On April 25, 2010, Mya wrote,
...how do you change viewpoints in a story without making it confusing? I know you did it in Ever, and I have a story that goes the same way, but it’s not working out.
In Writing Magic I define the various points of view (POV), and there are many other sources as well. Also, my post of October 21st, 2009, is related to this one.
When I wrote the first draft of Ever I wrote it in third-person omniscient. The effect, alas, was that the reader couldn’t feel close to anyone. Third-person omniscient doesn’t have to work out that way; I just couldn’t get it right in this case. Then I tried first person from Kezi’s POV, put she isn’t present for many plot developments. If I’d stuck with just her, the reader would have been unaware of them either, which led me to the alternating narration.
If you and I enter the same party or walk into the same store or even examine the same pair of slacks, our attention will be drawn to different things. With the slacks, you may be looking for quality; I may be a complete sucker for black-and-white checks (actually, I am) and not care about anything else.
Same with characters. When you switch from one first-person POV to another, you take on the world view of each character. If Willis is a cynic examining slacks, he may be looking for quality, but he’ll be expecting to find a flaw. When you switch over to Allie, who’s easily pleased, she falls in love with seven pairs of slacks in seven seconds. In writing the scene, you need to reflect their different thoughts and feelings in their separate narrations.
Their voices on the page need to differ too. In Ever, the male character, Olus, is educated, and Kezi doesn’t know how to read. The vocabulary in his chapters is harder, because he knows more words.
In the example of Willis and Allie, here’s Willis: I turn the pants inside out, frowning, then erase the frown because Allie is watching and she likes to tease me, but it’s an effort to keep my forehead flat. No lining, naturally. What do you expect for eighty-nine dollars? Especially when the sweat-shop laborer probably earned eighty-nine cents, if she was lucky.
This could be Allie: Wow! I love this store. Listen to the music! Great beat. Slacks, slacks, slacks. OMG. It’s Slacks City in here. The buyer must be a genius.
You have vocabulary, sentence structure, emotional reactions, and thought content as your tools for creating distinctive voices. And maybe more elements I haven’t thought of. Please weigh in with comments.
An interesting example of multiple POVs is Bat 6 by Virginia Euwer Wolff, which is about a girl’s baseball team, and there are twenty-one – count them! – first-person POV characters. It’s a fascinating book that can be read by middle-grade readers and up. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is a tour de force of multiple POVs. I read enough to know what an accomplishment it is, but I didn’t stick with it. This one would be for high school and above.
If you read these books, notice the devices the authors use to create unique voices. I remember from The Poisonwood Bible that one of the main characters is a master of palindromes. How original!
Shifting POV makes storytelling more complicated. Possibly my biggest problem as a writer is that I tend to over-complicate. I’m always spinning ideas on top of other ideas, and the task of getting through a book becomes much harder. Of course, layered, complex stories are good. So can be simple, direct ones. I’m thinking of The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, both for high-school level and above. The point is that you should consider your reasons for multiple viewpoints.
Here are some occasions when it may be worth the work. These are just what I can think of. I’d welcome more ideas.
1. It’s fine and brave to try something new. If you’ve never written from more than one point of view and you want to see how it goes, that’s an excellent reason all by itself.
2. You can’t tell your story in the first person because your main character isn’t present for extended events that the reader needs to know about. I say extended because short events can be communicated by phone, email, text messages, even a magic book, as I used in Ella Enchanted.
3. Your story belongs to two or more characters more or less equally, and you don’t want to jump within a scene from one character’s head to another, which is what you’d have to do if you wrote in omniscient third person.
4. Your main characters are distant from one another in time or place or culture.
5. Your main character is an unreliable narrator, and you want another voice for balance and objectivity.
6. Truth is elusive in your story. You want the reader to piece it together by combining points of view. This approach is probably too sophisticated for any but young adult (and adult) readers.
7. Again, truth is elusive. You are going to go over the same events repeatedly from multiple points of view. Your reader will figure out what really happened. This also may be only for older readers. The classic Japanese movie Rashomon (high school and above again) is a mystery told this way.
In numbers two through four above, you might also write in omniscient third person, a perspective I love and find difficult to pull off. An omniscient narrator provides a consistent voice, but this POV can distance you and the reader from your main characters, since the narrator is on the outside. Or a cacophony of thoughts and feelings can slow your story down to a glacial pace.
Here are two prompts:
• Dream up five characters on an urban commuter train. Write a page from the POV of each of them. Reveal why they’re on the train, what’s awaiting them at the end, the issue that’s uppermost in their minds. Some calamity happens: the train hits a tree or runs somebody over or a passenger becomes ill – whatever. Write what ensues from the POV of each of them, a page for each. You can either advance the story with each shift of POV or retell the same events. If you need to, go back and revise any of your first pages to fit what follows.
• Tell a story from the points of view of the pets in a household, more than one species. How would a dog think? A cat? A fish? Turtle? Parrot? There is a long tradition of storytelling through animal voices. One of my favorites when I was little was Black Beauty, which I reread not too long ago and still enjoyed.
Have fun, and save what you write!