Juggling multiple protagonists, part V, in which I run afoul of a whole lot of writing truisms

Attwood book covershaun-attwood-author-photo

Before I launch into today’s post proper, I’m delighted to announce some delightful news about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community: blogger Shaun Attwood’s memoir, Hard Time: A Brit in America’s Toughest Jail will be coming out from Random House UK this coming August! It’s already available for pre-sale from the publisher and (at a slight discount, I notice) from Amazon UK.

Congratulations, Shaun!

I’m looking forward to both the book’s British release and its advent over here. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Attwood book coverUsing a golf pencil sharpened on a cell wall, Shaun Attwood wrote one of the first prison blogs, Jon’s Jail Journal, excerpts of which were published in The Guardian and attracted international media attention. ??Brought up in England, Shaun took his business degree to Phoenix, Arizona, where he became an award-winning stockbroker and then a millionaire day trader during the dot-com bubble.

But Shaun also led a double life. An early fan of the rave scene in Manchester, he formed an organization that threw raves and distributed Class A drugs. Before being convicted of money laundering and drug dealing, he served 26 months in the infamous jail system run by the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio. ??Hard Time is the harrowing yet often darkly humorous account of the time Shaun spent submerged in a nightmarish world of gang violence, insect infested cells and food unfit for animals. His remarkable story provides a revealing glimpse into the tragedy, brutality, comedy and eccentricity of prison life.

As if this weren’t already a pretty darned intriguing story (and it is, believe me), today’s news renders it even more relevant to those of us on this side of the pond: this afternoon, Arizona’s governor signed into a law a bill requiring police to ask anyone they suspect of being an illegal alien to produce proof of residency status on the spot. Not only will violators of this law be entrusted to Arizona’s county jails prior to facing trial — many of them will undoubtedly be incarcerated in the very jail Shaun depicts so vividly.

Curious for a sneak peek? Take a gander at Shaun’s guest blog from last year. I found it bone-chilling — and trust me, my marrow is not easily refrigerated.

It just goes to show you: no matter how grim the predictions we keep hearing from the publishing industry, a good story by a good writer can still get picked up. Please keep the good news rolling in, everybody — I love announcing happy news.

On that cheerful note, let’s get back to work. Today, I would like to discuss another classic bugbear of the multiple-protagonist novel: uneven handling.

You know what I’m talking about, right? The narrative is written from multiple perspectives, yet instead of hearing from each of them in either an orderly manner (say, by having Protagonist A’s perspective dominate Chapters 1, 3, 5, 7…while Protagonist B’s story is followed in Chapters 2, 4, 6, etc.) or in a balanced way (where roughly half the book is devoted to A, and half to B), some perspectives pop up a bit more often than others.

Or a LOT more than others. As in when one or more of them simply falls out of the narrative structure in the second half of the book.

The example that springs to mind is William Faulkner’s THE SOUND AND THE FURY, where the decline of a grand old Mississippi family is told through the perspectives of three of its members and one of its servants, each in its own section. While undoubtedly a masterpiece (of the depress-you-into-a-stupor variety), it’s hard for even the most casual reader not to notice that the fourth perspective is somewhat slighted.

How slighted, you ask? After a multitude of chapters from each of the men’s perspectives, here’s Dilsey’s, in its entirety: They endured.

Now, the authorial choice to limit this perspective so sharply may well have been, as so many of our high school English teachers haughtily informed us, a brilliant piece of understatement and trenchant social criticism, but structurally, we are left wondering: did Faulkner believe this character wouldn’t have said anything about the issues of the book if asked?

Or did he just not care very much what she thought?

Was that gasp I just heard out there in the ether the outraged umbrage of the entire American literature class — or the terrified recognition of writers who have just realized that a reader might derive the unintended conclusion about certain authorial choices?

Say, a professional reader like Millicent the agency screener?

If your reaction fell into the latter category, pat yourself on the back: your writerly instincts are coming along nicely. If a character is important enough to warrant her own perspective, most readers are going to read something into the choice to limit that perspective to, say, four paragraphs where the dominant perspective gets fourteen chapters.

That’s putting it nicely, of course. Millicent might be prompted to wonder why the minimized perspective is included at all: is it only there because this character sees something that the other characters do not? Would a more graceful narrative structure have provided greater balance amongst the protagonists — or fewer of them?

