A Few Points About Multiple Viewpoints

So whose novel is it anyway? Well, yes, of course, it’s the author’s book. But which character or characters are the focus of the story? Whose thoughts and observations drive the narrative? From which character’s point of view is the story told?

When I first started writing, I did not understand the concept of character point of view. I’m certainly no expert on the subject today, but I have done enough story critiquing (and had my own writing critiqued enough) to recognize a point of view shift in a story when I see it. No doubt there are treatises and “how-to” books out there to describe and define what constitutes character point of view. I don’t feel qualified to do that.

What I can do is give you my favorite example of viewpoint shift within a story. In Chapter Three of the Fellowship of the Ring (“Three is Company”), the story is mostly being told from Frodo’s point of view (though not completely). At one point, as the Hobbits are traveling through the Shire, the viewpoint abruptly shifts for about a paragraph to a “fox passing through the wood on business of his own….” We read the fox’s thoughts and are told “but he never found out any more about it.” The next paragraph then shifts back to Frodo’s point of view as he wakes up the next morning. I always felt sorry for that fox because he never learned the full story!

Many years ago, a person critiquing one of my manuscripts told me that a book should be written from a single character’s point of view. I respectfully disagree. That is certainly the most commonly used method of storytelling in modern novels, but I have also read excellent novels told in multiple viewpoints. On the whole, however, if there are going to be multiple point of view characters, I prefer a clear demarcation between viewpoint shifts, such as separate chapters for different viewpoints or, at least, section breaks between them.

As a writer, my “default setting” tends toward ensemble casts, in which the book is told from more than one character’s point of view. There were five point of view characters in 60th Hour and there are three in the current draft of Prophecy’s Malignant Son.

I suspect my preference comes from my fondness for table-top role playing games. In a really good, story-driven rpg, the game master makes sure that each player-character at the table gets his or her moment in the spotlight. If one character is the real protagonist and the others are just there to bolster that character’s plotline, it will rapidly become a boring game for anyone except the person playing the main character.

There are both advantages and challenges to writing a novel with multiple point of view characters. Multiple viewpoints allow the action of the story to occur in two different places at the same time. The author can create mini-cliffhangers as the story abruptly shifts from the events involving one character to a different character. In addition, the writer can have fun describing a character in different ways depending on whose viewpoint is currently being portrayed.

One of the challenges with writing multiple viewpoint novels involves making sure that each viewpoint character is different from the others. Each character in a novel should be unique, of course, with a separate personality, but that is particularly true with point of view characters. Their thoughts, experiences, and outlook on the world should differ from the others.

Timing can also be tricky with multiple viewpoints. With a single viewpoint character, the story tends to be linear. With multiple viewpoint characters in different scenes, it may get confusing for the reader as to what events are occurring at what point. You may need to draft a timeline as an author to keep track of concurrent events.

The recent movie Dunkirk had a fascinating twist on the concept of multiple viewpoints and timing, with three stories set in different timetables being told at the same time. Even though the movie announced that would happen right from the beginning, it still took me a large part of the movie to actually appreciate what was going on.

The idea of timing recently hit home for me, when I was drafting Prophecy’s Malignant Son. I changed the length of time that passed in one chapter from a week to a month. That meant I had to revise the timeline for the concurrent chapters involving the other point of view characters to make the story consistent. Despite the extra work, I still think the story will be better for the change.

There is another question I cannot answer. When, if ever, do you hyphenate the words “point of view” when used in a sentence? For purposes of this blog post, I decided to forego hyphens between those three words, but if I have done so in error, you can all laugh at me behind my back!

-Susan 1/22/2021

2 thoughts on “A Few Points About Multiple Viewpoints

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