Scotland, Bombs and Potatoes: Writing from multiple points-of-view
As a kid, my mother regaled us with tales of her youth in wartime Scotland. My favourite in her repertoire was of being whisked away with her younger sister to the country manor of a retired naval captain to avoid the nightly bombing of Glasgow. My grandmother had purchased new outfits for the girls (unheard of!) and my mother credited their being chosen from amongst other classmates to their matching blue suits and smart tams.
At the manor, my mother and aunt had free range to play and explore. One of her favourite stories was about pilfering potatoes and taking them to the coal-fire furnace to bake. The way she described those charred spuds made my mouth water.
In my mother’s telling, the story was simple, sweet and endearing. The same scenario offered from the naval captain’s point-of-view would no doubt be different. What were his motives for harbouring the girls? Was he a selfless humanitarian or an elderly bachelor with a penchant for pre-pubescent children?
And what of the housekeeper entrusted with the girls’ welfare? Why were they allowed to run rampant without supervision? Was the woman busy with chores, or after a long night of drinking was she dozing by the kitchen stove? Whatever the case, I’m certain she had an alternate version of the wild wee lassies from Glasgow.
Having a story is one thing. Telling it is quite another. My mother’s account of her time in the country has the makings of a delightful picture book. If the captain and/or the housekeeper’s version of events were added, however, the narrative becomes richer, more complex and the possibility of a dark novel emerges.
It Ain’t Easy
Writing from multiple points-of-view is difficult. Logistically it’s more work. Rather than inhabit the persona of one character, the writer must examine events and circumstances of several.
Character development is doubled, tripled or quadrupled in scope. In the final analysis, they’ll be readers who love it; and those who despise it.
So why choose this literary device to tell your story?
In a word, exploration. Multiple viewpoints allow the writer to convey the subtle nuances of relationships inaccessible from only one point-of-view. When well-executed, the reader is able to piece together a complicated world or idea. Examining a situation from more than one perspective also provides objectivity. In doing so, however, some character intimacy with the reader will be sacrificed. Is it worth it? That depends.
Know your story
In, How We Danced (Cactus Rain Publishing, 2016), I explored a family’s attempt to reconcile a lifetime of misunderstanding. There was no hero in my tale. To appreciate the struggle of each character, my reader must remain objective. In this instance, writing from three alternating viewpoints was worth pursuing.
If you’re up for the challenge of writing from multiple viewpoints, ask yourself:
• Does it make sense in the context of my story?
• Is objectivity my goal?
• If intimacy with a particular character is sacrificed will my story suffer?
Know your characters
Familiarizing yourself with the intimate details of your characters’ personality and circumstances are necessary however you structure your story. When writing from multiple viewpoints, there are several more components to consider:
• Each character’s viewpoint must be distinct from the others
When my mother died, the pastor called my sisters and me into her chambers and, in an effort to understand my mother better, questioned us about her. Hearing my sisters’ impressions, thoughts and remembrances about our mother surprised me. I came to realize that her daughters’ different recollections spoke of the unique relationship my mother shared with each of us. My sisters’ perspectives were valid and true, even if they were distinctly different from mine.
And so it goes with story.
Narratives with multiple viewpoints must reflect each character’s unique viewpoint. By creating this variation in perspective for the reader, you also enhance their understanding of the idea or world you wish to convey.
• Each character’s viewpoint must embrace a different outlook on similar issues
One of the best tips I received on writing from multiple perspectives was a curt edict from a mentor: “Read The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy,” he said. Throughout the short story, the character of Ivan Ilyich emerged, not from his own viewpoint, but in contrast to the way others perceived him. This nuanced play between how characters see themselves, how others view them and the issues presented, is a powerful tool at your disposal when writing from multiple viewpoints.
Your characters motivations must be divergent from one another, or at least contrasting. All readers love a page-turner; that book you just cannot put down. Beds go unmade, deadlines are missed, dinner is take-out. As readers, we love being on the cusp of discovery, the excitement and anticipation about what will happen next or how it will all turn out.
A marriage ends. A wife is heartbroken; a lover, delighted. The husband, conflicted.
When several viewpoints are at play, tension is derived from the divergent or contrasting motives of your characters. Let’s face it, if they all wanted the same thing your story would be, well, pointless. The good news is, even at the best of times people rarely agree. (You want chocolate cake? I prefer vanilla!) If you know your individual characters—their likes, dislikes, what makes them laugh, love, cry, withdraw—their contrasting motives will reveal themselves. Use these differences to move your characters, and the story, forward.
• Character Voice
When writing from from multiple points-of-view, each character’s voice must be distinguishable from another. Their self-expression or turn-of-phrase should jump out to the reader and make them recognizable.
The first novel I read with multiple viewpoints was The Poisonwood Bible, (Harper, 1998) by Barbara Kingsolver. The chapters alternated between several viewpoints and heading each one was the name of the featured character. It wasn’t long before I could tell which character was speaking without looking at the chapter heading. For an example of character voice, I highly recommend this book.
Time is on Your Side
Colson Whitehead, in his Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, (Doubleday, 2016) weaves a breathtaking tale from several, independent viewpoints. However, it was his time-bending storytelling that impressed me. At the conclusion of his tale, he hurls the reader right back to the beginning. It was brilliant and masterfully executed.
Writing from multiple viewpoints allows the writer to move back and forth in time with relative ease. When you switch viewpoints you may also re-set the clock without compromising the integrity of your story or your relationship with the reader.
Non-linear stories from different perspectives are, by nature, a little more challenging to read. For many, it is the reason we enjoy such novels. Others may venture between the pages, but struggle. As writers, the onus is on us to make the journey challenging and interesting but also accessible. The interplay of multiple points-of-view may be difficult to write, but it should appear seamless and simple to the reader.
• Chapter breaks are a direct way of signalling change to your reader. They are an especially valuable tool when writing from different perspectives.
• Let the dynamics of your characters do the heavy lifting. If you keep the language simple and the relationships complex, your story will remain approachable.
• Let loose, have fun developing different personas and most importantly, apply bum-glue and get to work!
Deborah Serravalle is a graduate of McMaster University and also attended their Creative Writing program. A scholarship recipient from the Writers’ Trust of Canada, she completed the post-graduate Creative Writing program at Humber College. She was born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada and currently divides her time between “The Hammer” and St. Helena, South Carolina. A rich and colourful family life keeps her insane and informs much of her writing. How We Danced is her first novel.