Such doubts could lead to the kind of follow-up question none of us wants asked about our work until after it’s been declared a masterpiece for a generation and being assigned in high school English classes: was including this perspective the best way to tell this story, or merely the most convenient?

What? That wasn’t a question that would have been asked in your high school English class? Heavens, what are the future writers of the world being taught?

It’s worth giving some serious thought to the balance between the perspectives in your novel. Not that you should be literal about it — after all, few readers are going to be counting lines devoted to each characters to test for proportion — but to be aware of any messages about relative importance these characters’ relative weights might be sending.

If one protagonist’s perspective dominates the narrative, for instance, consider the possibility that readers will conclude that her story is the real plot of the book, while characters we hear from less are bit players. Or at the very least, that readers will assume that the character the narrative follows the most often is the one they’re supposed to care about the most. This logic also works stood on its head: If a particular perspective turns up only a few times in the course of the book, is it really necessary, or could you tell the story without it?

Do be aware of the possibility that you might be favoring a character or two unconsciously, especially if the story you’re telling is reality-based. Evenness of handling is genuinely difficult when writing from multiple perspectives; it’s only human to like some characters better than others, and give them the lion’s share of one’s writing time.

However, leaning too heavily toward one protagonist raises an inevitable question in agents’ and editors’ minds: if Character A is interesting enough to dominate half of the book, and the Characters B-D deserve only a chapter or two each, why isn’t the whole book told from A’s perspective?

Where this is the case, it might be worth considering — brace yourself, POVNs — whether the novel actually does work best told from multiple perspectives. Perhaps it would work best as a single-perspective narrative. Or maybe it’s a complex enough set of characters and events that it would benefit from the continuity of a single, overarching narrative voice throughout.

Yes, I am talking about omniscient narration, now that you mention it: anyone got a problem with that, other than the POVN shaking his fist in the corner? I don’t care that some people consider it old-fashioned — sometimes, it honestly is the best choice for a particular storyline.

I know, I know — just a couple of days ago, I was waxing eloquent upon the advantages of incorporating character perspective into the narrative, but omniscience has its benefits, too. Most notably, never having to worry about the question, “Wait, how did this narrator know about that?”

To clarify: there is nothing technically wrong with a third-person novel that narrates every character’s perspective in essentially the same voice, observing the fictional world in a similar way: it just requires vigilance to maintain. Which is why writers are so often told that it is too difficult to pull off, and (the logic continues) they might as well not try.

But successfully implementing any narrative choice calls for sticking to its rules, doesn’t it? There are plenty of good books out there that rely heavily and consistently upon a single narrative voice to tie a disparate group of perspectives together. Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22, for instance, relies upon an essentially unchanging voice as the protagonist du chapter is portrayed in the tight third-person.

Seriously, the focus flits around with a firefly’s attention span — it keeps coming back to Yossarian, the dominant protagonist, but the reader is treated to chapters inside the heads of practically an entire squadron. The book has been known to send POVNs into years of therapy, but it works, because the overarching narrative voice and tone never waver.

To make it a dive from an even higher board, Heller keeps making the narrative jump around in time, so you have to read the whole darned book in order to figure out what’s been going on. It’s a brilliant book, a groundbreaker, a genuine masterpiece.

Do I think Joseph Heller would have a hard time selling it today? Heavens, yes. (He was aware of it, too: there’s a famous writers’ conference circuit story about the upstart reporter who had the nerve to ask Mssr. Heller toward the end of his long and distinguished career why he had never again written a book as good as CATCH-22. Heller’s reported reply: “Who has?”)

There are a number of reasons CATCH-22 would be difficult to market now — not the least of which being that now, the manuscript would seem a bit derivative of both SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE and M*A*S*H. (I realized after I typed this that this joke would have been significantly funnier if I had already mentioned that CATCH-22 was released in 1961, M*A*S*H in 1968, and SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE in 1969. It just goes to show you: explaining a joke after the fact doesn’t make it funnier.)

Heller’s perspective shifts would probably strike today’s Millicents as too abrupt and hard to follow, and Maury (that’s Millie’s editorial assistant cousin, for those of you tuning in late) would almost certainly either advise Heller to tell the story in chronological order or market the book as fantasy.

Look: there are plenty of writing advisors out there who will tell you the omniscient perspective is dead. Poppycock. A swift stroll down the aisles of almost any bookstore with a good fiction section will demonstrate that simply isn’t true.

