So you’ve decided to adopt multiple protagonists — or, I am NOT a camera

I’ve been delighted by all the discussion both the passive protagonist and Point-of-View Nazi posts have generated. I had already planned to address the perils of juggling multiple protagonists in response to a question from reader a few weeks back (I hadn’t forgotten you, Cerredwyn!) and as a segue out of the passive/active protagonist tug-of-war, but it’s come up so much over the last week that I feel that we are already in it. Turns out that more of you are apparently working with multiple protagonists than I had anticipated.

For those of you new to the term, multiple protagonists is more or less what it says on the box: instead of following one character, the narrative follows several, through either several distinctive first person voices, each giving her own perspective (à la THE POISONWOOD BIBLE), or through tight third person narration that sticks to the perspective of a chosen character for a particular period of the book, then switches.

What separates the third-person version from an omniscient narrator is the focus of perspective upon a single character, rather than the masses. When the reader is seeing through Character A’s lenses, he is privy to only the sensations, thoughts, insights, etc. of Character A. This is true even if the following chapter is going to be entirely from the point of view of Character B — and Character B is in the Character A scene.

In other words, taken individually, a POVN would theoretically be happy with each of these chapters, because they stick to a single perspective.

I say theoretically, because all too often, POVNs end up dissatisfied with how rigorously the perspective rules are maintained. In many manuscripts, Character B’s perspective will bleed into Character A’s scene, or Character A into Character B’s, as though the author has temporarily lost track of whose turn it is supposed to be.

Unfortunately, professional readers tend to have a very good eye for such perspective slips, rendering multiple protagonists a brave narrative choice: it’s genuinely difficult to pull off, especially in a present-tense narrative. Once the narrative rules are set in a manuscript, even non-POVN readers will expect the author to honor them.

We’ll talk a bit later about strategies for pulling off this delicate trick well, but for now, let’s stick to the conceptual lever: why attempt a dive from such a high board?

Well, as people have been pointing out in comments for the past few days, contrary to what the POVNs will tell you, there are plenty of stories that cannot be told plausibly from a single perspective. This is particularly true in first-person narratives, where a lone protagonist may not be physically present for (or emotionally open to) all of the important scenes. Following two or more characters can allow the reader to see all of the important action from a point of view that allows for close observation of the chosen character’s emotional and physical response.

For clarification of the difference it can make, please see yesterday’s excerpt from Aunt Jane.

For the purposes of avoiding protagonist passivity, too, the multiple-protagonist strategy has some definite advantages. Switching worldview automatically gives a narrative more texture, if done well, and ideally, the ability to switch allows the reader to follow the most active character during any given scene.

Interestingly, many, if not most, aspiring writers of multiple-protagonists texts apparently do not use activity of character as the criterion for perspective choice on the scene level. Indeed, I have seen many manuscripts where the author has taken quite the opposite path, following the character who is just sitting around and watching the others emote.

The effect is rather like watching a wedding video where the camera was passed around from guest to guest: the cameraman of the moment may in fact be a fascinating person, but while he is holding that camera, what we see are the other guests’ antics; the cameraman’s perspective is evident primarily through where he chooses to focus the lens at any given moment.

What other criteria might be used, you ask? Often, simple rotation: once a Chapter 1, Character A/Chapter 2, Character B rhythm is established, many writers seem to be reluctant to mess with the rotation. But from a storytelling perspective, sometimes it makes more sense to mix the order up more.

So if you are a multiple protagonist buff, and favor the chapter- (or scene-) alternation method, do me a favor: go back to that list where you noted the scenes in which your protagonist is currently passive. Read through each of those scenes and consider: would this scene be more active if it stuck to another character’s point of view?

The more common criterion, though, appears to be a belief that scenes are better observed by those who are NOT the primary actor in them. I’ve met plenty of writers who argue that such scenes are inherently more objective.

Again, I think this is a side effect of movies and television, where the camera itself is a passive observer of the action at hand, undistracted by its own agenda. But one of the charms of the novel as an art form, I think, is its unparalleled ability to get inside characters’ heads: I can think of plotting or characterization reasons to forego that opportunity every once in a while, but as a general rule?

Are you trotting back to that scene list yet, multiple protagonist-generators? (See, I told you it would come in handy as an editing tool later on.) As you look through the scenes where the protagonist is passive, ask yourself: is he acting like a camera here, an observing machine? If so, what is the narrative gaining by his remaining somewhat aloof? What could be gained in terms of plot complexity, insight, and/or character development if the perspective moved closer to the action?

Another great benefit to telling a story from multiple perspectives is a bit subtler — and often under-exploited by writers. Having access to different characters’ minds allows individual variation in rhythm, thought pattern, and observation to mark the text distinctively, permitting more latitude of worldview and sensation than is possible with a single focus. On the page, this means that the different sections can read differently, in almost as extreme a way as if Character A and Character B were telling their stories in the first person.

My, that was a very technical description, wasn’t it? Mind if I translate that into practical terms?

