Thoughts on Perspectives

The choice of whose perspective(s) from which to tell a story is something I positively agonise over, and something that I keep changing my mind about well into the writing. I’m currently about halfway through my rough draft. Most of it’s from my protagonist’s point-of-view, but a bit under a quarter of it is from other major characters’ perspectives, starting around halfway through what I currently have written. I’m not entirely sure I’m going to keep those passages, though; at the moment I think it’s something to be considered when I get to editing and see how the whole thing flows.

It hasn’t always been this way, though. There have been times when the entire work has been told from my protagonist’s POV (something I still haven’t ruled out), and times when I have told things from other characters’ POVs throughout. Sometimes I read a book where I think one style was done very well or very poorly and it makes me second-guess my own decision.

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to both methods. Writing from a single perspective allows the reader to get inside the protagonist’s head more easily. I enjoy a lot of books told from multiple POVs, but I find that the ones I really adore tend to be the ones from single POVs, and I think that’s because I “bond” with the protagonist. This isn’t always the case, of course, and even in my favourite series, Harry Potter, I prefer the character of Hermione to that of Harry, in part because I identify with her better.

That, I think, is the main advantage to sticking with one POV: it allows the reader to delve more deeply into the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. In my opinion there are two major disadvantages to this method. One is that the reader’s opinion of characters and events is developed through the lens of a single character’s own opinion, and that might not be the character the reader identifies with the most. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if you’ve got a judgemental protagonist it can be difficult to portray the people they don’t like as sympathetic. On the other hand, this restriction can also be used to the story’s advantage by keeping the reader unsure of a character’s motivations until they are revealed to the protagonist.

The other is that the reader only gets to witness events the protagonist witnesses. Going back to Harry Potter, this isn’t a huge impediment in the first six books, where Rowling uses Harry’s own ignorance to conceal things about, for instance, Snape’s allegiance from the reader. However, I thought the seventh book could have been improved by following one of Harry’s friends, perhaps Ginny or Neville, as they returned to Hogwarts. The reader has very little idea what’s going on at Hogwarts until about three-quarters of the way through the book (because, of course, Harry and his companions have very little idea), and the events of the past year are summed up in a couple of pages. Given that one of the major criticisms of the book is that it seems to spend a lot of time following Harry and his friends on what has been referred to as the Magical Camping Trip, the possible tedium of that (though personally I didn’t find it dull) could have been alleviated by switching between Harry and a Hogwarts student, cutting out some events from Harry’s POV and showing the passage of time through the slower pace that results from switching to another’s perspective.

The above are some ways in which multiple perspectives can be advantageous. The first is especially true when a character the protagonist initially dislikes becomes his/her friend or ally. Being able to see events from the character’s POV will make him/her more sympathetic in the reader’s eyes than merely seeing him/her through the protagonist’s judgemental viewpoint.

I’ve been reading quite a few of Trudi Canavan’s books recently, and in her Black Magician and Traitor Spy trilogies she uses the multiple-POV effectively in that she can show events happening far away from each other but linked to a single thread. I particularly like her use of it in the first Black Magician book, The Magicians’ Guild, in which the protagonist, Sonea, believes the magicians want to kill her, when in fact we see from their perspectives that they want to help her. Later in the series one of those magicians goes off to another country, and the research he performs there is linked to the main storyline. Currently, I’m reading her The Magician’s Apprentice, which has five main narrators at this point. One of them didn’t appear until roughly 250 pages in and, while by the end of her first scene I was interested in her story, it was a little jarring to suddenly find a new character a third of my way into the book who had no apparent link to the other characters.

Nevertheless, I think that Canavan does the multiple-POV well in this book. Of the five narrators, three of them spend most of their time together, and usually two narrators appear each chapter. This means that it’s usually less than two chapters between leaving a narrative strand and picking it up again. This averts one of my major issues with multiple-POV in that I find it very hard to read a book when there’s a long period of time between a character’s first and second appearances. I don’t want to read about the next character, because I’m still focussed on what’s happening to the person whose narration just ended, but by the time I get back to that character I’m interested in someone else.

This last is, in fact, why I stopped reading Canavan’s Priestess of the White. I was 100 pages in and hadn’t spent more than about 20 pages in any one character’s head, nor could I tell where the three or four different storylines intersected by page 200. This juggling of characters and storylines is, in my opinion, the biggest weakness of telling a story from multiple perspectives.

There is, however, a lot more variation in how a writer approaches multiple POVs to how a writer approaches single-POV. You can have all the narrators first appear through the protagonist’s eyes or you can have them all appearing and apparently unrelated; you can have two or three or you can have fifteen; and you can do everything in between. Personally, I prefer to have a small number of narrators, preferably those met through the protagonist’s eyes first, as I find it rather jarring to read the first chapter of a book, then reach the next chapter and it’s like starting a book all over again. This may well be because I like the reader-character relationship in a single-narrator book, and this method allows some of the closeness of a single narrator while allowing the reader to see things the protagonist doesn’t.


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