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Friday, 9 December 2011

The main advantage of multiple characters, multiple points of view

When you read a book, often there is a single protagonist, a single point of view (POV) through which the reader sees the book's events unfold. This may be the book's hero or heroine, whom things happen to, or it may be somebody slightly off-centre watching the events (a great example of the latter is The Great Gatsby).

A lesser-used style is multiple points of view - the reader gets to sit in 'more heads', and can for example see why certain people may act badly or wrongly. It is generally harder to write multiple characters in this way, because not only must their dialogue sound different to the reader, but also the way they think. The author also has to keep a careful track on what each POV character knows as the plot unfolds (a useful tool to help is called Scrivener, available for Mac or PC).

So, why bother making it difficult for ourselves as authors?

The main reason an author may write with multiple POVs is, for example, where the story is complex, and a single POV protagonist simply cannot know enough to let the reader make sense of it. The standard solution is to use what is called omnipotent third person, so the reader floats above all the heads, seeing everything. But this is a little impersonal, not the same as being in different people's heads in different chapters, not the same as really knowing a character better than we know people in our real lives, because we can know their innermost thoughts, fears and desires. Going inside their heads is a form of intimacy, and can connect the reader and the characters, creating a bond which says "I really know this person." Only if it's well-written, of course, and if the heads explored are interesting and the ones relevant to the story. Stieg Larsson's Millennium series is amazing at multiple POVs, using over thirty in one book.

But the main benefit of course must be for the reader, not the author.

In a single protagonist book, the reader may like the central character. Imagine if they don't, however - will they keep reading? The author's solution is to have the main character be 'sympathetic', by which is meant the reader can at the least empathise with the character (if they are not a very nice person, for example, but are a product of their past and present circumstances), and at best root for and wish they knew them personally. A classic example of the latter is Captain Black Jack Geary in the Lost Fleet science fiction series. Many readers will love this character and wish they were him. But of course they're not. Well, I'm not, anyway.

So, here is the main advantage of multiple POVs: with a larger cast of characters, the reader is bound to identify closely with one of them. For example, in my own book, The Eden Paradox, there are ten main characters, twelve POVs, of which four take up most space. My neighbor, and quite a few women who have read the book, loves Gabriel, who is an assassin. My neighbor is a martial artist, which is why he connects with Gabriel and his code of honor, and several female readers like him because he is a tortured soul, despite his career choice, and because he is a man of action. Other connections are less obvious, but there is plenty of choice - Blake, the heroic type, Micah, slightly geeky and anti-heroic, Rashid, an Indian with his own strange code of honor, and Louise, who most male readers like, despite (or because of) her dark side, Kat and Jen, strong yet completely different female characters, Pierre, a socially-inept scientist, Dimitri, a wily professor, and Vince, a savvy interpol agent who never takes prisoners. Readers can root for one character, while identifying with another. My first reader actually said to me, "Barry - you want to be Blake, but you're actually more like Micah." It was a cutting remark personally, but in a sense, as an author, it meant I had succeeded.    

Multiple POVs allow the reader to find emotional resonance with one of the characters who is more like them personally, even if they'd rather be another character. This means that the author can connect with the reader, and hopefully cross that fine line between a reader saying, "Yes, I liked that book, it was good,", towards "I loved that book. When's the next one coming out?"

There is a cost for the author. We must carry these characters round in our heads. Mine won't go away. I had to write the sequel because they demanded it, and now that's coming out, they want the final. I've done a deal with them - three books and I get a vacation. Not sure if I can trust them, though...

The Eden Paradox available in paperback and ebook on Amazon and elsewhere
Eden's Trial available on Amazon very shortly...

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