What is true is that it’s hard to pull off well — and that agents and editors, like everyone else in the writing community, have heard over and over again that omniscience is old-fashioned. That sometimes renders omniscience a pain to query or submit, but again, taking a serious look at the kind of narrative choices showing up on bookshelves your chosen category in recent years is the best barometer of that.

Let me repeat that, just in case anyone missed it: regardless of what anyone tells you, checking what is selling now is the only really good way to find out what can be sold now — and even that’s not going to tell you what agents are going to be looking to pick up six months hence.

The market’s simply too mercurial to make permanent predictions of the sweeping variety. Remember that, please, the next time you hear a speaker at a writers’ conference insisting that nobody publishes that kind of book anymore. A year before COLD MOUNTAIN came out, you couldn’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference without hitting someone who would tell you with absolute authority that no one was buying historical fiction anymore; they would have laughed if you had pitched one. A year later, you couldn’t have gone to an agents’ panel at any conference in the country without hearing half of them insist that they were there primarily to find good new historical fiction.

Ditto with chick lit and BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, memoirs about poor childhoods and ANGELA’S ASHES, novels about Catholic conspiracies and THE DA VINCI CODE…well, you get the picture. Nothing’s hot until it’s hot. There’s a big, big difference between onerous and impossible — and an even bigger difference between generalities and reality.

So the next time someone tells you that nobody is buying the kind of book you’re currently writing, don’t waste your energy arguing: toss your anorak over your shoulders, run to the bookstore, and see what is selling in your book category right now.

Bear in mind, though, that just because a writing choice is popular right now does not necessarily mean it is a shoo-in to sell. If you do go tiptoeing through the stacks in the dead of night, you will undoubtedly find volumes and volumes of tight third person; it was the primary narrative choice in most fiction categories for quite a bit of the last decade. But that means — regular readers, get ready to sing out the answer — that screener Millicent and her ilk still see its most common pitfalls on an hourly basis.

Some of you are still nervous about your daring narrative choices, aren’t you? “But Anne!” a few innovative souls offer timidly. “I’m afraid to venture back into the bookstores. The last time I tried, I couldn’t find anything released recently in my chosen book category that’s structured like my book — and it’s not the first time that’s happened. If I decide to write a single-perspective novel in the first person, the publishing world goes wild for tight third-person narratives. If I get really excited about multiple perspectives in the third person, every new release I see features a plethora of chapters, each from a different first-person perspective. I can’t win!”

I sympathize with your frustration, oh experimenters — honestly, I do — but the phenomenon you describe is largely a function of the bestseller phenomenon I described above. Once a surprise blockbuster hits the big time, half the agents in the country will be eager to make lightning strike twice; they go out trawling for books similar to the blockbuster.

That’s only natural, right? And it’s definitely great news for aspiring writers who got the idea to write that kind of book three or four years earlier: suddenly, agents are eager for it, as are editors, at least for a little while. So eager, in fact, that while the trend is at its height, some of them will complain at writers’ conferences, on their blogs, on their Twitter accounts, etc., that they aren’t seeing enough of this type of manuscript.

What’s wrong with writers today, anyway? they wonder, often quite vocally. Don’t they ever read the bestseller lists?

Aspiring writers are no fools: after they hear this lament several times over, a hefty percentage of them will decide to leap onto the bandwagon, even if they would not have considered writing that kind of book before. It’s not even uncommon for a writer to abandon a work in progress or stop querying a recently-completed project because — chant it with me now, readers — nobody is publishing my kind of book anymore.

Thus it follows as inevitably as night follows the day that a year or two after the surprise bestseller made such a splash, Millicent is up to her caffeine-addled eyeballs with manuscripts like it: similar narrative choices, similar characters, even suspiciously similar plotlines. As she probably will be for the next five or six years.

Don’t underestimate how welcome a well-written submission that doesn’t fall into that mode could be at that moment. If all Millie’s seen for the past three weeks is straightforward first-person narratives, your multiple-perspective third-person gem may be a positive relief.

So how’s a habitually off-trend aspiring writer to handle all of this conflicting and ever-changing input? Simple: give some serious thought to your perspective choices, then stick to your guns, regardless of fashion. Someday, your choice may be the new standard.

Next time, by special request, I’ll be talking about how to construct a query letter or pitch for a multiple-protagonist novel. And if you’re very nice indeed, I may follow that up with a discussion of how a savvy writer pulls together a synopsis for this type of book.

Hey, once I launch into a topic, I like to do it thoroughly. Keep up the good work!

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