Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Multiple PoV: some musings

Io, Saturnalia, everyone!

Like I said - somewhere - NaNo gave me a few ideas for some long-winded writing posts, and since my first semester exams are over, I'm taking a break from mooching around the flat with my friends, Christmas shopping, playing video games, and watching Doctor Who repeats, to write one of them. My review of Gillian Bradshaw's Dark North mentioned the issue of PoV, so this particular topic has been shifted into first place.

I don't at all mind reading books which are told from a single PoV, but when I'm writing, unless I'm writing in first-person, I tend to use multiple PoV. My plots tend to big, sprawling things, and by using more than one character as the reader's eyes, I can flesh out the many plot threads better than I could with a single PoV. The Ancestor Crown, for example, could theoretically be told entirely from, say, Marcus' PoV. The main plot is still there, and the reader still gets the adventure, the character development and all that, but it would also miss out a lot of important subplots. Like Calgach's struggle to unite the tribes, Agricola's dealings with certain Imperial intrigues, the Druidic wheeling and dealing that Gairea is in the thick of, and the Epidii politics that Cathal deals with. These themes would all be touched on, but not in such great depth. Giving all these characters a voice allows the entire story to sprawl out (and boy, does it sprawl) and allows me to do the main subplots better justice.

It also, I think, helps the credibility of certain plot twists. Let's take, for instance, the second book. If the entire thing was told from Firmus' PoV, we'd have the major revelation of "You know that woman you bought down the slave market? Actually the sister of some tribal king, the descendant of a major Caledonian rebel, and she was passing information about the movements on the frontier to her clansmen because her brother has some crazy idea about reviving their ancestor's confederacy" all at once. Possibly a wee bit too much shockgasp! material to swallow in one go? With so much backstory and baggage attached to that particular subplot, it makes more sense to have Eilwen's PoV in there as well, so this barrage of information isn't coming completely out of left field, to the reader, anyway.

This approach might be something of a double-edged sword: if you're going for suspense you might not want to throw all your cards on the table like that. And I do have a good few subplots where the enemy/culprit isn't revealed to the reader until it is to the characters. The trick my own approach is in dropping just the right hints in just the right places. With a bit of careful handling, you can still maintain the suspense. Then again, the approach makes for its own sort of suspense. For example, in Book Three, I know that Aelius and Gaius are eventually going to meet each other again on opposite sides of a war - but when? And how? The suspense is heightened as the reader waits for their stories to converge.

And, of course, giving more characters a voice is an advantage when it comes to characterisation, as it allows the reader to see more facets of a certain character than they might otherwise. This a particular advantage when it comes to villains/antagonists. Take Cathal. Again, if I told AC totally from Marcus' view, the portrayal of Cathal would be limited to his most dominant traits: his aggression, his arrogance, his ambition, and his hatred for all things Roman. It barely makes it to two-dimensional, but by including Cathal's PoV, I can let the reader see other facets to his character, like his genuine loyalty to his tribe, his moments of integrity (yes, it does exist!), and his relationships with his fellow warriors. I like to give at least some of the antagonists their PoV, and write them from the principle that everyone is the hero of his/her own story, which balances out their good and bad points a bit more.

And, of course, letting the reader into the minds of several characters gives them a better chance to find one to find at least one like. I always try to make my characters as interesting or appealing as possible, but it's a fact of life that you can't please everyone, and there are inevitably going to be characters who I love to bits, but who just won't work for another reader. Some are likely to find Calgach, the cunning and world-wise king, a more appealing guide than Gairea, the troubled teenage girl, and vice versa. It's all a matter of taste, and introducing more PoV characters gives the reader more opportunity to find one to their liking.

Well, there's the why. It's the how, though, that really gave me pause during November.

When using multiple PoV, the two main techniques are third person limited and omniscient PoV (some authors do use first person, though, but in my experience many of them don't give their PoV characters distinctive enough voices, so I don't think it works quite as well). My own preference is third limited, because omniscient sometimes disconcerts me when I've just got settled into one character's mind, only to flit to the next one. It's just a matter of preference, and both ways have their pros and cons.

Since I use third limited, the technique I went with in AC was to identify my main characters (Marcus, Gairea, Calgach, Agricola and Cathal) and tell their intertwining stories a chapter at a time. But, looking ahead, I've realised that there's a problem with this. My general rule of PoV is that a scene should be told through the eyes of the character who has the most at stake, to get the most emotion out of it. But then I thought ahead to the big set-piece of AC, which is the Battle of Mons Graupius. All five of my designated drivers are present for it, and it presents a huge turning point in each of their individual stories. So, whose head should the reader be in for it? The answer is: everyone's. But my chosen technique doesn't allow for it. By confining each character to their own chapter, I'd be splitting the battle into several sections, rather than making it flow as a whole, and that could slow the pacing. This was what first got me thinking about changing my technique. Maybe it would be better - overall, not just for that particular scene - if I let each PoV intertwine throughout each chapter, rather than segregating them as I have been doing. It definitely lend more fluidity to the narrative, and the more I think about it, the more I'm realising that this could apply to several events in all of the books, not just Mons Graupius.

I've also been thinking about being less strict with whose PoV I use. This came when I wrote a chapter in Cinioch's PoV during NaNo. He was never meant to be one of my windows, but the chapter just felt right when it was written in his PoV. It also showed Cinioch's motivations, rather than telling them. With this mind, I looked around and realised that it wasn't just my main characters who could contribute to the story: some of the secondary characters could also provide crucial insights at certain points in the story. Tuathal, Sargaid, Verecunda, Aulus, Seithved... I never intended any of them to have a PoV, but I'm realising that there are certain points where their input might be more valuable even than my main characters', and again, offer a little window into their heads, too. I gave a friend the first couple of chapters of Book Two to read during NaNo, and she remarked that Edarnan came across as weak, because at the ideal opportunity he didn't act on a subject that he professed was important to him. As the writer, I already knew that Edarnan didn't act right away because he had a long-term plan, but it occurred to me that sprinkling in a little of his PoV at certain times would strengthen his characterisation in the eyes of the readers and allow enough of a look into his head to know exactly why he's not acting when he should.

So I'm thinking about relaxing my "one character PoV per chapter" rule, and mixing them in together a bit more. It might make the separate stories flow together a bit better, and maybe allowing more than one person a look-in during a chapter will do the thing proper justice.

I don't know yet. I'm only just turning to this technique, and still need to experiment a bit. I'll let you know how it goes.


Gabriele C. said...

More POVs is more fun. :)

Sure, some writers like Cornwell can do interesting stuff with a single POV (first person) but overall I prefer multiple POVs for complicated plots. Shorter intervals between the shifts may be a good idea, too. GRR Martin sticks to one POV per chapter and much as I like his series, sometimes that leads to retelling an event from a different POV, and you're stuck with the annyoing characters for too long (I wish there would be less Sansa and Danaerys. fe.).

Hehe, maybe you will succomb to omniscient one day. *evil grin*

Kirsten Campbell said...

There is that, too. :)

Shorter intervals are also good. At the moment, AC feels a bit disjointed as the PoV flits from Galloway to Inverness to London to Argyll and back again. And the way I've been doing it, I'm in danger of retelling Mons Graupius in its entirety five times over. Once is enough, really.

(Less Sansa is always a good idea. I quite like Dany, though. Then again, I've only read GoT and part of CoK.)

No! I resist thee, omniscient PoV! Back, I say! :D