Note to self: When the blog posting date happens the day after a major busy day (like, say, the day the taxes are due), write it in advance, because you are going to get home from dropping stuff in the mail and collapse and completely forget to write it until late the following morning.
Announcement: The e-book of Wrede on Writing is on sale for $1.99 at SF Signal through the end of next week . If you were waffling about buying it, here’s a chance to have it for less.
This week, I am being a “counselor” for NaNoWriMo’s April “camp” session, which I take to be NaNoWriMo for all the people who can’t do it in November because of Thanksgiving and holidays coming up and such. As part of this, they sent me a set of questions the WriMos asked, and one in particular was interesting but would take way more space to answer properly than I have in the NaNoWriMo blog. So you get to watch me muse on it.
The question had to do with writing a good book with multiple viewpoints, and I’m going to start with the obvious: to write a “good book,” you have to know what you think a “good book” is (other people will disagree with you) and you have to do all the non-viewpoint-related things like dialog and plot and structure and background that you’d have to do for any book. “Multiple viewpoints” is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for all the other things a writer has to do effectively.
So this is really about juggling multiple viewpoints, and the first question is, does the story have to be multiple viewpoint, or is the writer just defaulting to multiples because it seems easier or because The Game of Thrones is multiple viewpoint? If the reason is “it seems easier,” run away fast. Multiple viewpoint, like omniscient, is harder for most writers to do well than most single-viewpoint alternatives, because you have to all the same things you’d have to do for a single-viewpoint story and you have to do them several times in different ways depending on each viewpoint character’s voice, personality, etc. It is also desperately tempting to throw in a scene from the viewpoint of a minor character whose only reason for having a viewpoint is that he/she happens to be in the right place to “show” an important event that none of the viewpoint characters will actually see. This is almost always a bad idea, and I don’t care if George R.R. Martin does it. He’s George R.R. Martin. You aren’t.
Using multiple viewpoint because you’re used to seeing TV and movies done that way, or because your favorite novel is multiple viewpoint, is a failure of imagination and attention. TV and movies have different requirements from novels, and different constraints; applying the techniques of film and video to written fiction without thinking about their appropriateness and effectiveness is very nearly a recipe for mediocrity. You may get lucky and be writing a story where the use of these borrowed techniques does work well, but depending on luck is never a good idea, because it comes in two varieties and one of them you really don’t want.
Assuming that the writer has already done all this thinking, and is writing a complex, interwoven story that really will benefit from being told from multiple viewpoints, the next question is, which characters should be viewpoints? Every character has a story, but some of them are completely different stories from the one you are telling, and others only have a bit of overlap. You want viewpoint characters whose individual stories and/or subplots are crucially relevant to the story you are telling, not just viewpoints who happen to be in the right place at the right time to let you have a scene you want.
You also want viewpoints that will let you show what you need to show and avoid showing what you want to avoid showing, which can be a lot trickier. It is easy enough to avoid making the villain a viewpoint (so that the writer doesn’t have to worry about giving away the Evil Plot too soon), but it is not always obvious up front that Character A is never going to be around when interesting/exciting things happen, or that making Character B a viewpoint means the reader will learn about the kangaroo escape too soon and the plot will fall apart, or that if Character C is a viewpoint you will end up repeating certain things often enough that you will have to worry about the reader getting bored with hearing them.
How many viewpoints is another question, one that is both important and dangerous. Every character has his/her own story, usually at novel length. If you have two viewpoint characters, both of whom are focused on stopping the nuclear reactor from having a meltdown, they’ll still be doing it for different reasons, and they’ll have very different angles of approach to the problem (if they don’t, there’s no reason for them all to be viewpoint characters). Theoretically, you would be able to write two different 100,000-word novels, one from each viewpoint, but by using both characters as viewpoints in the same book, you can cut that back to two 60,000-word stories because so much of the central event (the damaged nuclear reactor) is the same. That gives you a perfectly reasonable 120,000 word book, but not one that fits most people’s definition of multiple-viewpoint. Add one more viewpoint, with his/her own different story, and you’re up to 180,000 words, which is quite long; at four viewpoints, fully-fleshed out, and you’re at 240,000.
The solution is to have several tiers of viewpoint characters: say, two to three central viewpoints, whose stories are more complicated and will be fully fleshed out; another two to four characters who have shorter, more focused stories (they’d maybe be novelettes or novellas if they weren’t part of this book); and maybe a couple who have short story-length stories. The problem here is keeping oneself focused; many writers dive into their viewpoint characters so thoroughly that they can’t keep D’s story to the 5,000-word short-story length they’d intended when they know they are writing a novel. This can end up with eight to twenty viewpoint characters all of whom have novel-length stories that the writer wants to tell. Inevitably, this leads to fuzzing the focus on the main storyline as the writer wanders off into the fascinating but irrelevant underbrush of different characters’ tangential stories.