Juggling multiple protagonists, part II: sometimes, what we have here is a failure to communicate

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Oh, what a long day it’s been, campers — actually, a long few days. There’s something in the air that’s making all of us just a trifle slow on the uptake. Or something in the water. I include myself as one of the victims of this invidious plague, you see. I must be — how else could I possibly explain the fact that I spent a full half an hour today explaining to an incredulous optician that as hard as he might find it to believe, I did indeed expect to be able to see though my new glasses?

Surely, were I on the top of my communicative game, I would have been able to communicate this admittedly radical and abstruse philosophical concept in half the time. I think my problem was that I waited until twenty minutes in to resort to mime.

“But the frames look so good on you,” he kept saying, as if I has simply misunderstood the primary function of eyewear.

Apparently, ambient blurriness is the appropriate price to pay for fashion. Or so I surmise from the fact that he was not at all amused when I mentioned that if he would prefer that I wore the frames without lenses, I would have to wear my contact lenses at the same time, more or less defeating the purpose of glasses.

That last quip was magical in mime, you’ll be happy to hear. Marcel Marceau would have wept openly, but the optician remained befuddled.

As you may well imagine, carrying on such an argument is quite a strain on both parties. At one point, I briefly considered switching to another language — French, perhaps, or Italian — to see if this native English speaker would understand me better. I’m fairly positive that at least once, I broke into interpretive dance to illustrate a point.

In a week or two, if I’m very good indeed, the capricious optometry gods may see fit to provide me with workable glasses. So I’m sitting here, peering through contact lenses I have worn far too long for one day.

Let’s get right to work, then, before my eyeballs turn from mauve to magenta.

Last time, I was waxing poetic on the many benefits of writing a novel inhabited by multiple protagonists. I could, of course, rhapsodize equally long and loudly about the joys of the first person, or omniscient narrator, or distant third person, etc. All of these are perfectly legitimate narrative choices.

No matter what the Point-of-View Nazis (POVNs) like to claim. They would like you to write solely about single protagonists, please, in the tight third person or in the first person; all other choices, they say, are confusing, if not downright unprofessional. And omniscience is so 19th century.

As I’ve been saying for a couple of weeks now, there’s not much you can do if your multiple-protagonist project happens to fall upon the desk of a POVN screener or contest judge. The same generally holds true if you happen to hand your writing to POVN members of even a very good critique group or first reader — which is quite easy to do by accident, since POVNs seldom think to wear a t-shirt reading More than one perspective? Madness! to social gatherings. And don’t even get started arguing with a POVN in an online forum.

Just smile, nod — and get your work into some other reader’s hands as soon as humanly possible. No matter how much or how demonstrably your narrative benefits from incorporating multiple perspectives, you’re simply not going to win this argument. Move on to pastures new.

Must the retreat be that total, you cry in horror? Well, I would recommend it, to minimize the carnage: if you stick around, any further exchange can only end in tears, probably yours.

What distinguishes the POVN from other advocates of particular writing styles is vehemence, typically: once a critic has pronounced that no writing that differs from the two chosen (and not entirely coincidentally, the two of the most common) narrative voices is acceptable, what else is there to discuss?

You have one vision of your book, and your critic another. As the parable of the monomaniacal optician abundantly illustrated, in order to have a fruitful discussion, both parties must agree on at least a few underlying principles of reality.

Move on, I beg you — but before you do, see if you can learn anything from the POVN’s feedback. (Beyond his personal literary preferences, that is.) Because chances are, you can indeed learn something from his monomania.

Why am I so sure about that? There is one lesson that every multiple protagonist user can learn from any POVN: if the reader is ever confused about whose perspective is whose on the page, it’s not the reader’s responsibility to re-read, scratching his head, trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s the writer’s job to make the perspective switches easy to follow.

From this, we can derive the first principle of utilizing multiple protagonists successfully: clarity, clarity, clarity. (Which wouldn’t make a bad first principle of optometry, either, in my humble opinion.)

What does this mean, in practical terms? Well, not switching perspectives without warning, for one thing — a surprisingly common lapse in multiple protagonist manuscripts. Once you have established a perspective, stick to it until it’s time for a well-marked perspective switch — or just take the full leap into omniscient narration for the entire book.

