This is just a list of questions, really. The answers will be different for each author, and it’ll all depend on the kind of characters you’ve created and the story you want to tell. I will give examples of considerations you might want to take into account and things I’ve seen that don’t’ work, but they’re examples rather than prescriptions; you may be able to make them work, and work very well.
1) Who can tell the story?
The purest and simplest consideration. You know where on the map your characters are, where in time they are, how close they are to what will become epicenters of important events. It is up to you to make the decision. You might have a character who’s a hell of an interesting narrator, but she just can’t come in to the first book because she spends that first book stuck in a tiny backwater village where nothing alters from day to day. You need viewpoint characters who can witness the plague happening, the dragons ascending in the north, the family matriarch making a decision that will shake every other family member to her foundations. Be patient. This is one nice thing about multiple viewpoint characters: so long as the introduction isn’t entirely random, you can introduce the interesting narrator in the second book, where she’s needed.
A consideration less often raised is who can emotionally or intellectually tell the story. The narrative may need to be a deep and serious adult kind of story, with the reader immersed in happenings among the adults and understanding their conversations in crystal clarity. Tell it from the perspective of a child who only remembers bits of the adults’ talk and sees all action from the edge, and while it may still be a very interesting story, the reader will need to puzzle-piece together the conversations instead of reading them in full comprehension. There’s always the possibility that certain readers may miss a point or the point, or think the story is supposed to be about the child and not the adults; after all, he’s the narrator. Here’s a “too much twist, not enough story” kind of problem again. Does the narrative need reader labor? If it doesn’t, if in fact its point would be anathema to that kind of reading, then don’t tell the story through a difficult narrator just to be “cool.” The viewpoint character should actually fit the story you are telling. (For other examples of this, see points 4-6 inclusive).
2) Who can show us just what we need to know?
Okay, so you’ve scythed out a whole bunch of characters who can’t tell the story because they’re too far away or don’t understand what’s going on or are stuck doing deadly boring things for the first 100 pages that would make those pages a slog instead of entertaining. But that still leaves a whole bunch of people. How do you pick among them?
Here you’ll probably need to twine the character with the plot. There may be people who would give the ending away if the reader was allowed one glimpse inside their heads. There may be people whose partial narration would only confuse the reader, and not in a good way (say, a man who spends days dodging and running through the forest from enemies, but never finds anyone or anything who can help him, explain what the enemies are, or show how they twine in with the rest of the plot). There may be people who, oooh, would be just perfect, but have no reason to pay attention to that odd stranger who crosses their paths, since they live in a cosmopolitan city where strangers of all kinds regularly appear.
Fitting plot with character, and reader knowledge with viewpoint character, is a delicate process, and imperfect. Work at it, though, and it’ll be much better than just seizing on the first person who happens to be in the same city as the antagonist.
3) Who has the most stake in what’s happening?
Who depends on the resolution of events? Who has a reason to be at the heart of them, helping or hindering or doing both? Who has a reason to leave home, swing a sword, adopt an odd child, nurse an amnesiac stranger back to health, or do whatever else you need them to to urge this book into flight?
Most of the time—I’ll discuss the exceptions below—this will be the person you want not only as your viewpoint character, but as your protagonist. This is the category I’ve probably encountered most often misapplied. The author chooses someone to tell the story with, and even to place at the heart of the action, who has no stake whatsoever. She goes back in time, watches something else happen, and returns essentially unchanged. Or she witnesses a banquet and feast, but apparently the author is just exercising her pretty description muscles; nothing of importance occurs there or to the character. Or the author seizes on a minor character in a far-flung corner of the fantasy world whose only function is to observe. This might work if the character had any reason to eavesdrop on her masters’ conversations or be present at court functions. Too often, the character who is “eyes on the action” only gets her own brand of contrivance. The author shoehorns her into the action whether or not she has a reason to be there.
The two common exceptions to not telling the story through a wanting, involved, determined character are pretty easy to spot. One is when the involved character is, for whatever reason, too caught up in the action to give a clear picture. Then a minor character has to give us the outsider’s perspective, what I call a “sideline story.” This happens in The Great Gatsby, to give an example.
