This blog was featured on 10/29/2018
Writing from Multiple Points of View
Written by
She Writes
October 2018
Written by
She Writes
October 2018

Our October Guest Editor, Francesca Hornak, took some time to share with She Writes the ways in which she used multiple perspectives in her debut novel and the ways in which it challenged her. Read an excerpt of Seven Days of Us now and get your copy of the highly buzzed about book now

I wrote my novel Seven Days of Us from five characters’ perspectives. To me, this was the easy option (more on this later). But since the book came out I’ve been asked many times, ‘How did you juggle all those different voices?’

Before how, why? Why switch between five brains and five backstories, when you could focus on one? Bluntly, because when I began the book after ten years of journalism, I could only think in word counts. I knew I wanted to try to write a novel and I knew if I embarked on a story starring one protagonist I’d have to sustain 90,000 words in their voice alone. But if I split that between several characters, I’d only have to write 18,000 words per person. Since I’d never written anything longer than a 1,000-word article, this seemed like the saner option. I fear this isn’t very writerly (whatever that is). Still, at least it got me to the end of the first draft.

It was only once I started that I realized how much fun a multi-viewpoint novel is to direct and inhabit. I’ve always been fascinated by the way different people can have opposing or subtly different interpretations of the same event (a first date is a prime example). In real life, we can never fully see into someone else’s mind or motivation. But if you write a multi-perspective novel you get to play God and to bestow the ‘all-seeing eye’ on your reader. This is why I love reading multi-perspective novels, as well as writing them. We know exactly what secret is bound to come out and what house of cards is about to come crashing down, long before the characters do. It’s like having a superpower. It’s the magic of ‘Meanwhile…’

Speaking of ‘Meanwhile’, a multi-viewpoint novel is also brilliantly suited to the short attention span. You’re less likely to bore your reader if you’re switching between perspectives, with all that inbuilt suspense and variety. And if you write several characters, you stand a better chance of every reader engaging with at least one of your cast. Perhaps this makes me too much of a pleaser. All I know is that I’m embarrassingly grateful to anyone who has picked up my novel, and the least I can do is entertain them.

For all that, writing from multiple viewpoints brings challenges. Logistically, it’s a bit like writing a soap opera in that you have to figure out why this character knew X but not Y, and where everybody is at different times. If you like a detailed plan this shouldn’t be too stressful. But if you’re more of a stream of consciousness writer, who prefers to dive in and see where their characters take them, you may come unstuck.

Most importantly, your characters must be distinct from one another. First, to avoid confusing your reader. Second, to create some conflict - because without conflict there is no story. This is easier said than done. In Seven Days Of Us, I had two ‘chalk and cheese’ sisters, one bratty millennial and one earnest medic, and the challenge was keeping their voices and responses distinct without lapsing into stereotypes. Also, if you’re actually writing in the characters’ voices, or even half writing in them, you need to make their registers immediately recognizable. I find it most helpful to see the process like acting. You have to get inside the character while keeping a degree of detached observation. Think about the cadences of their speech and their internal monologue, the metaphors they would use and the ones they wouldn’t. Practically, it can help to stick to a single character’s view in each writing session.

For these reasons, multi-perspective suits some writers better than others. If you know that dialogue and mimicry are your strengths, it could be the one for you. Plots involving a lot of secrets or communication difficulties – often family or community dramas - are also well served by multiple narrators. But other tales, especially coming of age or romance, demand the intensity of just one viewpoint. And of course, if there’s a particular hero or heroine you’re burning to write then it might be a mistake to dilute that with other narrators.

If not, go ahead and be five people at once. I found it liberating – I hope you do, too.

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