In other words: commit. (Commit, commit. Just to keep things symmetrical. Or maybe I’m just seeing double, as the optician suggested.) Otherwise, Millicent the agency screener and other professional readers are all too apt to mistake your genuinely intricate and well-justified perspective choices for mere head-hopping.

“Did the writer just forget that we’re seeing this from Janet’s perspective?” the Millicents of the world mutter over their scalding lattes. “Or is this scene also from Robert’s? And why on earth doesn’t he have any lenses in his glasses?”

Unfortunately for the self-editing writer, commitment slips are often very subtle. So much so that they generally appear to be unintentional to a non-professional reader, making it hard for most first readers to point them out. If your eye isn’t specifically looking for them, they’re even — brace yourself — easy to miss when you read a manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Hey, if I don’t mention that tip every few posts, I’m likely to start having headaches. Or so my optician tells me.

You want to see for yourself just how hard perspective slips are to catch, don’t you? Take, for example, this paragraph from a book about the aforementioned Janet and Robert, where Janet has so far been the designated protagonist for the scene:

Janet felt queasy, so she took a quick sip of water, to buy herself time to think. It was clear to her now why Robert had taken the job at Corrupt Executives, Inc.: to hunt her, to taunt her, to hurt her feelings at every possible opportunity, just as he had in high school. Well, she was no longer fifteen years old. She knew how to fight like an adult now.

Her face was pale, but her eyes flashed blue fire. “So’s your mama, Robert. So’s your mama.”

Did it jump out at you? Believe me, it would have made Millicent scream: the narrative was coming from inside Janet’s head all throughout the first paragraph — yet in paragraph 2, the reader is suddenly seeing something she could not possibly see without a mirror. Once again, Millicent is left to wonder, has the perspective suddenly switched to Robert’s, and the author just didn’t bother to tell us? Or is the narration now omniscient?

Trust me, these are not questions that Millie likes to answer for herself. Clarify, clarify, clarify.

The first step to perspective clarity is to make it magnificently clear when perspective shifts occur — and it’s often easier than the average reviser assumes, or at least less word-consuming. No need for a lengthy explanation; just give the reader a simple heads-up when you’re taking them into another head.

That’s an easy enough axiom to remember, isn’t it? Heck, you can even embrace it as an opportunity to enrich the scene. Take another gander at J and R:

Janet felt queasy, so she took a quick sip of water, to buy herself time to think. It was clear to her now why Robert had taken the job at Corrupt Executives, Inc.: to hunt her, to taunt her, to hurt her feelings at every possible opportunity, just as he had in high school.

Well, she was no longer fifteen years old. She knew how to fight like an adult now. “So’s your mama, Robert. So’s your mama.”

He gripped the arms of his leather chair, startled by her transformation. Her face was pale, but her eyes flashed blue fire.

Simple change, wasn’t it? Yet now it’s perfectly obvious that the reader is hearing about Janet’s external characteristics because Robert is observing them.

But you’re no longer thinking about Janet and Robert, I’m sensing. You’re so alert to the nuances of foreshadowing that you are already steeling yourself to receive your homework assignment.

It’s worth making a sweep through your manuscript to make sure that the protagonist of the moment can actually perceive anything you report her to perceive. People seldom see the backs of their own heads, for instance, without the aid of several cleverly-rigged mirrors. Similarly, their hearing from far away and sightlines around corners is often imperfect, as is their ability to reproduce entire conversations taking place in Moscow when they are in prison camps in Siberia.

I’m looking at you, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Also, not all that many people are psychic, at least not to the extent one encounters in manuscripts. Or perhaps these are instances of another common perspective lapse, when a tight third person narrative uses projection in order to get into another character’s head without officially switching perspectives.

Not entirely certain what I’m talking about? Okay, here’s a lovely example. So far, the book has been mostly from Henry’s perspective:

Henry felt Blanche looking at him hard, passionately, as if she had never seen a man before and the sheer nearness of him had induced the onset of puberty on the spot. Odd behavior, in someone he’d just met. He must remind her of some hunk in one of those old movies that had always seemed to be playing at her grandmother’s house throughout her childhood, black-and-white images on a small black-and-white screen. Maybe she didn’t even know that they made films in color now. Maybe she didn’t even know what a man looked like naked, and was dying to find out.