The other is when the author jumps outside the usual protagonist to tell something that the protagonist can’t tell because it occurs when he’s unconscious/asleep/insane/incapacitated in some other way that keeps him from narrating. This is usually a short section, and the author returns to the protagonist when he’s awake/healed/whatever. Only thing here, really, is to make sure the information is vital to your story, and I say that mainly because I’m one of those picky readers who resents being torn out of the head of someone I like and plopped down into the head of someone I don’t know for a brief unnecessary patch of plot.
You could also condense this whole thing down into: Who in your story seems to be wearing a sign that says, “Kick me”?
4) Who has the inner life that best complements the outer plot?
This is the most individual of them, as there will be as many different kinds of answers as there are different kinds of plots. For a fast-paced, rip-roaring adventure that skips along merrily over the plotholes, you might want a wise-cracking, smartass first-person narrator with all the usual emotional baggage; the main point is to keep the story flowing in a manner that entertains the audience and answers genre conventions, and if the protagonist insists on meditating on the mysteries of the universe for huge chunks of dense purple prose, she’ll just get in the way.
For a philosophical fantasy, you had better have someone capable of meditating on the mysteries of the universe, or the story will have to consist of infodump after infodump, in which the protagonist hears but does not really grasp anything.
For a dark fantasy, someone capable of experiencing pain and horror for what happens to them would be, well, nice. There’s only so much one can do with an apathetic narrator who’s beyond all feeling, or a jaded one who constantly asks the villain if that’s all he’s got, and the author may well distance the reader from the very emotions she means to portray.
For a bildungsroman or a transformative fantasy, have a character capable of change. Signal that before the character actually does begin changing, or it will seem to come out of nowhere. (See point 5).
Like I said, lots of different answers. You’ll have to come up with your own in your own way. There’s a wonderful challenge in using a seemingly mismatched viewpoint character to tell a story and then showing how she fits in at the end, but if it winds up a total mismatch, the story will be a mishmash.
5) Who has the most potential to become interesting in the future?
This is not the only consideration in choosing your narrator (see point 6, for the love of tiny furry green tomatoes), but it’s a big one if you plan a series character, or a character whose arc is going to include self-discovery. What about her flaws is interesting? What about her virtues is? What weak points does she have, ones that she may not even know are weak? What would change her violently and completely, and is she going to encounter it? What will she do, see, think, believe? Where is she going to go? Plant clues that point to these by all means, but also choose a narrator through whom you can show the clues.
Unfortunately, with this aspect, the negative examples are easier to think of than the positive ones. I will now discuss one while not-spoiling-the-ending-of-the-book,-really,-just-trust-me. I just finished Ill Wind by Rachel Caine, which is the first book in an urban fantasy series about Wardens who control weather, fire, or earth, and protect “ordinary” people against natural disasters, sometimes using the help of Djinn. It’s one of those rollicking wisecracking first-person narrator things, involving a road trip and much usual emotional baggage. The ending was, um, well, out there. But one thing I liked about it was that it was a definite ending, not just a cliffhanger for the next book, and brought the narrator to a good resting place. I thought about reading the rest of the series because I was interested in the world and interested in seeing how the author explored the other characters.
Then I found out the rest of the books are about the same narrator.
Huh? I mean, why? I don’t think much more can be done with the same character except make her more powerful (signs of which are evident even in Ill Wind). Reading the descriptions of the second and third novels, it looks like that’s exactly what happens. And I’m really not interested in reading a series like that. Reading eleven Anita Blake books taught me some harsh lessons, but this happened to be one of the ones with some good at its core of bitterness: more power does not make a narrator interesting.
Consider where and how future change is going to come from, especially if you plan on following this viewpoint character across several books, or into an open-ended series. Is she really capable of enduring change, of an interesting, different future? If the answer is “no,” please stop, or switch to someone else’s story. Please.
6) Who is interesting now?
This is the corollary to 5, one reason I must now gaze mournfully at the high fantasy books I’ve bought and will never read. An author taking a bildungsroman path often starts out a viewpoint character with hints that things will change for her in the future. She’ll get the answers, the power, the missing artifact, the high position. All of that will happen in the next several hundred pages, or the next several books.
