February 22 – 28: “Is juggling multiple points of view more, or less, challenging?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Thrillers and other forms of fiction, too, increasingly rely on multiple characters to present a narrative. This week ITW Members Suzanne Redfearn, Paul McGoran, Elizabeth Noble, Mark Alpert, Justin Bog, Bernard Maestas, Bill Schweigart, Johnny Shaw and Mike Dellosso discuss whether juggling multiple points of view is more, or less, challenging?

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No Ordinary Life_coverSuzanne Redfearn lives in Laguna Beach, where she and her husband own a restaurant called Lumberyard. Her debut novel Hush Little Baby was a Target Recommends selection, and RT Book Reviews nominated it as Best Mainstream Fiction for 2013. Suzanne’s second novel No Ordinary Life was chosen as a Target Emerging Author selection and was chosen by RT Book Reviews as a Top Pick. Prior to becoming an author, Suzanne was an architect.

 

paying for Pain coverPaul McGoran lives and works in Newport, Rhode Island. His first novel was the noir thriller MADE FOR MURDER. He began writing crime fiction after a long career in marketing. His favorite thing about writing is disappearing into the mind and thoughts of his characters. He is convinced that writers like him have a form of multiple personality disorder–without the alarming clinical symptoms.

 

Say That to My Face by Bernard MaestasBernard Maestas lives in paradise. A police officer patrolling the mean streets of Hawaii, he has a background in contract security and military and civilian law enforcement. When not saving the world, one speeding ticket at a time, and not distracted by video games or the internet, he is usually hard at work on his next book.

 

 

northwoodsBill Schweigart revives a bit of forgotten lore from the shadow of Washington, D.C. in his last novel, THE BEAST OF BARCROFT, which finds a devilish creature stalking the residents of Arlington. Its sequel, NORTHWOODS, will be available February 16, 2016. Bill is a former Coast Guard officer who drew from his experiences at sea to write the taut nautical thriller, SLIPPING THE CABLE. Bill currently resides in Arlington, VA.

 

 

gone awayElizabeth Noble is the author of over a dozen novels including her mystery/thriller/suspense series Circles. Gone Away is the fourth novel in the series. Several of her thrillers take place remote wilderness locations. When she’s not spinning tales of murder and mayhem she’s a veterinary nurse who lives in Cleveland, Ohio with a very spoiled dog and cat. The comment she hears most often from readers is “I didn’t see that coming!”

 

 

Orion Plan-2Mark Alpert, a contributing editor at Scientific American, writes thrillers that weave real science and technologies into the story. His first novel, Final Theory (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2008), was published in 23 languages and became an international bestseller. His next three science thrillers were The Omega Theory (Touchstone, 2011), Extinction (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2013) and The Furies (Thomas Dunne, 2014). His first Young Adult novel, The Six, was published in 2015, and its sequel, The Surge, will come out in July 2016. Mark lives with his wife and two teenage kids in New York City. He’s a proud member of Scientific American’s softball team, The Big Bangers.

 

floodgateJohnny Shaw’s debut, Dove Season (2011), won the Spotted Owl Award for Debut Mystery, was nominated for a Spinetingler Award, and earned multiple yearend “Best of” mentions. His next book, Big Maria (2012), was awarded an Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original, and 2014’s Plaster City was an Amazon Best Book of the Month and a Kindle bestseller. With FLOODGATE (Thomas & Mercer | Feb. 16, 2016), Shaw turns from California’s Imperial Valley, setting of his previous adventures, to the utterly corrupt fictional metropolis of Auction City and the one man who might be able to bring it back from the brink of destruction.

 

kill devilMike Dellosso is the author of several novels of suspense, an adjunct professor of creative writing and popular conference teacher, a husband, and a father. Born in Baltimore, Mike now resides in southern Pennsylvania with his wife and four daughters. Kill Devil is a Jed Patrick
novel.

 

 

Wake Me Up CoverJustin Bog is the critically acclaimed author of two short fiction collections, including the Suspense Magazine award-winning anthology Sandcastle and Other Stories, which was also a Finalist for the Ohioana Book Award. Wake Me Up is his first literary crime novel. Please visit him at www.justinbog.com or find his author page on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

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29 Comments
  1. I usually go with multiple points of view in my novels. In The Beast of Barcroft, I alternate chapters between my two main characters, Ben McKelvie and Lindsay Clark. In its sequel Northwoods, I rotate between them and some new characters as well. For me, it’s a matter of covering more ground. I can experience more of the plot this way or showcase different settings. It helps with variety and momentum. But there are challenges too, and the biggest is that each of your viewpoint characters always needs something to do, which can make for some tricky choreography at times. For example, if your main characters are split up, you can’t have Character A fighting for her life, only to cut back to Character B…filing his taxes. There should be a balance. You don’t want your readers to resent having to abandon one character’s perspective for another. Though I prefer using multiple points of view, I have ultimate respect for writers who use a single character to present a narrative, particularly in thrillers and mysteries. I bow at the altar of authors like Raymond Chandler. Narratively speaking, Philip Marlowe has zero help – he has to be present for everything! He follows the clues, operates without all of the necessary information, yet somehow solves the mystery without making us feel cheated. And all the while, Chandler maintains suspense with subtle yet beautiful prose. I love multiple points of view, but a well-executed single point of view is a thing of beauty.