Never mind that you want to keep reading, to find out what happens next. Tell me: what part of this is from Blanche’s perspective?

Offhand, I’d say none of it. Upon close examination, it’s clearly from Henry’s — but if so, how on earth does he know so much about her childhood? So is what the reader learning about Blanche here fact to be relied upon for the rest of the book, or merely a projection of Henry’s over-sexed imagination?

Oh, you wanted to add something, Millicent? Put down that latte and join the conversation, by all means. Give your eyes a rest.

“Does the she in the next-to-last sentence,” Millicent asks, and not without reason, “refer to Blanche or her grandmother? The last sentence implies that it’s Blanche, but like every other reader on the planet, I seldom read all the way to the end of a paragraph before forming a mental image of what occurred in the middle of it. Of course, it makes me grumpy to have to re-read so much as a single word, but when I don’t even know who is who, I just stop reading. Oh, great — now I’ve thought about it so much that I’ve been pulled out of the story. Next!”

Thanks for sharing that, Millicent: from the reader’s side of the page, clarity is indeed 100% the writer’s problem, not yours. Remember that when you are revising, my friends. It may seem a bit restrictive, but within the context of a particular protagonist’s section of text, edit like a POVN.

Yes, you read that correctly. The writer gets to set up the rules of narration, but once they are established, professional readers — even those who are not POVNs — will regard any deviation from those rules as accidental.

And if you thought Millicent came down hard on accidental typos and logic problems, wait ‘til you see her lay into an accidental perspective switch. Even if she is not a card-carrying POVN — which, as I mentioned last week, she is significantly less likely to be than her counterpart of a decade ago — she probably had an English professor who was. Or a boss at the agency. She’s not going to let a thing like this pass, nor is her cousin Maury, who is an editorial assistant at the big publishing house just around the corner.

The best way to avoid their ire is to edit for perspective consistency — and send a strong signal whenever the perspective switches, in order to illustrate that the change is not accidental. Before anyone tenses up at the potential enormity of that task, I hasten to add that there are many good strategies for achieving these laudable goals.

1. Formal breaks in the narrative. Structural means are the simplest signposts, and among the most popular. As we have discussed, you could switch chapters each time you want to change perspectives. Heck, you could even title the chapters with the protagonist-du-jour’s name, to avoid even the remotest possibility of confusion.

2. Just start a new scene. Usually, this involves inserting a section break, then starting a fresh section. This technique, like the chapter trick, works best if the first sentence or two contains a pretty broad indication of whose perspective is on deck now. (If you’re tempted even for a moment to assume Millicent will enjoy guessing, please go back six paragraphs and re-read her observation on Henry’s narrative skills.)

3. Hitting the RETURN key. In other words, try to limit yourself to a single perspective per paragraph.

The space bar can provide quite a bit of clarity, if you will let it help you. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve written in margins, “I cut the paragraph here, to keep the two perspectives distinct.”

Why does this simple trick work so well? To skimming eyes, it’s just too easy to miss the indicators that might make clear that the perspective has changed within a single paragraph; he and she, for instance, don’t look all that different on the page.

I know; the implications of this are a bit depressing. Hey, if I ran the universe, every agency screener and editorial assistant would read every syllable of every writer’s submission with reverent care before pronouncing judgment. Opticians everywhere would strive to maximize their customers’ visual acuity, and friendly cows would roam the streets, giving chocolate milk to every hungry child in the world.

But I don’t — and they don’t, alas.

The primary drawback to all three strategies lies, as drawbacks so often do, in the first pages that you will be submitting to an agent, editor, or contest judge. If a book begins with one protagonist, then switches to another too quickly, one of three professionally unpleasant things may happen.

First, plenty of agents and editors feel cheated if they’ve come to accept one character as a protagonist, only to learn a few pages later that they didn’t need to care about this character much at all. (Yes, really.)

