If, like me, you’re going to start out writing epic fantasy, create a whole new world from scratch, and attempt a trilogy to boot – why not go all out and write in multiple POV’s too? I mean why not tell two stories – or five while you’re at it? Sure I question my sanity every time I look at the big picture. But there are benefits from writing in multiple points of view if you keep a tight grip on your cast of characters.
Depth, Breadth and Perspective.
Telling a story from different points of view adds a sense of dimensionality, and – if done well – can make the story feel more complete. In my WIP, Josiah’s view of Marcus is quite different from that of Marcus’s wife Celeste. If the story was told entirely from Josiah’s POV, Marcus might be seen as cold as calculating, with little to redeem him to the reader. However through Celeste’s eyes we have an opportunity to see the man behind the General; a husband and father with a good reason for choosing the path he does. All of a sudden the conflict isn’t so cut and dry.
A Bigger Canvas.
Epic fantasy by definition needs to be played out on a grand scale. Carefully chosen POVs can increase the scope of the story by pulling together action happening simultaneously at different locations. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo needs the backdrop of Middle Earth cracking up around him to lend weight to his task. Using multiple POVs gives the reader a fuller picture of the extent of the crisis unfolding across Middle Earth – Elves leaving, Ents reluctant to get involved, armies being raised, leaders refusing to see the truth, strongholds breached – I could go on. This raises the stakes considerably – will there be anything left even if Frodo can destroy the ring?
Controlling Story Pace.
A story should always be moving towards the final climax, but the pace needs to be one the reader will enjoy. Light and shade, urgency and discovery. Multiple POVs can be a valuable tool allowing the writer to build tension, or relieve it when necessary.
In my story two of my main characters are struggling. Things are tense and somewhat uncomfortable. A number of bad things happen in succession, building to a key plot point. Read alone it could feel heavy and a bit depressing, but woven together with a lighter more positive subplot occurring well away from the main action – the story feels more balanced. The reader gets a rest from the emotional pummelling, and is given a thread of hope that the protagonist might come through in the end.
As a reader I love knowing things the character doesn’t. Every nuance becomes more important, I see foreshadowing everywhere (even if sometimes it isn’t) and I tend to become more involved in the story. A different POV character is a great way to deliver additional information – if done well.
In my WIP, neither the protagonist nor the antagonist are aware that someone is working behind the scenes manipulating events to his own end. But the reader is. For most of the story the mystery person is known only as the Elder. I’ve only written a few chapters from his POV, but his short snippets frame the story for the reader and hopefully raise the stakes and increase the tension.
While epic fantasy lends itself to multiple POVs, they aren’t always easy to pull off. You run the risk of jarring the reader if your transitions aren’t good, confusing the reader, or even losing them if they don’t connect with one of your POV characters. Not to mention the risk of losing control of your plot if you can’t weave everything back into the main storyline.
So How to Keep Everyone in Line?
We don’t need to see every side of a story, nor does every aspect need to be explained in detail (there’s something to be said for letting your reader draw their own conclusions). Ask yourself what benefit will this POV bring to the story? Could you achieve the same thing a different way?
I tend to outline each character arc and note crucial points that impact the main plot. On a practical level I put these on (colour coded) note cards and display them on a corkboard. This enables me at a glance to see where the character should be headed and where he / she fits in to the main story. It also helps me rein them in when they head off on a tangent.
Reserve the Right to Change Your Mind.
If when you read over the finished novel you have trouble keeping everyone in line – consider culling some of the POVs. I’m still writing a first draft and at this point I have good reasons for using each POV. However when I’m finished I’ll want to look back and see if it works as a whole.
Working with different character viewpoints can be equally rewarding and frustrating, but as a writer I find there is rarely ever a dull moment.
How about you? Do you enjoy reading stories told through multiple POVs? How about writing them? How many characters are too many? I’d love to hear your thoughts.