Multiple Viewpoint Novels Are Tricky

Not impossible, obviously.  Look at GRRM’s or Robert Jordan’s success.

BUT.  It’s very easy to screw up a novel by using more than one viewpoint character.

I think some genres, like romance, have built-in assumptions that make this easier.  If you’re reading a romance and chapter one is a woman and chapter two is a man (or man/man, woman/woman if you’re writing a m/m or f/f romance), then the reader pretty much assumes that the character in chapter 1 and the character in chapter 2 will ultimately get together.

What if it’s not a romance, though?

As part of getting ready to move I’m trying to read through all the books my mother has given me to read that I hadn’t gotten around to yet.  One of the books I started reading this week has multiple viewpoints.  And, if my mother hadn’t told me to read the book and I didn’t know where the book was going, I would’ve probably put it down after the second chapter.

Why?

The first three chapters have different viewpoint characters.  And there was no apparent connection between them.  None.  They’re all female characters and the voice/tone of each chapter was similar enough that when I started the second chapter I had to flip back to the first chapter to make sure it was really about a different character.

So, it was kind of like starting a novel three times.  Except I was thinking the whole time how the chapter I was currently reading tied into the story in the book.

It didn’t help that each chapter introduced at least three or four secondary characters, so I was really having to think by the third chapter to see if there was any connection whatsoever between those three.

(There wasn’t.  It took about 90 pages before the three intersected.)

Now, I am no saint in this regard.  I think the number of viewpoints I used in my first novel weakened it. And I, too, started off with my three main viewpoints in separate locations.

One thing I did do–and I did this very deliberately–is I ended each chapter with a lead-in to introduce the next character.  So, in the first chapter the guy wonders where the hell he’s been stranded.  This leads into a chapter with one of the main leaders of the place he’s been stranded.  At the end of that chapter, the leader is told he has to go test some child for special abilities and he ends the chapter wondering about the kid.  And then chapter three is the kid.

It wasn’t perfect, but the goal was to give the reader something they could follow.

My novel also had another issue–the characters were different ages, which means readers who might’ve connected with the character in chapter 1 maybe wouldn’t connect with the character in chapter 3.

I forget where I saw it, but someone made the point the other day that both GRRM and Robert Jordan did something very important with their multi-viewpoint novels.  They either stuck with one setting or one character for long enough to ground the reader.

Unfortunately, I don’t have either book with me right now, but I believe GRRM starts with multiple viewpoints right away but they’re all set in the same location and give different angles into the same conflict.  And Jordan sticks with Rand for the first section of the novel.

(Now, I’ve seen it said that both of those series lost part of their impact later on because they started following all these different characters to all these different locations and it was just too hard for readers to care anymore about individuals.  One of the challenges of the fantasy epic.)

So, as a reader (and as a writer) here are some tips for writing a novel using multiple viewpoints:

1. Make it clear how each viewpoint that is introduced ties into the story that has been told so far.

a. Introduce Viewpoint Character B in Viewpoint Character A’s scene

b. Reference Viewpoint Character B in Viewpoint Character A’s scene

c. Provide some sort of bridge between Viewpoint Character A’s scene and Viewpoint Character B’s scene

d. If the novel you’re writing is about a central event and different takes on that event, then make this clear up front–that the event is the focus not the characters.  (See this post by PCW on different plot structures.  I think this would qualify as a spoke plot structure.  Also, just a reminder, her writing advice book is out now.  Wrede on Writing.)

2. Be careful how many viewpoints you introduce and how quickly you introduce them.

3. Consider how frequently you’re going to circle back to each viewpoint.  If you want characters to have equal weight in the story, then you need to circle back to them often enough to give them that weight.

4. Consider how the different viewpoints are going to come together (or not) in the end.  (Justify for the reader why they followed all of these different people.)

(NOTE: Another mistake I made in my first novel.  The three main viewpoints don’t come together.  I did it on purpose, but I think it breaks reader expectations.)

5. Be careful how many secondary characters you’re introducing in each chapter when you’re going to have multiple viewpoints in your starting chapters.  (Does your character really need to have three children and do they all need to be named in the first chapter along with your character’s husband, the gym teacher, the priest, etc.?)

6. Know the expectations of the genre you’re writing.  Readers will assign roles to characters based upon those expectations.

7. Ask yourself why you need all those points of view and whether each on is engaging enough in its own right to earn the pages you give it.

8. Try to give the viewpoints enough of a distinctive voice/tone/flavor to help your reader distinguish them from one another.  Or start each chapter in such a way that the reader KNOWS they’ve changed viewpoint.

9. Think carefully about which viewpoint starts your novel.  Try to lead off with the character you want readers to connect with most.  (Although, for certain story structures this might not be possible.  Another possible issue with my first novel.)

Of course, this is all a bunch of “do as I say not as I do” advice.  (I really do need to listen to my reader-self more.)

I think it’s vitally important to think about the type of story you’re trying to tell when choosing your viewpoints and only include as many viewpoints as are truly necessary for that type of story.

(I have some nagging thoughts about number of viewpoints to use and type of story, but they haven’t cohered enough for me to make sense of them yet.  Suffice it to say, I may one day rewrite that first novel with a laser focus on one character’s struggle and stay in his viewpoint for the entire novel.  But I can’t quite explain to you when I would and wouldn’t make that decision…)

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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5 Responses to Multiple Viewpoint Novels Are Tricky

  1. mamabro says:

    I don’t know if I would ever write a novel with multiple view points but if I do I’ll keep all this in mind 🙂 thanks

  2. Dave Higgins says:

    I have just finished the draft of a multiple view-point novel: my protagonist develops amnesia, so I set scenes that he does not remember from someone else’s viewpoint. I have not started editing yet; however, from what I remember he is PoV for the first few events, and is present in many of the scenes that are not from his PoV.

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