At long last, I keep my promise to talk about narratives with multiple protagonists

tile roof in Spain 3

You know how I keep mentioning that reality is a lousy storyteller, apt to toss in flatly unbelievable elements and time revelations poorly? Still more evidence: within the last week, two of my classmates from my genuinely small high school passed away, one from illness, one from self-inflicted violence. The first died in the hospital where he was born; the kind soul who broke the news to me had been born just down the hallway, within a few days of our late friend. Their mothers had chatted in the maternity ward. The second took his life in his parents basement, I’m told, found by his father, one of the town’s long-standing personal physicians.

And who was one of his patients? You guessed it: our late friend, the party of the first part.

No novelist in her right mind would run with a plot like that; it would be well-nigh impossible to render plausible. And that’s all I’m going to say about why I’ve been posting rather sporadically over the last week.

Back to the business at hand. In the course of our recent discussion of Point-of-View Nazis (POVNs) and how to protect your manuscripts and contest entries from their wrath, I have fleetingly but persistently brought up the plight of the novelist juggling more than one protagonist. Instead of following a single character closely, as the POVNs would prefer, these ambitious narratives trace the careers of several, through either several distinctive first-person voices, each giving her own perspective (in the manner of Pulitzer Prize finalist 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 to another.

What separates the third-person version from an omniscient narrator, generally speaking, 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.

Taken individually, a POVN would be happy with each of these chapters, because they stick to a single perspective. In theory, at least.

Why only in theory? All too often, POVNs end up dissatisfied with how rigorously the perspective barriers are maintained. In many manuscripts with multiple protagonists, 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 writer 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, 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) participation in all of the important scenes. When the story arc demands another point of view, the narration simply follows another protagonist. 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 an example of how great a difference opening up the perspective can make, please see this recent post.)

For the purposes of avoiding protagonist passivity, too, the multiple-protagonist strategy has some definite advantages, even in a third-person narrative. 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.

The trick to making this work in a multiple first-person or multiple tight third-person narrative is to make it pellucidly clear from the very beginning of the scene whose perspective the reader will be following, and clinging to it consistently all the way through. As opposed to, say, an omniscient narrative, where the narrator can know what’s going on from every character’s perspective and hop between them at will. That way, a simple section break before the next scene is sufficient to alert readers to an imminent perspective change.

But if you use this trick, make sure you apply it consistently; remember, Millicent tends to regard violations of the rules a manuscript has set for itself as mistakes. If she (or her boss, the agent) is not a POVN, she may well accept be delighted to see a really well-done alternating perspective submission, but the more complex the pattern, the easier it is to see deviations from it.

As you may see from the photo above, come to think of it. So before you even consider submitting a manuscript or contest entry with alternating perspectives, do me (and yourself) a favor:

1. Flip through your manuscript, making a numbered list of each scene in the book. For each, briefly note what happens and who is the protagonist is.

A lot of work? Sure. But trust me on this one: that list is going to become your best friend at revision time. Which may come sooner than you think…

2. Wait a few days, then choose a scene at random from the list. Read through it carefully, asking yourself at the end of each paragraph: is this entirely from the scene’s protagonist’s point of view, or have I engaged in head-hopping here? If it’s the latter, is an alternating first-person or tight single third-person narrative really the best way to tell this story?

3. Repeat Step 2 until the narrative choices are consistent throughout the manuscript.

How may a writer decide which of his many protagonists should be the dominant in any given scene? Often, it’s a matter of 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 running order. A rigid adherence to pattern does not always pay off from a storytelling perspective, however: sometimes it makes more sense to mix the perspectives up more, as the storyline dictates.

So what other criterion might a writer use? Often, the best choice for protagonist in any given scene is the most active character, or at any rate, the one most central to the conflict. Interestingly, though, many, if not most, aspiring writers of multiple-protagonists texts apparently do not use activity of character as their primary criterion for perspective choice on the scene level.

