A couple of folks had questions about the last post, most notably “How do you know your story is complex enough for multiple viewpoint?” and “Does it count as multiple viewpoint if it’s a camera-type that follows different characters?” So I thought I’d spend another post on this.
Multiple viewpoint is one of the most confusing terms in writing, because it isn’t really a viewpoint at all. Think about it for a minute: viewpoint type comes in first-person, second-person, and third person, just like verb forms; arguably, one can also do first-person-plural and third-person-plural. There is no verb form “multiple.”
What multiple viewpoint is, is a structure, like “linear” and “parallel scenes” and “circular.” It is a way of ordering the events and incidents in the story. Unlike most other structures, though, it isn’t playing with the when and where of events, or with the mental/emotional effects on the main character. Instead, it’s playing with who and why. Specifically, it’s playing with whose eyes the reader sees through, and what each character’s reasons for doing things are. And, sometimes, with letting the reader know more than any individual character does.
A multiple viewpoint structure can be used with any story that has more than one character. For example, take Cinderella. The fairy tale is straightforward, and most retellings are equally straightforward: the Cinderella character is put upon by the evil stepfamily, the godmother interferes and sends Cinderella to the ball anyway, the prince falls in love and seeks her out, and the evil stepfamily gets their comeuppance.
Retelling the story using a multiple viewpoint immediately raises the question which viewpoints to use? The answer depends on whether the author wants a complex retelling or a straightforward one. For the straightforward one, Cinderella, her godmother, and the prince are the obvious main choices; the evil stepsisters and stepmother could be viewpoints, but if they are, they’ll almost have to be one-note caricatures in order to keep the storyline the same. Most authors don’t try; if they want more viewpoints, they go for original characters whose presence is implied by the setting – palace footmen, the king and queen, servants, townsfolk.
A complex retelling, on the other hand, almost requires the stepsisters and the stepmother’s viewpoints as well as Cinderella’s, and not as caricatures, either – as individuals who have a different take on what is going on, and good reasons for what they do that the reader would never know about without those viewpoints. Perhaps the stepmother is being blackmailed and that’s why money is so tight, or perhaps she’s trying to fend off a skeevy old rich dude who wants to buy all three of the girls for his harem. Maybe the stepsisters are running a charity fundraising business that Cinderella made a nasty comment about once (not knowing they were involved). Maybe the stepmom has cancer, unknown to Cinderella, and is trying to get her family safely settled before she dies. Maybe the chores she sets Cinderella aren’t really so bad if one looks at them from a different viewpoint (I certainly thought that I was much-put-upon when I was sixteen and had to do dishes and fold laundry).
Whatever the reasons, the complex multiple-viewpoint story looks vastly different from the simple one. It may still be obvious who the good guys and bad guys are, but neither side looks quite as black-and-white as they do in a straightforward story, because the reader knows more about everybody.
Because multiple viewpoint is a structure, rather than a first-person, second-person type of viewpoint, it can be used to mix up types of viewpoint as well as viewpoint characters. That is, one viewpoint character’s scenes may be in first-person, another’s in tight-third, and another’s in camera-eye or omniscient. This lets the writer play with different levels of intimacy with different characters – that one-shot viewpoint where the warehouse guard gets killed is often (not always) in camera-eye because the point isn’t to get the reader identifying with and understanding the guard, it’s to move the plot along by showing the killing. Sometimes, this kind of one-scene viewpoint is a good way of ramping up tension or creating a mystery or just moving the plot along; other times, it’s a cheap way for the writer to get out of learning how to get a particular bit of information in when none of the current viewpoint characters are conveniently to hand.
The answer to “does moving the camera focus around count as multiple viewpoint?” is, therefore “No, because camera-eye and omniscient are third-person viewpoint types; multiple viewpoint is a structure.” The answer to “How do you know when your story is complex enough?” is “Actually, that’s irrelevant; the structure can be used with any kind of story. The question is, is it the most effective structure for the story you want to tell?” If you want to focus strictly on Cinderella’s story, you probably don’t need multiple viewpoint (and it may get in the way). If you want to show that the stepmother and sisters are perfectly justified, from their viewpoint, you may not need Cinderella’s viewpoint. If you want to examine the complexity of a blended family from inside and outside and across generations, you probably do need multiple viewpoint.
It depends on what story you want to tell, and how you want to tell it. The problem isn’t the complexity of the story, so much as it is mis-matching the kind of story you want to tell with a structure that works better with a different kind. If you desperately want to write a multiple-viewpoint story, but you also want to focus really tightly on Cinderella…maybe you should think about doing Cinderella as tight-third or first-person, and save the multiple-viewpoint for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.