Multiple Limited POVs
Or: Taming a Beast with 24 Heads.
[Awesome picture of 24-headed leviathan here.]
Let's put our serious pants on early this week, guys. Chances are, unless you're in a regularly-meeting critique group, you ain't gonna get many comments on this beast. Esp since many writing forums have a limit – maybe 2k words or so – of how much you can post at a time for critting. And establishing that you are indeed doing multiple POVs can take a few chapters.
If you're saying "Hold on, J. I totes need 24 POVs in my epic on racehorse lovers of the twenty-third century."
Huh… are you talking about people who love racehorses or –
"Nah, anthropomorphized space-traveling horses, dude."
Uh, this actually sounds fascinating but 24 POVs? Rilly?
"Totes. 24 3rd person limited POVs"
Okay. Many epics have more than one POV. Indeed, many epics have six to a dozen…
Here's a critique you might come across then: "Do you really need all these POVs?" Or "I stopped reading after chapter three and started skimming until I got to Yaga the assassin's chapter again."
What it means: "I totes don't see why I should care about the protag at all, since I haven't read anything from her POV for like, eight chapters." Or "I only read Yaga and Mimsy's chapters, so in reality, I only read ten chapters out of your ninety-five chapter book." (This last comment actually came from discussions in two writers' group about a current popular fantasy series <names have been changed to protect the yadda>.)
If you're saying "My WIP is supposed to be romantical and stuff. How do I show what they feel for each other without using multi?"
Here's the thing – two POVs can be great. Three or more can be fine. Where it stops working is when you have so many characters you want the reader to care about, the multi POVs dilutes the reader's emotional investment.
A story should be immersive. A step stone to that goal is following a protag that is relatable, understandable, etc. (not necessarily likeable!). The protag must be so compelling that a reader cares about the protag enough to turn the page to find out what happens next, otherwise it might be more appealing to put down your story in favor of surfing facebook, retweeting what Bob had for breakfast, soaking in a hot tub with a tumbler of vodka in one hand and fat cigar in the other.
Let's say you do have a protag (let's call him 1protag) with an awesome mix of vulnerable roguishness and comic badassery or whatev, and all he wants to do is
save the kingdom from dragons find
his long lost little brother win the
universe horse racing cup. But then you change POVs into his antagonist. Or his
BFF. Or his bastard sister from his philandering father's side who 1protag's
secretly in love with because he doesn't know they're related. Dropping 1protag's
POV can be a gamble. You risk losing a substantial fraction of your reader's
emotional investment in 1protag, and therefore, 1protag's story.
The risk might be worth it. Perhaps the second POV – let's say it's mum's POV – is just as compelling and just as integral to the epic plot because she um… I dunno, secretly wants to kill 1protag in revenge for 1protag's father's roving
eye. Having the second POV can increase tension because now you've got the WTF
factor: dramatic irony – audience knows something 1protag doesn't.
But now you've got another character, who – by virtue of her importance to your epic plot – deserves just as much development as 1protag. What I mean by this is she must be a character with her own history, habits, motivations, vocabulary, etc. These are the things which make her relatable. Otherwise, the fact that she only exists as a gimmick to provide information becomes obvious.
Ok, now let's add another POV say… 1protag's BFF, Gina. Same things apply about her – another personal history (beware the infodump and infologue!), another set of mannerisms, another set of motives which must be different from the first two, otherwise, why have her. Gina's necessary because 1protag and mumprotag are stuck at
the king's court family
court the racetrack, but Gina, being
a knight insurance salesman lightspeed racehorse, can travel to
places the other two protags can't. She can be the vehicle for more
information. Yeah, that's it!
So that's a good … what, another POV? The ancient, super duper evil baddie from Space Station Omega Delta Blueberry Pi who wants 1protag's right thumb because it unlocks a dimensional gate between three different time zones? Okaaay... another personal history, etc. etc.
Oh, and the baddieprotag's toady.
And toadyprotag's second cousin horse trainer.
And baddieprotag's daughter who's secretly in love with 1protag.
That's six more POV's added. Count backwards from this paragraph. Doesn't seem like much so far, but that's six paragraphs separating the moment from the main character. In a WIP, that's ideally going to be six chapter breaks, with several paragraphs in each chapter. Remember what the protag wanted? Me neither.
Don't even get me started about trying to query this clusterf*ck.
Anyway, so you're sure your epic needs multiple POV's. How to handle it? An approach that's been suggested in my writing group is to write each POV's story from start to finish. Frex, write 1protag's entire story with events only experienced from his POV. Next, write mumprotag's entire story. Just hers, no one else's. Next, write Gina, the BFF's story. Etc. Ideally, each personal story should be integral to the plot – ie, what one person does affects multiple story lines. Also, ideally, each personal story should stand alone. Contradictory? Not so much when you think about it this way: Can each character live beyond the scenes you allow into your story, or do they only appear because you have to relay information. Are they pro-active? Or re-active.
Once all POVs have been written, weave them together at appropriate plot points.
Does this seem like a sh*t ton of hard work? If you said "Hell yeah!", that's a sign your story probably doesn't need POV's 4 through 24. It's easy and (imho, lazy) to start the story with one protag and bring in another character's POV when the first protag starts getting boring.
Did POVs 8, 12, and 16 just have a chapter or two each, in which they burst into a super important scene that 1protag, mumprotag, or BFFprotag couldn't be at? That's a sign you're using characters 8, 12, and 16 as a plot crutch.
Did you dread writing POV 9, 13, and 20? Cut them. Hold them over a flame. Then dip them in acid.
Do POV 7, 14, 19, and 22 sound like exactly the same people doing different things? Cut them or merge them into supporting cast members.
If you're sure you need all 24+ POVs in your racehorse romance epic, then do it. You know your story. The point of writing it down is to put that story in another person's head. Multiple POV's can be the important puzzle pieces (you know, the edges or obviously the eye of a Cyclops, top of a skyscraper) that can help a reader fill in the larger picture (because the story was bigger than any one person involved! Woah! Mind=blown!).
But it's a gamble. Because as 1protag's chapter ends and you put forth 2protag, you're betting your entire WIP that 2protag's story is just as compelling and page-turning as 1protag's. Same goes for 3protag to nprotag.
Next week, another Beast: Omni.