Multiple Narrative Points of View, Part the First

Since we’re back and I’m a writer and this is, ostensibly, a writer’s blog, I figured we’d start out with a writing post.

Arisia, one of the Boston area Science Fiction conventions, was supposed to happen this last weekend. January, 2022, was too fraught with COVID for that to happen so they canceled it.

I was scheduled for three panels, one of which started on the convention’s opening night. The topic  of the panel was multiple perspectives vs single perspective in fiction. I was to be moderator. I had a very good suite of panelists including Andrea Hairston, Ken Schneyer, and the illustrious Anne Nydam.

Alas, it was not to be.

A side note about Anne, not only is she a prolific author, she is also a terrific illustrator. We found her work at Arisia some years ago and decided, then and there, she was to be the cover artist for Jackie’s Boy.

So, in unfortunate isolation and without the lovely synthesis of my worthy colleagues, I will put down what I thought about the subject.

To me, there are three questions that need to be answered regarding multiple points of view in a narration:

  1. Why multiple POVs?
  2. How to approach multiple POVs?
  3. How to manage multiple POVs?

Why multiple POVs?

This will likely be the longest part of the discussion.

Single points of view have a lot to recommend them. It presents the opportunity to delve deep into the psyche of the character. The character presents an observation of the world at large. It gives the author to create a character that fits neatly into what the narrative is supposed to accomplish.

Multiple points of view have the bonus that one can create a gestalt representation of the topic. By this, I mean that if the subject matter is broad, different points of view can observe different facets of the problem separately. This allows the reader to pull those different facets together and observe the greater landscape—greater than that of any individual character point of view.

Consider this the Huckleberry Finn/Lord of the Rings problem.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens, 1884) is a novel that is tightly bound to the first person point of view of its title character. It’s a lightly written work that is directed at serious subject matter. I would guess that it would be called a black comedy, if it were written today. (Hm. Now, that’s an approach to a film adaptation.) Huck is an innocent and outsider throughout the novel. Because of this, he can observe what happens around him without moral judgment. This allows Twain to present terrible things to the reader and allow the reader to make the moral judgement for themselves.

It is clear from the presentation that the author thinks these things are vile but is unwilling to preach that horror to the reader.

I view Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien, 1954) as a long discussion on the nature of evil and war. It is written from the third-person point of view of many characters. Some characters in the book know far more than others (Gandalf, for one) and that knowledge is carefully obscured from the reader by the structure of the narrative. None of the characters are true outsiders in the same way as Huck—they have a heritage as working members of the individual societies of the novel. By virtue of the impending war, all of them are thrust out of their original communities but carry the imprint of community membership with them. Each point of view concerns itself with the goals of the individual character and the larger goals of the character’s mission. But there is no in-depth discussion of the nature of evil or war. There is little investigation into the moral decisions they have made in the path of the novel. Evil is evil, after all. Like the Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok, it’s enough to look at Surtur and say big monster, just before hitting it in the head.

Instead, Tolkien embeds his opinions on the subject into the action and tribulations inflicted on the characters.

Could either of these works have been told differently? Maybe. I think changing either would cause the wave collapse of the universe. (Although, I have toyed once or twice in playing the story from Tom Bombadil’s point of view.)

But I think both are good examples of the narrative choice of point of view. Twain wanted to show the deeply embedded evil of slavery in a tight, personal way. He was uninterested in the larger societal ramifications—at least in this work. He wanted to show how individual people were tainted, root and branch, by this. How slavery reached across and stained whole aspects of life that were not generally associated with it.

Tolkien did not shy away from his characters being bludgeoned by the world. But I think that was more because he was a good writer than it reflected from LOTR’s goal. He was after a higher perspective—one that was attained by spreading the action across multiple characters.

I have this idea that a work is about something—by this, I do not mean something as simple as a topic or a theme. For example, John Dos Passos’ (the ultimate master of multiple points of view) USA is about the USA. That subject is beyond a theme or a topic. To target that subject, he used many, many points of view where none of the characters had any real knowledge of the subject matter. Contrast this with LOTR where all of the characters have intimate knowledge of the war and evil of the subject matter.

So, given this idea, what the work is about has a direct influence on why the points of view are chosen.

When I start a work, I spend a lot of time determining how the work is presented via the characters. Jackie’s Boy was tightly coupled with Michael, a boy of eleven. God’s Country is spread across five points of view. In both cases, the decision was based on what was being investigated. In Jackie’s Boy, I wanted to look the individual growth of a damaged child. In God’s Country, I was interested in how people reacted to the injection of the divine into their lives—well, my idea of divinity which will fit in no religion whatsoever.

Next: How to approach multiple POVs and how to manage them, for God’s sake.

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