Everyone has an individual way of observing the world, responding to it, and moving within it, right? A great actor playing identical twins would not play them identically, after all; that would be boring. (If you’ve never seen Jeremy Irons’ brilliant double turn in DEAD RINGERS, you’re missing out. You’re also missing out on quite a bit of gore, admittedly, but I think it’s one of the great performances on film.) So naturally, a chapter (or scene, or paragraph) told from Character A’s perspective would differ from one told from Character B’s, right?

(Yes, that’s a tall order. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about ways to make the perspectives that distinct. Humor me for the moment; here comes the cool part.)

Once a truly gifted writer has established the various mindsets, tastes, areas of overreaction, etc. for each particular protagonist firmly in the reader’s mind, the perspective switches become obvious. Viewing the world through the various character’s eyes (and minds, and bodies) starts to feel very familiar, natural, the way that you can predict that your mother’s probable reaction to receiving a big bunch of roses would be different than your sister’s.

Admittedly, it’s hard to do. But when it works — oh, baby, it’s magical.

From that peak of enthusiasm, let me leap to another: broadening the sensual range of the piece. Or, to put it another way, you wouldn’t expect a Brownie to perceive a particular scene in exactly the same way as a professional fire-eater would, would you? (Assuming, of course, that the Brownie in question ISN’T a professional fire-eater.)

This advantage is a corollary of the last, really — since different people experience the world so differently, broadening the focus of a novel onto the sensations of several people automatically allows for the introduction of distinct sets of sensations. If Character A is a prude, there would be a great deal of room to contrast his perceptions of sex with polyamorous Character B’s. Or even ordinary high school sophomore Character C’s.

The mind positively reels with the possibilities, doesn’t it?

Again, I think that writers of multiple-perspective books could exploit this more — and not merely in sex scenes. (Although that does just leap to mind as one of the human events inherently experienced differently by the various participants in the same act.) Some people have more acute hearing than others; some noses’ perceptual abilities put others to shame.

And so forth. Have some fun with it.

I have a fun exercise for playing with perceptual variations: pick scenes from each of your protagonist’s perspectives and read through them, so they are firmly in your mind.

All done? Now pick up the first and re-imagine it with the protagonist’s sense of smell gone. Changes the scene, doesn’t it?

Move on to the next protagonist, but this time, make the protagonist color-blind. Or unable to distinguish sweet from sour. Or chronically cold, or seeing through filthy eyeglasses, or…

Well, you get my point. Multiple protagonists mean multiplied opportunities for wowing the reader with your ability to convey action, environment, and characterization.

See now why a multiple protagonist narrative is hard to do well? But well worth it. Tomorrow, I shall go into some more specific advice about how to do it beautifully.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

9 Replies to “So you’ve decided to adopt multiple protagonists — or, I am NOT a camera”

  1. “Read through each of those scenes and consider: would this scene be more active if it stuck to another character’s point of view?”

    Just did this yesterday–worked brilliantly when I switched it.

    To further complicate my twins: one of them is gradually developing his sixth sense, telepathy and awareness, even to the point of mind control. So, by the time he’s through, his POV is nearly omniscient.

    1. Ooh, interesting way to handle it, Betsy — I’ll bet the hyperawareness makes for some fascinating power dynamics between the twins.

      And thank you, by the way, for mentioning your identical twin protagonists. It’s already been so useful in perspective discussions with clients that I suspect it will become an important example in my teaching repertoire — so definitely let me know when it is published, so I can do appropriate in-class hawking!

  2. “Are you trotting back to that scene list yet, multiple protagonist-generators?”

    Just did, and your words about shifting a scene to the most active POV now head that list. Great advice.

    I’ve been having such fun with multiple POV. Even when characters observe using the same sense, it’s unlikely they’ll smell or hear something in exactly the same way because of their different education level, background and experience. I like putting my 3 different POV characters in contact with a common object or place, to see how they regard it differently.

    1. Glad that it’s being helpful, Kris. I use that one myself quite a bit. I spent the winter revising a novel of mine twice for Great Big Publisher Who Shall Remain Nameless. The three perspectives were a native Northeasterner who still lived in Boston, a native Pacific Northwesterner who still lived in the mountains of Oregon, and a PNW native who had spent years trying to fit into the Bostonian’s world. These three couldn’t have viewed things more differently if they spoke different languages.

      I hadn’t reckoned on its landing on the desk of an editor who shared the first protagonist’s background practically to the letter — which of course meant that she wanted more scenes from that character’s perspective. Good thing that I was already in practice perspective-shifting, eh?

  3. Great advice. I’m anxious to look at scenes that are inactive. Coffee anyone? Do do when I get home.

    1. Thanks, Cerredwyn — the difference in thought patterns did strike me. And I’d gotten SO tired of that tried-and-true New York/LA distinction so beloved of stand-up comics. In many ways, those two are more alike than they are different, insofar as they are both essentially urban.

      But a Bostonian picking through the Cascades, worrying about bears…THAT’s a regional difference.

  4. Or an Oregonian trying to figure out why folks on line at Starbucks in Boston will not engage in conversation.

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