Indeed, I have seen many a manuscript where the author has taken quite the opposite path, bestowing the protagonist’s mantle upon the guy in the scene who is just sitting around and watching the others emote up a storm. 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.

Just between us, that’s not a structuring tactic Millicent tends to favor: it more or less guarantees a passive protagonist, right? So here are a few self-editing tips for multiple protagonist buffs who favor the chapter- (or scene-) alternation method, assuming they have already worked their way through Steps 1-3, above.

4. Go through your list, manuscript at your elbow, marking which scenes have passive protagonists or ones who are primarily observers.

5. Wait a few days, then pick a passive scene from your list. Read through it carefully and consider: would this scene be more active if it stuck to another character’s point of view? If so, try reworking the scene from that character’s perspective.

6. Repeat Step 5 until you have worked through all of the scenes you marked with the dreaded passivity symbol.

Yes, yes, I fully realize that what I just asked you to do might well take hours, if not weeks, of your precious writing time. Your point?

“My point,” those of you who favor observer-narrated fiction, “is that I believe that scenes are better observed by those who are not the primary actor in them. They can notice more, because they are not distracted by being all caught up in that messy conflict. They’re the closest thing to an objective narrator a first-person or tight third-person narrative can get!”

Um, if you don’t mind my asking, oh espousers of passive protagonists, if you’re so fond of objective narration, why aren’t you writing your story from an omniscient or a distant third-person perspective?

That’s a serious question — objectivity may be a positive boon to journalistic accounts, but for a first-person story, it can be dreadfully flattening. Who wants to read a memoir, for instance, that could have been written by just anyone? The first person cries out for individual quirkiness.

As does the tight third person in a multiple-perspective narrative. If every character viewed every situation in the same manner, what would be the point of alternating perspectives? Defining different camera angles aimed at the same immovable object?

Isn’t it more interesting if individual perspectives are presented as, well, individual, incorporating differing worldviews? Even if your various protagonists are from nearly identical backgrounds (or actually identical, like the sisters in THE POISONWOOD BIBLE), even a slight personal bias can present a scene quite differently.

Don’t believe me? Okay, consider these two photographs:

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tile roof in spain 5

The first is the photograph of a tile roof in Spain at the top of this post, right? So is the second; the picture’s merely been flipped around. Yet objectively, both are a shot of the same roof at the same time of day, and even with the same negative.

There’s nothing wrong with an objective perspective, inherently; it merely tends to be a tad distracting in an alternating-perspective narrative. All too often, writers of such stories will lapse at some point in the manuscript into objective narration, as if they’ve forgotten that one of the premises of the book was to show a multiplicity of individual perspectives.

“Who is this unnamed new narrator?” Millicent thinks, annoyed by what she perceives to be an internal rule violation. “God? Should I expect Him to play an active role in this story, or should I assume that the writer originally wrote this scene in an omniscient voice, then forgot to come back and revise it after she settled on an alternating perspective model. I’m going to throw this one back, to give her a chance to revise it before submitting it again. Next!”

I think the tendency to lapse into so-called objective narration is a side effect of movies and television, where the camera itself is a passive observer of the action at hand, ostensibly undistracted by its own agenda. But one of the charms of the novel as an art form 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?

Have you already started reaching for your scene list yet, multiple protagonist-generators? (See, I told you it would come in handy as an editing tool.) A grand idea — let’s deepen our examination.

7. Go back to the list, revisiting the scenes you marked earlier as passive. (Yes, even the ones you’ve already revised to a more active perspective; think of it as a tune-up.)

8. Read through those scenes one by one, continually asking 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?

9. Repeat Step 9 until…oh, you know the drill by now, don’t you?

Another great benefit to telling a story from multiple perspectives is a bit less straightforward — 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 an extremely technical description, was it not? Anyone 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. Part of what you’re missing is 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.

