that reason (and remember, he's currently living in the back of your mind, doing whatever he's doing before he wanders into the world of The Steel Walk), then he'll come in and do his thing.

    So perhaps that's the answer. If the story needs three characters then the three characters it will have. Remember that we writers are not quite in control of what we type, all going well!

  5. Thanks for all the comments guys! Some interesting stuff there, and it seems that when we are reading, we really don't give a fig how many characters there are or whose viewpoint we are following, as long as the story makes sense.

    @Adam- I think you're right, in that stories will often fall into the right viewpoint by themselves, and you don't usually spend too much time thinking about it. I've certainly not made a big deal out of it previously.

    Bad Apple Bone was told from the point of view of William, the hero, with the occasional insight into the timeline of the Three (which was brilliant fun. Writing as the baddies always is, I think). I made no conscious decision about that from what I remember, and in fact I believe I thought Noon would be the hero when she turned up, but I quickly realised it was William's story.

    Bird and Tower was a little more problematic, because although the story was told from Quint's point of view, I had five main characters and, although it pains me to admit it, I kept forgetting about one of them. Doh! I started to write A Boy of Blood and Clay as my first full length attempt at a first person narrative, and got three chapters in before I realised it wasn't going to work. That was painful.

    Ink for Thieves was Guido's story, with odd, brief dreamy insights into the mind of another main character, sooo... looking at it all as a whole, I supposed I tend to more or less stick to the one viewpoint. Interesting. This should made The Steel Walk a fresh challenge, in that case. :)