What they forget is that the narrator, as well as changing, has to be, um, someone not really fucking boring at the point where the reader starts the book.
Here, genre conventions can and will screw you over. Here is Innocent Teenage Boy. The author, confident that the reader knows there’s a glorious future waiting for him, does not bother to give him an interesting inner life when the book starts. For the first book or first several hundred pages, he’s a combination of “eyes on the action,” infodump listener, and plot device. If you take away specific names, there is nothing about him to distinguish him from Eddings’s Garion/Williams’s Simon/Flewelling’s Alec. He’s just sort of There, and the reader is supposed to endure the boredom because of what he will become.
I don’t think so.
Yes, this is personal, and yes, this is ranty, and yes, it’s sponsored partly by my dislike of high fantasy. Don’t care. I don’t think many authors set out deliberately to make boring characters, but there’s often a tone in fantasy of, “Ha, puny mortals, just wait until you reach the end and see what I can do then!” when there should be a tone of, “Isn’t this interesting? Follow me! It will become even more interesting!”
Don’t rely on genre conventions, or what the character will turn into, to get the reader to read. First of all, the reader has to have someone she can see it as being worthwhile to root for.
7) Who has relative freedom of movement?
A minor consideration, this, but I will mention it because I’ve seen it crop up a few times.
So you have a character who answers every other consideration in the book: he’s interesting right now, he has potential to change, you like him, he can be in on the action, he’s the heart of it, he’ll reveal just enough because the reader learns things as he will, and so on. He also happens to be the king of the kingdom, and in chapter 2, you really need him to go running off madly over the countryside, via plot demands.
This is not a problem for non-journey stories (listen to me sing their praises again!), ones that are set in a single house or village or country. You could probably figure out a reason for the king to move about the castle or visit a couple nearby baronies on a progress. But if you know you’re going to use a journey, a scouting mission, or other kinds of plots requiring rapid movement, please choose a narrator who won’t have to take an entire court with him and notify everyone of his movements six months in advance.
“Relative freedom of movement” can take on several different meanings in this context. After all, you could come up with a plot clever enough to get the king out of his palace and running all over the countryside plausibly; I’ve seen authors do it. The main thing, as always, is to do it sleight of hand, so it doesn’t look contrived, rather than ignoring all considerations and just dumping the king or the prince or the invalid in the middle of a situation where they’re not going to go.
8) Who will fit best with the viewpoint structure that you wish to use?
A corollary of 4, and maybe all the rest. Fantasy does have a certain freedom to use an ensemble cast and flicker back and forth between characters’ heads that might drive people crazy in a mystery or romance book, because fantasy traditionally concerns a cast of thousands. However, there is no reason to use this freedom to go on a mad head-hopping expedition-cum-travelogue, telling various side-stories through the eyes of minor characters just because you can. ([Insert obligatory sneer to certain bloated epics].)
First-person? You’ll probably want to limit the viewpoint cast somewhat, even if you’re using multiple first-person narrators, just because readers often get intimate with a first-person character in a way they don’t with third-person narrators, and you don’t want to exhaust them with deep glimpses of seven or eight different people’s minds.
Third-person limited? Great work if you can get it. Once again, just make sure that you’re using the narrators you want to and need to. Necessity alone makes for a dreary book and lots of characters like the boring ones in point 6. Want alone leads to the mad head-hopping expedition-cum-travelogue. ([Second obligatory sneer]).
Third-person omniscient? Keep a rein on it. Keep the omniscient narrator’s voice as consistent as possible, and show a reason for hopping into people’s heads. One reason I get tired of omniscient books, other than the sheer weariness that results from trying to keep track of ten or fourteen different viewpoint characters, is that authors seem to make choices without rhyme or reason. Why the hell is the hero’s girlfriend narrating this passage instead of the hero?
Others? Work it out. Fantasy offers enormous freedom. It does not mean that authors should shamelessly take advantage of that freedom. ([Third obligatory sneer]).
Cities next, yay! (Probably a two-part rant).