You’re Not Schizophrenic, Am I?

So, as you may have guessed by the tongue-in-cheek title, today’s post is about multiple viewpoint characters in fantasy. What the… who wrote that? Heh, just a light-hearted schizophrenia joke there…

Onto the post!

I’m going to have a little fun with this article and will split it into three, as I currently have three viewpoint protagonists in my WIP. Each part will represent a different problem when using this technique and a suitably barmy title to match.

Here we go.

Now Listen In For a Story of Epic Proportions… But First, Enjoy Some Random Junk As Told By My Nine Brothers

The first problem that presents itself when writing multiple viewpoints is the danger of writing something that isn’t a story, but a series of adventures and conversations that are tied together only by the fact they appear in the same piece of writing.

Let me explain how this happens.

‘Hmm, I really enjoyed that novel by <Insert Fantasy Author>. I think I will now get down to writing my own novel, totally uninspired and unrelated to that one I just read. I haven’t really planned it out or thought about it much, but I’m pretty sure if I have more than one main character like that novel I just read has then it’ll turn out fine in the end.’

WRONG.

Would you really pick up and buy a book that has this blurb?

A thrilling tale of intrigue, mystery, swashbuckling and adventure! You see, there’s this guy called Max and he’s an orphan who has to learn magic to become a hero. Then there’s Ethel, the impoverished cleaner who has a bit of a chip on her shoulder. There’s also an old king who has no sons. And a barbarian who’s scared of water. And tying it all together is this demigod who has to save them all from a dark lord who has recently come back from the dead.

OK, so you might like to read that story on account of it sounding like a pretty good spoof, but you see my point.

I Am Omniscient… and Here’s My Hamster, Third-Person Limited

Problem number two comes down mostly to the writing technique, but is further complicated and confused by having several viewpoints to write from. If you have multiple viewpoints, these should generally not be omniscient (all-seeing, all-knowing) because otherwise what’s the point in having more than one character? If you had a car that could fly and two others that could not, would you still drive the non-flying ones to work every day? Of course not! So why would your readers bother following characters other than the all-seeing god you’ve stupidly introduced?

In my opinion at least, each viewpoint character should be completely individual and have their own voice. The focus should be quite tightly on them (unless you’re writing something like a prologue or epilogue) and you should steer clear from suddenly providing details that the characters wouldn’t know as individuals.

Anyway, nobody likes a know-it-all, do they?

The Hero, his Sidekick, his Dog, the Scullery Maid, the Wizard and the Talking Sword

My final warning is against the use of too many viewpoint characters. I know, I know! There are authors out there (George R. R. Martin, Steven Erikson etc.) who pull this off with remarkable success. This does not mean, however, that you will too.

I personally find more than three viewpoints a bit of a chore to read, unless the writing is something really exceptional. I like a cast of characters that I can latch onto and track through a story, feeling like I’m growing with them. If they’re popping their clogs or vanishing inexplicably every two minutes, I begin to grow tired. This is also true of many readers, so heed these words well.

Having said this, I am planning to purchase the first in Mr. Martin’s series as soon as I’m finished with ‘Throne of a Crescent Moon’. It may yet change my personal opinion on using so many viewpoints, but I will admit that I wasn’t impressed by ‘Gardens of the Moon’by Steven Erikson.

That will be all for today’s post, I think. If anyone has any suggestions on topics they’d like to hear me ramble on about, please drop them to me in the comments below and I’ll see what I can do.

~ James

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9 thoughts on “You’re Not Schizophrenic, Am I?

  1. jezzarath 29-Feb-2012 / 20:07

    Have you read any of the other Erikson books? I would strongly suggest sticking with it. They are worth while!

    • James 29-Feb-2012 / 20:14

      I have to admit, I only read the first quarter of the first book in the series. I’ve heard only good things about the books. Maybe I will give them another shot some day.

  2. jezzarath 29-Feb-2012 / 21:02

    It does take a little bit of getting into and there are as you mentioned a million and one characters, but very few (if any) feel like they are there for the sake of it, this does however become more apparent as you go through the series.

  3. InsolitaMente 03-Mar-2012 / 12:05

    wow really good and interesting! even though I’m in a different field – but is it so different?.. – which is psychology, I really enjoyed and appreciated your post because gives a few very useful and smart tips on writing and about understanding and pinning down characters (…people…)!
    Thanks and sorry if my English is not so good…;-)
    Anna

  4. hereticfox 10-Apr-2012 / 08:48

    This seems to be quite a popular post, doesn’t it?

    Ah, multiple viewpoints. It’s the fad, right now. I have always been interested in multiple viewpoints, but I don’t think I would be able to pull it off without retelling the same story a hundred times. The value I see in swapping between perspectives is just to familiarize the readers with certain characters’ takes on the events transpiring — but if I’m to do that, it immediately becomes more sensible to just go with an omniscient third-person view.

    I’m probably going to change my mind a hundred or so times before I finally get something written and published, though. One really must look upon writers like Mr. Martin with high regard for skillfully executing such stories.

    Wonderful post, I’m glad I could see the way someone else feels on this matter! It greatly aids me in getting closer to a conclusion in one of many perpetual arguments I have with myself. ^~^

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