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

As a truly gifted writer establishes the various mindsets, tastes, overreaction triggers, etc. for each particular protagonist firmly in the reader’s mind throughout the course of the story, the perspective switches will start to become obvious to the reader. 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, that’s pretty hard to pull off, and the more dueling perspectives you’ve got going, the harder it is to pull off consistently and decisively. But when it works — oh, baby, it’s magical. Back to our list we go:

10. Pick a protagonist, consult your list, and read all of the scenes grounded in that character’s perspective back to back. Do they all read as though they are from the same person’s perspective?

11. If not, is there a character trait you could emphasize to make them so, something that she and only she does, says, thinks, and/or feels? A particular turn of phrase used habitually (but not often enough to get boring), for instance? A certain cultural or personal bias? An allergy to bananas? A tendency to confuse the colors tangerine and melon?

12. Repeat Steps 10-11 for each protagonist.

Again, a time-consuming exercise. But you were the one who decided to attempt the high dive here; I’m merely coaching you on how to make your mid-air twists prettier.

Another distinct advantage of the multiple-perspective approach is the relative ease of broadening the sensual range of the piece. Before anyone starts giggling, I’m not talking about sex here — I’m talking about how the narrative utilizes the senses of touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound.

The more feelers, tasters, sniffers, seers, and hearers a novel features, the more different ways the fictional environment may be brought alive for the reader, right? Think about it: 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 one before it, 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 social interactions with polyamorous Character B’s. Or even ordinary high school sophomore Character C’s.

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

Again, I think that writers of multiple-perspective books could exploit this more — and not merely in love 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.

Having trouble opening up this particular Pandora’s box on behalf of all of your 17 protagonists? Don’t worry; I have a fun exercise for playing with perceptual variations.

13. Return to your list. Pick one scene from each of your protagonist’s perspectives and read through them, so they are firmly in your mind.

14. Now return to the first scene and re-imagine it with the protagonist’s sense of smell gone. Changes the scene considerably, doesn’t it?

15. 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. If you’re going to attempt the high dive of juggling perspective, you owe it to your small army of protagonists to differentiate between them beautifully.

Keep those scene lists handy, campers — next time, we shall be pulling ‘em out again, rolling up our proverbial sleeves, and diving back into your manuscripts. In anticipation of that delightful prospect, keep up the good work!

20 Replies to “At long last, I keep my promise to talk about narratives with multiple protagonists”

  1. When I decided on which scene to do in which POV, I did look at which character was most active, but I also looked at what emotion do I want my reader to feel here and whose POV will most likely make them feel that way. I am not published (still editing so haven’t even submitted my novel) but so far, I like that technique. Sometimes, I do use a less active character- for example A and B are fighting, C is watching and thinking what is wrong with these people. When I tried from A’s, he had good reasons for what he did and so the reader could sympathize too much with him and same for B. In a battle scene, A might be superconfident, B not so much, so if I want to up the tension I might use B or I might use A and then have things go horribly wrong which has more impact when the confident character loses it.

    1. What a terrific way to pick the protagonist for the scene! I suspect I’m going to be borrowing that one and passing it along…

  2. Raising hand. I have a question, but it has to do with grammar and I just don’t know where to put it.

    Normally, a comma is placed after an introductory word. For example:

    Then, she let his hand go.

    In a novel, why are there many introductory words left without a comma? For example:

    Suddenly she turned around.

    I’m confused. My instincts tell me to add a comma when writing, but it’s not what I see happening as I read.

    I know it’s not connected to the post. I’m going to try out the steps first before I ask any questions.

    1. On the most recent post is an excellent place to put it, Kate. Placement’s only really a problem when readers are going through back posts and ask questions on different topics there. But up here, readers of recent posts will see it.

      I suspect that you’re confused because you have a correct sense of how an introductory adverb should be punctuated. Take, for instance, the difference between Suddenly, she turned around and So you came crawling back to me, Edgar. Both of these are correctly punctuated — Suddenly requires a comma because it is an adverb displaced from its normal place next to the verb (in this case, turned; So is not followed by a comma because it does not modify the verb (crawling).