The way around this is — hold on to your hats, boys — clarity: the narrative can make it plain that both the initial protagonist and the next are in fact both critical to the story. A good way to do this: if you’re introducing your protagonists in separate chapters or sections, show each initially in a situation where the stakes are very high for him/her.

Which isn’t a bad way to establish sympathy for a character, either. I just mention.

Second, the initial protagonist may be introduced too briefly to make an emotional impression upon the reader, and so may not appear to the skimming eye to be a true protagonist at all. We’ve all seen enough movies where the identity of the guy shot in the opening scene isn’t clear until the very end of the story, right?

Well, think like Millicent for a moment, and picture that storyline on the page: she began reading that scene assuming, not unreasonably, that the entire book is going to be either about that guy or his assassin. So imagine her surprise (and umbrage) to see her pal weltering in a pool of his own blood by the bottom of page two.

I have a really, really cynical fix for this one, so brace yourself: for the submission version of your book (as distinct from the final, published form), make sure that the most attractive — in whatever sense you choose — protagonist is on stage for at least the first five pages. You can always switch it later, and five pages is plenty of time to make Millicent fall in love with Bill thoroughly enough to be sanguine about meeting co-protagonist Bob on page 6.

I told you it was cynical. I’m all for art, but I’m also all about getting art past the gatekeepers so the public will eventually be able to see it.

Danger #3 is the opposite of #2: the reader may like the first protagonist so much that she will become annoyed when the second emerges. “I was just getting into the story of that coal miner,” she will grumble. “Why am I suddenly reading about a debutante?”

This reaction is especially likely in novels where the connection between the protagonists is not apparent until very late in the story. We writers LOVE this kind of revelation, don’t we? I think we tend to overestimate its surprise value: after all, the reader is aware that all of these people are occupying the same book; the presumption, then, is that they are going to be connected somehow.

And a professional reader has an even greater advantage: if she becomes curious about who is who, all she has to do is flip to the back of the submission and take a gander at the synopsis.

This inherent expectation of connection a good thing to bear in mind while revising. Take a hard look at the first time each of your protagonists appears qua protagonist in the book — if it is not clear how protagonist #2, #3, and so on to the proverbial cast of thousands are connected to the story you are telling in the first protagonist’s first appearance, what specific benefit is the book deriving from maintaining the secret?

If you’re not positive what is being gained (other than the coolness of later revelation which, as I said, is probably not going to come as a jaw-dropping surprise to Millicent), consider letting the reader in on the connection a bit — at least for the submission draft.

Or at least in a subtle manner. Would it be more effective, for instance, if you added a hint or two about possible connections? What about if you had Protagonist #1 make a walk-on in this introductory scene — or if Protagonist #2 make a cameo in Protagonist #1’s chapter, so the reader would already know who he is?

It may not always be desirable — or even possible — to use this tactic in every story, of course. But do consider it: readers love to try to figure things out from subtle hints; it makes them feel smart. And no one loves to feel smart more than Millicent and Maury.

Call it a family failing. Try not to hold it against them.

Vision-correction conditions permitting, I shall take more next time about nifty strategies for keeping perspectives distinct. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

5 Replies to “Juggling multiple protagonists, part II: sometimes, what we have here is a failure to communicate”

  1. When reading, I find myself having a hard time appreciating the book when one chapter is narrated by a character and the next is narrated by another character. Sometimes, I end up favoring one character’s narration over the other, which can seriously mess up the enjoyment of reading. Unfortunately, it’s a trend (in YA especially) that might stick around a little while longer. Sigh.

    1. That’s definitely a risk of the multiple first-person narrative, Kate: the reader may well prefer one narrator over another. All the more reason to make every protagonist as interesting as possible!

  2. Another great post! Super helpful. The example you gave with Janet and Robert was like light dawns on Marblehead. I think I got it. Now, I’ve got some editing to do!

  3. I just sent another email query out last night–fingers crossed–and it asked for the first five pages, plus a short synopsis, in the body. I read the pages OUT LOUD to myself and found a bunch of stupid awkward stuff, which I fixed. It’ s amazing how well that works! 🙂

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