Saturday, 9 March 2013

Truth depends on your point of view

Whenever I send my manuscripts for review by an editor, there is usually one remark I can bet on receiving: "there are too many points of view!" I always have a few clear lead characters, but often during the course of one of my books, the reader gets to see events from between 12 and 20 heads, though not at the same time, of course. Why do I do this? Why do I keep ignoring editors' pleas to reduce the number of POVs? Read on...

1. Each reader has their preferred character
When I meet people who have read the books, I ask them who their favorite character is. Some say Blake, some Micah, some Pierre, a few Kat, and one or two Rashid. Actually, most women like Gabriel, and the men reluctantly like (but are scared of) Louise. The characters are more life-like because the readers have seen their innermost thoughts. Sometimes I'm reading a book even by a good writer, and I don't like the protagonist, or don't relate to them. In single protagonist and single POV books, if I don't like the principal character I put the book down. It has to be VERY good writing to get me to read on otherwise - Philip Roth and J.M. Coatzee being examples. As a writer, think about it: more lead characters, more chance the reader finds someone to root for.

2. Complex stories are difficult with a single point of view
My second book (Eden's Trial) and the third one coming out in April (Eden's Revenge) involve multiple plots coming together. This is because they are taking place in different parts of the galaxy. How on Earth (!) could I do such a story convincingly with a single point of view? I often think of Lord of the Rings when considering this. The Fellowship of the Ring splits up so the reader gets to follow each group. It all comes together at the end (wonderfully). This is known as plot-weaving. If you can stick with it, then the finale can be very rewarding.

3. Great achievements are usually made by multiple parties, not an individual
The idea of the single hero fighting against the odds goes back all the way to the Greek stories. But is that the world we live in today? I recently watched Die Hard 4 - I know, look, I'd had a hard day, and, hell, I like Bruce Willis... It was nonsense of course, Bruce pretty much single-handedly (with his son, this time) defeats a whole ring of baddies. Is that realistic? As Bruce would say, "Are you f***ing kidding me?" So, if there was a plot to bring down humanity (The Eden Paradox) or grind it into the dust (Eden's Trial), don't you think it would be a team effort to resolve it? And would that team be in one place? No. So, I do the math...

4. When one of my characters dies, I want the reader to feel it
In Eden's Trial, there's this girl (I'm not going to name her), and she's not a good person, but towards the end she tries to be. The reader gets to spend a short time in her head. She gets killed brutally, 'off-screen', but when the reader finds out, it is shocking. A few readers have talked to me about this scene, taken me aside as if to say, "Look, I know she was bad, but did you have to do it like that?" Do you think they'd have said that if they'd never been inside her head? I don't. In Science Fiction, people are often killed off with casual brutality. They're villains, right? What's the problem? Well, there's a saying that everyone is a hero in their own story, and I tend to subscribe to the idea of a character's bill of rights; if I'm going to kill one of them off, they get to say a few words direct to the reader at some point. It's the equivalent of looking them in the eye for a moment, seeing who they really are. I also don't want to encourage casual brutality, there's enough of it on screen as it is (yeah, I know, spoken by the guy who went to see Die Hard 4...).

5. It keeps pages turning, or Kindles & Nooks & IPads clicking...
I mainly use a ABCABCABC structure. Chapter 1 has POV character A. Chapter 2 has POV B, etc. When character A ends up in a sticky situation at the end of his or her chapter, it creates suspense and tension. The reader has to wait to find out what happens. The trick is to not overdo it (as in the DaVinci Code), and to keep the chapters short. Too long and the reader will forget or lose interest or both.

6. Society is changing, readers are changing
If you've been reading my blog for a while, you might know that I'm a psychologist by training, which means I've studied how people think. Most of the time we think in a straight-ish line (some keep going off on tangents). It's linear. Complex problems sometimes require network thinking, which means thinking horizontally across different mental 'tracks', and integrating information as you go. This is much harder, but we can do it. Social media and networking is a bit like this. We are forever digressing and thinking in parallel, multi-tasking. The danger is that we're not really paying attention to anything properly, but that aside, it is a different mode of life to how it was thirty or even twenty years ago. I think books need to change, too. People are more used to handling complexity, because life has gotten complicated, and we all have to manage. One common comment I get, is that readers like the complexity, because it makes it seem more realistic, and they like how it all comes together (which, let's face it, maybe never happens in real life). So, even if editors are uncomfortable with it, my readers aren't.

If you're a writer, and want to write a complex story, because for you that is how the world really is, then just do it. After all, as once said, there are three golden rules of successful writing, and nobody knows what they are.


  1. I fully agree with your justifications for multiple points of view. I resisted having more than two in my first book, Blood Siren, and I actually regret it now. As you say, both in the real world and in fantasy, big things are done by many people, and it makes for a better read as well!

  2. Objecting to multiple POVs is not the same as objecting to *too many* POVs. It doesn't sound like your editor is asking you to get rid of multiple POVs, just to cut down the number from the as many as 20 you mentioned. 20 is a lot. Even Game of Thrones only had 9 POVs (though Dance With Dragons had 18, but it's also a very long book).

    You are free to have as many POVs as makes the story work, of course, but that is not what you are arguing here.

    Also, John McClaine's son wasn't in Die Hard 4 (Live Free or Die Hard). He was in Die Hard 5 (A Good Day to Die Hard). The daughter was in 4, though.

    1. Thanks Alanna - this means I have somehow missed a Die Hard movie (oh no!). On the more general topic, I should explain that some of the POVs (the 'heads') are not dwelt on for long. For example, Hannah and Jarvik's POVs are only seen once or twice in the entire novel. There are central protagonists who take up most of the POV 'air-time. Perhaps a better example is the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson, who also has a smaller number of main POVs but many small-part POVs that make the books seem more real to me. The proof is in the reading, of course, and you are right - I am not suggesting that books should have 20 equally compelling POVs, that would be too much, so thanks for the comment.

      With a series like Eden there is also the possibility to build in more POVs as the reader reading the second or third book becomes adapted to certain characters and can 'take on' new perspectives. I hope...

      I should also say that for Eden's Trial, one editor said there were in total 18 POVs but that it worked. Then another editor who had not read it simply remarked that 18 POVs was obviously too many. It's that latter remark I'm trying to tackle...


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