BALANCING POINT OF VIEW
I’m in the middle of beta reading/editing a novel for some friends. It’s written in multiple-character third-person, much to my great pleasure! The story is a fun read. However, like all raw manuscripts, it needs lots of work to get it right.
MULTI-CHARACTER POINT OF VIEW
When you’re writing in any point of view, there’s nothing wrong with having more than one character represented. In fact, it almost goes without saying in third-person except on rare occasions. My Meleena’s Adventure series is one of them. In first-person, often the entire story is driven solely by one character. However, I’ve seen and anecdotally heard of stories told in multiple first-person viewpoints, and have read mixed first-person/third-person narratives.
The key is balance, making it flow, making it fit. If it’s jarring, you need to can it (the jarring parts), simple as that.
How can you tell? Sometimes, it’s a third set of eyes that will see it. When someone else reads it and raises the flag, don’t ignore it!
THE CASE OF THIRD-PERSON
To simplify this discussion, since the inspiration for this article was a third-person novel, we’ll delve into the mechanics of that one.
This story has multiple characters and each chapter, for the most part, switches between characters. The issues are that the POVs are mixed. This is a common forest-through-the-trees problem with any rough draft. You get into a writing frenzy, and even though the grammar may be relatively clean and the prose in pretty decent shape, the structure and what comes out may be a little mixed. You tend to head-hop and mix characters up and run thoughts together.
One character starts driving a scene, but before you know it, one of the other characters creeps in and takes over, only to have the other character take over again. I’m, of course, describing head-hopping, but in this case, it’s unintentional.
What this leads to is a weaker scene overall. With no focus, it leads to telling more than showing.
I also found a lot of the narrative was just action and then dialogue, but no thoughts and feelings. It switched from one character to the next with no particular character driving the scene. All tell, like a screenplay where it’s up to the actors to show all the emotion. In this case, it was up to the reader to fill in all the emotion.
It’s easy to fall into this trap, where you just want to get the story out and forget that there are people involved. I’ve done it plenty, especially on early drafts of my first Gold series novels. I’ve still wrote occasional stretches where I forgot to add in feelings and emotions and thanks to other sets of eyes, they called me on it. I’m simply returning the favor with this story.
Just like with my stuff, the whole novel isn’t that way, just parts. That’s, of course, where the work comes in, cleaning it up.
By solidifying the point of view to specific characters, these little dry areas will stand out and can be corrected with ease.
IN THIRD PERSON, IS OMNISCIENT A CHARACTER?
This is where things can get tricky. It was common back in the day, especially for adventure stories to have a third-person story with an omniscient prologue to set up the story. Then Chapter One would dive right into the main character POV. Sometimes there’d be further scenes in omniscient scattered throughout.
In a way, those omniscient scenes are a character, just like every other POV character that drives a scene. These scenes have purpose and function and drive the story, if done properly.
In the case of the story I’m beta reading/editing, that’s exactly the case. Though most chapters are driven by specific characters, there are a few scenes that are blatantly omniscient.
You know what? They work. They work well. They drive the story, they convey everything they need to, and they do it well.
The thing that makes them work is that these omniscient scenes are separated by being their own, they’re well-written, they’re relatively short, they’re funny and they have no internal thoughts or feelings from any one character to cement them to a POV or break the omniscient viewpoint. They’re pure. This is a case where no internal thoughts or emotions actually works.
Some agents and editors hate omniscient, even a little bit of it. However, when it works, it works. I personally am no fan of an entire story in omniscient. However, omniscient scenes can be great tools for your story. I use them in my Gold series. I even use them in my icky bug stories. Just don’t overdo them or mix them with a character driven scene. Also, keep them short!
Why should the rules be any different for first-person? I’ve seen authors mix POVs just as much with first as with third-person. However, you need to be more careful with a first-person narrative. Since the majority of the story is inside the main character’s head, when you shift to third or omniscient, it can be jarring since you’re taking the personal stakes out of his or her head into another realm. You’re taking it out of their eyes and into la-la land. To make it even more challenging, when you have multiple first-person point of view, that can either make or break a story if not done carefully and with great skill. Balance is just as important there as with third-person. A few authors have made it work.