      But you must already know that, or the missing comma would not bother you, presumably. As in: Suddenly she turned around and So, you came crawling back to me, Edgar. The first would be correct only in the eyes of an editor who had been trained to treat the introductory comma as optional, in much the same way as the comma required in direct address (Katie, bar the door) is regarded by some as obsolete (Katie bar the door. To a close adherent of grammar, these commas are not in fact optional, but the the pervasive when in doubt, leave it out rule of comma-distribution is frequently overused, even by editors.

      That being said, even though that comma is now often treated as optional, most of the editors currently working on books in the English language will bless you for continuing to use the comma. So I would advise continuing to use the comma; it’s still proper, and its use certainly has not fallen out of the language completely.

      What has happened over the last decade or so is (a) more editing is done on a computer screen, where little things like commas tend to fall between the proverbial cracks, (b) while publishing houses still employ copyeditors and proofreaders, they’re often both trained and paid proportionally less than in days of yore — and are now often editing in soft copy, with the result that (c) it’s become quite, quite common to see actual grammatical mistakes in published books, a phenomenon that used to be quite rare.

      Because of this, editors, like everyone else, has become much more used to seeing non-standard punctuation, so (d), they are less likely to change certain ubiquitous errors when they do spot them. Especially when (e) most word processors’ grammar-checkers treat that comma as optional. But then, my completed up-to-the-minute version of MS Word keeps urging me to to use the wrong form of there, their, and they’re. (Don’t even get me started on that one.)

      Go ahead and do it the old-fashioned way. Those who know their grammar will appreciate it, and those who consider the comma optional will probably not take the trouble to change it, as long as you’re consistent about its use.

      1. Thank you so much Anne!

        I help students improve their essay writing skills for a living, so comma usage is always part of the lesson. When I’m writing, I always have the urge to add a comma, but when I remember the novels I’ve read, something in me says “Maybe it’s not needed.” To be honest, ignoring the need to add a comma physically hurts sometimes. Again, thank you very much for clearing that up for me. It’s comma-away from now on!

        1. Bless you for keeping up the good fight, Kate. I keep meeting college teachers who say, “Oh, the students learn grammar and punctuation in high school,” and high school teachers who say, “Oh, they’ll learn all that in college.” It makes me suspect that there’s probably a pretty hefty proportion of the population that never learns the rules at all. Having grown up in the kind of environment where adults corrected children’s grammar even in speech — a teaching technique that has its own problems — I worry about all of the students not lucky enough to have someone like you to set them straight.

  3. Great guidelines to follow for the multiple narrator, which I am particularly fond of. I’ll print this one out and post it on the office wall.

  4. Going by emotion for POV is a good choice. I also look at what is the best way to move the story forward, although that could be emotional too. What is the arch, etc.

    Great post, Anne. I’m looking at my latest WIP and actually have started a list of what characters are doing in a chapter.

    1. That’s good to hear, Janet. Come to think of it, it might not be a bad tool to have at your side if you were — to pluck a hypothetical out of thin air — trying to trim a lengthy manuscript. As an inveterate over-writer, I’ve found it useful.

  5. Lots of technical information, and a bit intimidating for someone just starting to write. Good points to consider.

    1. I sympathize with the intimidation factor, LV; this is pretty big stuff, conceptually speaking. Please do know that I honestly do welcome readers’ questions — trust me, if you’re confused about it, so are many, many others — so I hope you will chime in with any questions that may occur to you.

  6. Thanks for this great post. I am struggling with this VERY issue in my work in progress. In particular, a dinner scene in which my main character meets her new boyfriend’s parents. The son is afraid his mother is going to run his girlfriend off (as she usually does in such situations), so I thought it was necessary to see how each person is relating to the main character and how she’s handling them.

    I went back to look at Jane Austen’s work to see how she handled the omniscient POV because I’m really trying to pull off the same effect. But this really helped me figure out ways in which I can go back into the scene to ensure I do the switches more smoothly.

