Thursday, November 27, 2008

How Big is Your Gob?

Structuring multi-viewpoint narratives

My first attempts at writing novels, The Zael Inheritance and Dragonchaser, took the simplest approach to viewpoint characters possible: show all the action through a single character's eyes. There's nothing wrong with this method--just because it's simple doesn't mean it's facile. If it's good enough for Jane Austen, it's hard to argue that the form is unduly restrictive.

The Dog of the North was my first foray into a more ambitious approach. Those of you who've read the novel will realise why it had to be told the way I told it. The Last Free City, as it stands, takes things a stage further: three viewpoint characters, two of them involved in the same events. So many viewpoints creates a range of difficult choices which the single-strand narrative doesn't have to address.

The first choice I have to make is on the length of individual viewpoint scenes. When I was writing The Dog of the North, the first draft alternated Arren and Beauceron's viewpoints frequently (probably 2-3,000 word chunks). When I wrote the second draft I made the sections two or three times longer. Longer sections mean more immersion in the individual narratives, but more dislocation when they do change.

The Last Free City is currently written in short viewpoint chunks. The average duration between switches is 3,000 words for Todarko, the protagonist; 1,200 for Oricien, who exists primarily to provide an additional perspective; and 3,500 for Malvazan, whose story takes place a quarter of a century earlier.

I now need to decide whether to make the bites bigger (not straightforward with Todarko and Oricien, who because they are taking part in the same events, cannot be sliced and diced as easily as Malvazan, who can be dropped in whenever I feel like it).

I have an instinctive aversion to chopping and changing viewpoints too rapidly, but it need not be too dislocative. GRR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series deploys up to a dozen viewpoint characters in a book, often with very short chapters. Philippa Gregory often uses three viewpoints in her Tudor novels, sometimes in chapters as short as a single page; and in The Constant Princess, although most of the story is told through Katharine of Aragon's eyes, it mixes first and third person with dizzying (and not totally satisfactory) rapidity.

Another writer we've often discussed here, Joe Abercrombie, changes viewpoint less frequently. He uses around half a dozen viewpoint characters in the First Law trilogy but he gives them longer intervals on the page before switching. It may be significant that Abercrombie strongly differentiates the voices he uses, from the Dogman's earthy demotic to Glokta's cynical disgust. I tend to differentiate less (this comes back to the question of ventriloquism versus exhibitionism I've discussed before).

There is no right answer to this. Frequent viewpoint changes will have a different effect from longer narrative intervals. (One of these differences, as David Isaak has mentioned elsewhere, is that frequent changes increase the pace of the narrative, implying that you might want shorter sections towards the end of a novel). It would seem a sensible observation that, the more viewpoints you have, the shorter the sections should be (otherwise you risk keeping characters out of the limelight for too long).

At the moment I'm inclined to keep the sections broadly the length they are now. I suspect that Oricien's sections might be so short because I haven't given him enough to do (his three early appearances are his longest), and some of the scenes I've narrated through Todarko's eyes in retrospect should be Oricien's.

The size of bite you choose to take is ultimately a subjective one, driven by several factors: who is best placed to narrate given scenes in the plot; the primacy of one character's perspective over others; control of the flow of information to the reader; the pace of the narrative; and the trade-off between dizzying the reader and wearying them.

I remember now why I used to like single viewpoint...


Aliya Whiteley said...

I'm absolutely the other way. I find single POV much harder to sustain. With multiple POVs the freedom to switch to the most interesting events for each person really frees up the narrative for me. I hate the demands of keeping one person that exciting for that long.

Tim Stretton said...

That's an interesting take, Aliya. I can see it reflected in your writing, where you handle multiple-POVs very deftly (especially the ensemble cast of Three Things About Me).

I'm having the new problem--for me--of deciding which character's POV to use for scenes in which they are both present.

David Isaak said...

I with Aliya on this one. I find it claustrophobic to write third-person from a single POV.

If I have to write single POV, I always find it drifting into first person, as the only way I can keep it interesting is to get 'voicey-er'.