Most stories stick with one protagonist, and usually several side, or supporting, characters. But what happens when more than one character wants to tell their version of what’s going on?
That’s what happened when I sat down to start writing a YA science fiction story, and I’ve been stumbling around with little guidance since. So here are a few tips if you’re looking to tell a story from the perspective of a cast of characters.
As part of my summer reading, I stumbled upon Erica Bauermeister’s Joy for Beginners. It recalled other books to mind that juggle several point-of-view characters, in different ways. An incomplete list: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Annie Barrows & Mary Ann Schaffer), The Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan), The Help (Kathryn Stockett), and though I have not read them, A Song of Ice and Fire series (George R.R. Martin).
So some writers do it. Not many. Breaking down the examples I’ve read, here are the differences in how they used a cast of point-of-view characters:
- Each character has their own story, loosely tied in with the others. Their story arc is complete within itself, only tying in enough to make sense with the bigger picture the author is trying to illustrate.
- Each character is intimately tied in with the larger plot, their story weaving in and out of the main tapestry being created. A reader might forget their name, but they’ll remember the story.
- There doesn’t seem to be space for an all-knowing narrator when using several point-of-view characters.
- First-person perspective: “I saw the girl before she saw me, standing alone at the platform’s edge, looking like any passing breeze might push her over.”
- This can be tricky, since each character’s voice needs to be distinct – sentence structures, vocabulary, tone, mood, length, etc. A reader should know who is speaking without being outright told.
- This can be useful, if you have a variety of ages observing for you: a child will see and understand the world of your story in a very different way than a tired soldier, or a young secretary, or a professional athlete.
- Third-person perspective: “The girl stood by the platform’s edge, looking like any passing breeze might push her over.”
- This is an easier transition for the reader, as they are not being forced into different heads quite so strongly, and easier for the author. You will still be limited to what each character knows and observes, but the transitions will be easier.
- Using both first- and third-person perspective.
- You can mix them (which is what I am trying to do), but you will need to be even more careful about your transitions. Readers are more liable to become confused, frustrated or fed up with the change in perspective from chapter to chapter
- Make sure not to change perspectives in the middle of a chapter, or, worse, in the middle of a scene. The only exception I can possibly think of is that a point-of-view character dies in the middle of telling their version, and so another must pick up next.
- Characters must have very distinct personalities so they don’t bleed together, or worse, frustrate your reader into wondering why you allowed boring characters to take over telling the story.
- No one is just an observer. Each character, whether focusing on their own arc, or tying in with a greater plot, must still have a struggle, a crisis, a problem they must face and overcome (or not) before moving on to the next.
- Don’t retell the same scene, unless it’s a pivotal part of plot resolution or revealing the cause of the main conflict.
Have fun! The best part of writing from different characters’ perspectives (for me) is getting to spend time in their heads! They’re fun, lovable, quirky, flawed people, who see each other with more grace and sometimes clarity than that character sees themselves. Or if the characters are at odds, they might judge them more quickly, see them with skewed perception, or outright label them with wrong thoughts, motives and actions. Depends on what you’re writing!
If writing multiple characters is a chore and not a joy, then you might need to re-think how you want to tell your story.
Katie, signing off