Monday, March 02, 2009

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen or a Well-Run System of Chefs?

Sorry for the lateness of this post. After I finish a draft, I always take a ‘vacation’ from my computer for a week or two. I’ve had posts scheduled up to today, and I realized this morning that I never finished the one for today.

Anyway, today I wanted to talk about using multiple points of view in a novel. I see writers asking about this technique in forums, critique meetings, conferences, basically everywhere. The question I see most often is “I know it’s considered a no-no to use multiple points of view, but do I *have* to stick to just one person?”

This often prompts the same reaction from me. Why is it that a lot of writers think we’re not supposed to use more than one point of view? It’s obviously possible, because there are some great books out there with more than one main character. Two good examples are THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS series and SKIN HUNGER by Kathleen Duey.

I’ve never been tempted to write a story from more than one point of view. Why? Well, to be honest, it scares the daylights out of me. More than one point of view means more than one major plot line, as well as more than one path of character growth. Also, the multiple plot lines and character growth need to mesh with the overall story, not unlike a series or trilogy.

But the most daunting concept in multiple points of view is that each character must have his own story.

For example, in SISTERHOOD, each of the girls’ experiences, reactions, and growth is unique. The threads connecting them are the pants, and the fact that they are spending their first summer apart. In SKIN HUNGER, Hahp and Sadima don’t even live in the same time frame, so their stories are so completely different. Yet, there is an underlying thread of magic, as well as two characters, connecting them.

Lisa Yee did something close to multiple points of view with her MILLICENT MIN series. It’s the same story told three different times, through three different characters. I think that if she’d put all three points of view into one novel, it wouldn’t have worked. The reader probably would have tired of hearing the same thing over and over, even though it was from a different perspective. Instead, she changed the main character with each book, retelling the same story, and allowing us to form a connection to each character. Very effective.

I think the reason a lot of writers think they can’t use multiple points of view is that it’s hard to do right. That is, it’s easy to head-hop from character to character so you can get every aspect of your story across, such as things going on that the main character doesn’t know about. But, is it *really* necessary for the reader to know so much so quickly? If the reader doesn’t learn these aspects of the story until the main character does, it creates a stronger bond between the two. Then the reader can feel whatever emotion the main character experiences, and the story ends up having a greater impact. It’s harder to write this way, but it’s also much more effective.

This is mainly why I didn’t care for the SEPTIMUS HEAP series. I assumed the main character would be Septimus Heap (since the series is named after him), but he didn’t even make an appearance until several chapters in to the first book. And, once he did, we heard nothing from him until the end. It left me scratching my head, and I never picked up the next book.

Anyway, I think Cheryl Klein said it best at last year’s SCBWI –IL conference: for multiple main characters, each must undergo his own change or internal plot. Otherwise that character isn’t necessary. So, if you are thinking of writing a story with multiple main characters, ask yourself this. Are you ready or willing to put multiple plots within one story, and then tie them all together? If not, then perhaps you have a single viewpoint story.


PJ Hoover said...

I've yet to take this plunge either, thought last month, I actually did think about it for the first time. Scary!

C.J. Raymer said...

Great post! Yes, I have had to make sure that when I have multiple MCs that they each have their own inner conflict then resolution going on. It is through their own personal struggles that they bring something to the table for our "main" MC to glean from. It can be a very subtle thing. But, needful. They are "supporting" characters for a reason. Their personal situations or POV brings a richness and depth to the story and supports our MC's persuasions in many cases.

Now, I don't do this, of course, for every character. Just my main protagonists and antagonists. And, it's done in differing degrees.

Christina Farley said...

Great title! You are so right. It's so hard to get those multiple points of view. I did it for one of my stories and it was really tricky getting in the head of each main character. It will be a long time before I do it again.

Unknown said...

I am working on multiple POVs right now...and you're right--it's so important to have two separate stories (internal and external) for them. Right now, the most frustrating thing I've discovered is keeping them distinct and unique. I think the Bartiamaus trilogy did this best...

Anonymous said...

I find it difficult to read (and would find it difficult to write) because it's hard to make the characters equally appealing. I've read multiple-POV books where I was just marking time in Character 3's narrative, saying, "Yeah, yeah, let's get back to Character 2 already!"

I recently put down a multiple-POV book where I liked the 1st narrator, loved the 2nd narrator, and was bored silly by the 3rd narrator. Never picked up the book again.

Mary Witzl said...

I've been working on an MS with multiple POVs and I'm losing faith in my ability to carry it off. So many of the books I've enjoyed have different POVs and I've always felt that this made the story richer. But having tried my hand at it, I'm stunned by how hard it is to weave the plot together in a coherent, cohesive fashion.

Someone once told me that kids, in particular, don't like POV shifts, but I wonder whether this is true for MG readers? If so, I've got a lot of rewriting to do: two of my MG MS have POV shifts in them. Sigh...

Anne Spollen said...

I feel like I have enough trouble keeping the mc's stuff straight and then keeping track of all the folks and events around her.

My friend DID this -- she kept using different colored index cards to keep it all straight. (Of course, I loved it, but she never sold it)