    Thanks again.

    1. You’re entirely welcome, KL — and I LOVE scenes like the one you describe, where the reader is the only one who has a complete view of what’s going on. Best of luck with it!

  7. Ha! I already made a list like that. I have multiple protagonists and actually, I think you answered my question about section breaks when switching POV here. Previously, I had asked if that was cool, and yes, I have done that consistently throughout the manuscript.

    The Alicia Rasley book said I probably didn’t need them, but it seemed to assume that I didn’t already have them. Now I just have to go back and check for passivity. I have not always chosen to have the primary protagonists as the POV characters, because there are things that happen out of their view.

    Thanks, Anne!

    1. Good for you, Elizabeth! Novelists are often startled by the suggestion about making the protagonist the active one — it’s sort of the opposite of how a lot of them had conceived their scenes.

  8. Oh, bless you, Anne! I love your so-called long blog posts. They aren’t long; they’re thorough. Big difference.
    I finished my multiple POV novel (3 protagonists, actually, in rotating chapters, first person present) a few months ago, and have been in a panic since. No, not the postpartum effect, but the result of reading online POVN’s rants against this type of narration. Too difficult, too– gasp– literary! Forget publication! But now, after checking the manuscript with your posts in mind, I’m re-heartened.
    Now what we need is your take on writing a query letter for a multiple POV novel. Or maybe I just need to find an attractive combination of money and chocolate bribe to get your input on mine. Hmm.

    1. Congratulations on finishing the novel, AM! And rest assured, POVNs are much, much less powerful in publishing than they used to be. Possibly because so very many mainstream bestsellers include multiple points of view.

      I hadn’t thought about doing a post on how to query a multiple POV novel — that’s a good idea. Maybe I’ll whip one out at the end of this series.

  9. Raises hand. Anne, another question just came to me. I’ve been sending queries out, and below every query is the first chapter of my novel. When I copy paste the chapter, it is properly formatted, but when I receive replies, I notice that the formatting disappears. I think it’s because of different email formats. But my question is: would losing the formatting lead to a rejection?

    1. Probably not, Kate — if the agency to which you’ve been sending this SPECIFICALLY asks queriers to include the first chapter in the body of e-mailed queries. If a particular agency does not make that request in its querying guidelines (and it’s not all that common, although more are asking for writing samples than formerly), however, including the extra material might well lead to rejection on that basis alone. Compounding the problem: agents are often unaware if their agency’s submission guidelines differ from other agencies’ — it’s not as though they have any reason to read other agencies’ websites, after all — so they may be genuinely puzzled to receive a chapter if they expect a page. Or if they don’t accept writing samples with queries at all.

      So it’s really, really important to read each agency’s submission guidelines carefully, figure out what they like to see, and send ONLY those materials. Remember, one of the things a writer is demonstrating in a query letter is that she’s good at following directions.

      To set your mind at rest on the formatting issue, agents (and their screeners, who are usually the ones reading queries at a good-sized agency) are already aware that formatting often gets lost when text is copied and pasted into the body of an e-mail. In that format, they’re only trying to get a general sense of the writing style. (Which is why it’s unusual for them to ask for very many pages as a writing sample — it’s harder to read that way.) After all, the only question at the querying stage is whether to ask for the manuscript, not whether to pick up the book. Formatting becomes much, much more of an issue when they’ve actually requested pages — but then, they’ll either ask you to send them in hard copy or as a Word attachment to an e-mail.

      It’s not a bad idea to double-check what’s happening to your formatting within the query e-mail, though — and what you’re seeing in the replies may not actually be what they’re seeing. It’s not all that unusual for earlier messages in a chain to be compressed a bit. The easiest way to check is to e-mail to yourself precisely what you’ve been sending them. If the formatting in your writing sample is going off somehow in transmission, it should be apparent in what you send to yourself.

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