Forgive me if I go all rambly here. I like discussing viewpoint, and this is one of the rants where I’ll be bringing in lots of personal examples.
Swinburne lines first, from Evening on the Broads:
All over the grey soft shallow
Hover the colours and clouds of the twilight, void of a star.
As a bird unfledged is the broad-winged night, whose winglets are callow
Yet, but soon with their plumes will she cover her brood from afar
Cover the brood of her worlds that cumber the skies with their blossom
Thick as the darkness of leaf-shadowed spring is encumbered with flowers.
World upon world is enwound in the bountiful girth of her bosom,
Warm and lustrous with life lovely to look on as ours.
Yes, this well be very rambly.
1) Make sure you actually need every viewpoint character.
I have had the experience- though not often, luckily- of reading a fantasy novel all the way to the end and still having no idea what the hell Character X in the south is doing there. Character X’s plot seems detached from the main story, he or she tells a completely unnecessary story of his or her own, and nothing happens in one plot that even touches on what happens in the other.
Really question why every viewpoint character is there. These should be reasons having to do with story necessity, the driving demands of the plot. I’m rather odd in that while I think characterization is the most intriguing aspect of the story, and setting the most necessary to make me believe in a fantasy novel, Plot is Lord and King during the actual writing. What the story wants, the story gets.
What I consider reasons for viewpoint characters fitting story necessity:
- the character is a main character, and the story spins around him or her
- the character is secondary but provides impetus to the main ones (such as by dying or revealing a secret).
- the character doesn’t seem to have much importance at first but builds up importance over time.
- the character’s presence in a certain locale is absolutely necessary to give “eyes on the scene.”
Reasons that are not good ones:
- the author just happens to like the character.
- the author wants to show how evil the villains are or how dumb someone is (often unwittingly destroying suspense in the process).
- the author wants to keep track of spinning subplots (find some other way to do this).
- the author wants to create a foil or an enemy for a main character (recognizable because this is not a developed viewpoint on its own, but entirely dependent on the other character’s actions).
- the author wants to show off the world or a plot idea.
Every character should be necessary.
2) Keep your structures flexible.
If you start out moving in a fixed pattern through all the characters (A, B, C, D, E), don’t be afraid to alter it should the plot demand it. This goes back to pacing. Perhaps Character A absolutely has to have more room, or your readers are telling you they care more about her inner battle as opposed to Character E’s spelunking expedition. Alter this as necessary, if it doesn’t interfere with your plot; often at that point, the plot and the character are working together anyway.
I must admit I’m bad about this. The first book of my Orlathian trilogy goes like this:
- Pheron (main character, most sympathetic)
- Emmeldra (laughable Mary Sue-ish sister)
- Leroth (weepy, angsty, world-saving brother)
- Hanir (noble, heroic, kills-at-the-drop-of-a-hat brother)
And so on repeating. Several people told me they kept wanting to get back to Pheron, and that the other characters were so annoying- on purpose, but still- that they found it hard to keep going with the story. I tried to minimize the effect by making Pheron the backbone and the other characters’ chapters shorter than his, but it didn’t always help.
Why keep to this structure, then? Simple. I was writing a parody, and Pheron was the sensible, ordinary one, without a Destiny and able to call on only a ball of clay as his magic. I had to show what he was contrasting with. I’m still not entirely sure if I was answering the demands of plot or not, though I like to think I was; the story was planned as a parody from the beginning.
3) Try to have the plot lines with separate viewpoint characters comment on each other.
If you want to see a master at work here, go read Steven Brust’s Taltos (handily, the first chronological book in the Vlad Taltos series, though the fourth published). He has three plotlines going all at once, one in italics at the beginning of each chapter, and the other two alternating- present-past- in short sections in the chapter itself. And it works. They all come together at the end most spectacularly. The book isn’t even that long, and is told in first-person.
Let the story get too big, and your viewpoint characters can start seeming as if they’re not even part of the same world, especially if they stop thinking about each other for a while. This, I believe, is Robert Jordan’s problem (much as I blame him for other things). His world has gotten far too big, and has far too many plotlines that are now entirely separate and should have been condensed or forced to merge with the main plotline long ago. They should be commenting on each other, and they aren’t. Have it happen. Have characters think of each other, notice the same sunsets and moonrises (this is a tack that Tolkien used, for example, saying something like, “This was the same moon that they saw rising over the hills of Gondor far away,”) and feel the same world-spanning effects. This helps remind your reader that, yes, all these plotlines are taking place in the same world.
(And this is another thing I’m bad about, what with the pentad I recently finished stubbornly remaining five largely separate plotlines all the way through. I like to say that that’s because it’s a parody of the royal-orphan-heirs-on-quests plotline, and thus not only concentrates on the guardians instead of the heirs but refuses to make the world bend for the quests- but I’m not sure if that’s it).
4) Try to make sure your readers have fun with the viewpoint characters.
Occasionally an author winds up with a character that’s necessary to the story but still not very much fun to read about. Either the writing is actually dull, or the author loves the character too much and spends time doing description and interior monologues and other things that are difficult to make exciting under the mistaken impression that everyone else loves the character equally. In this case, the reader is going to slog through the sections or start skipping them, and then get irritated when they miss important plot points because of this.
Ways to make people have fun with the viewpoint characters include:
- give them witty things to say or think (though one character shouldn’t get all the best lines).
- show them reacting to the people around them, in complex relationships or in action scenes.
- give them a unique view on the world.
- even if they’re there mainly for observation, make them more than just a watching pair of eyes.
- trim your writing of things you know are faults, but are tempted to indulge here out of love for the character.
5) Keep in mind always the limitations of the particular viewpoint structure you’ve chosen.
I keep hearing that there are no limitations with the omniscient viewpoint. Bullshit. There may be no limitations to knowledge, but it sacrifices depth of characterization to the plot. That’s not the way to do things. The plot is Lord and King, but characterization should be allied to it, a loyal vassal, not in open rebellion against it.
Some pros and cons of all the common viewpoint structures:
- Pros: Gives the reader a definite anchor, leaves no doubt about who is telling the story, provides strict limitations on knowledge.
- Cons: Tends too often towards the smart-aleck, author is tempted to cheat to get around the limitations.
Third-person limited, one character for the whole book
- Pros: Gives both reader and author some distance from the character, while providing insight into at least one character’s head.
- Cons: Character often becomes superhuman, boredom with or dislike of the character leaves the reader no escape, author often slips into omniscient without realizing it to keep the plot moving.
Third-person limited, small number of viewpoint characters
- Pros: Keeps the story varied, usually moves well, provides a scattering of eyes and different knowledge sets.
- Cons: Can build up useless cliffhangers, some characters are often less interesting than the others, author may be tempted to elevate one viewpoint at the expense of others (not just because the plot demands it, but actively working against the plot).
Third-person limited, large number of viewpoint characters
- Pros: Gives an epic feel, provides an eye on a large number of plotlines, gives the reader a chance to know a lot of the world.
- Cons: Difficult to keep track of, encourages the development of fruitless subplots, bloats the book unnecessarily.
Omniscient, moving from head to head and out again as necessary
- Pros: Gives a lot of knowledge, enables the author to make comments that no one single character can make, great for infodump.
- Cons: Often leads to superficial character development, encourages author to intrude in story, leaves the reader without an anchor.
I prefer third-person limited, with one or just a few characters (five is the most I’ve really used successfully).
Told you it’d be rambly.