  2. Of the ten novels I’ve published, only one is in first person, single POV, and it was the most difficult book I’ve written to date. Why? A few reasons.
    With single point of view we have to remember that the reader is stuck inside one person’s head for the entire story. To pull that off without boring the reader into catatonia that character had better have a strong, unique, interesting voice. This isn’t easy to pull off.
    Having multiple POV characters takes the heat off of any one player. It allows me as the writer to share the load of action and “head time” with various characters with varying personalities and motivations. And it allows the reader to experience the story through the eyes of different characters with different thoughts, world views, interpretations.
    Also, multiple POV characters allows us to show the reader the world through the eyes and mind of the villain. In thrillers I think this is crucial for ratcheting up the suspense. The world is a much different and scarier place when viewed through a twisted and demented mind. Giving the reader a front row seat to the evil that resides in a murderous soul can be a very chilling and uncomfortable but memorable experience.
    My questions for readers: Since our writing is all about you and the experience we give you, which do you prefer, single POV character or multiple characters? Does being inside the head of the villain ever make you uncomfortable?

    1. Most of the time, I prefer multiple characters especially in a thriller; however, single POV from the point of view of the villain could be quite interesting if written properly. In fact, I would love to read a thriller written from this particular point of view. But the writer runs the risk of the reader feeling compassion for the villain depending on how the character is developed. Hmmm.

      1. I think some of my favorite villains are the one’s I love and hate at the same time. Ya definitely don’t want them to succeed, but getting inside their mind and knowing why they are what they’ve become makes you feel sorry for them. I kinda like that reversal of sympathies. It’s most satisfying to me when a villain’s plan is foiled, but they end up learning something too . . . when they don’t have to die or stay “bad” in the end. 🙂

        1. Yeah, I agree. The best kind of villain is the one who is fully developed and you can see a glimpse of why he does what he does, maybe understand a bit of what has shaped him into the monster he is. This is the beauty of multiple POV characters. It gives the author the opportunity to show the reader what motivates the villain in a very intimate way.

      2. Yes, that could be interesting. I think you’d have to create a character that would pull the reader in two directions. They’d have to feel for him and even be able to empathize with him but at the same time abhor what he does . . . or maybe is forced to do? This could be very interesting . . .

    2. I like both types of stories. If multiple POV characters, I do not like it when the character is hard to identify. I prefer to be able to identify who is talking in a few sentences or a at least two paragraphs.
      I have found myself sympathizing with a villain who has had a terrible life. However, when he/she makes bad choices, that is a different matter.

  3. Short answer—challenging but essential for most contemporary thrillers.

    Point of view is something I think about while planning a novel. Once I have an outline, the basics are in place: story arc, main characters, subplot(s). Lots can change as I get into the narrative, but my upfront exploration of the story elements will help me decide on the most effective POV strategy.

    For me, the one-character, first-person point of view works in short stories, and I would consider it for a police procedural or a traditional mystery of the P.I. or cozy variety. In a thriller, though, nothing is more exciting to this writer than having multiple minds to invade and explore.

    Three advantages for multiple POVs in the thriller genre come readily to mind:
    1. The level of suspense can be heightened as you raise the stakes for one character and hand the narrative to another whose story adds even more complications to the mix;
    2. A more thorough exploration of the attitudes and thoughts of each important character is possible;
    3. A more complex narrative with interlocking subplots is encouraged.

    The disadvantages and problems that flow from multiple POVs have to be evaluated as well:
    1. Readers can find all this confusing if the writer isn’t skillful;
    2. The feeling of intimacy projected by the first-person voice is sacrificed to some extent;
    3. The “heroic” stature of the primary lead character will be diminished (not always a disadvantage).

    I think it’s important to note that variations on the multiple-character narration are possible. For my novel MADE FOR MURDER, I developed a first-person POV as a frame that surrounded a series of limited third-person narrations. The effect was that of a police detective recollecting a case and presenting the stories of the principals. In all, eight narrators were involved.

    In short, I’m a fan of multiple-character narration. Diving deep into the psychology of each main character is one of the reasons I write thrillers. I think of it as my disappearing act–my magician’s trick. Perhaps writers like me are afflicted with a form of multiple personality disorder. Minus most of the alarming clinical symptoms, hopefully.

    1. Great points, Paul. I like when authors explore different variations and combinations of POV. Same thing with tense, past tense and present tense. It adds an extra layer to the story that separates it from the “ordinary.”

  4. I find character-based fiction the most exciting to read and write—the squirrelly types are always interesting to follow around. Tackling a subject from multiple viewpoints, especially in thrillers and mysteries, adds layers and subtext to the story. When characters become unreliable, and this revelation itself can also shock readers, the use of multiple points of view can lead to strong epiphany moments. Gone Girl sticks in my mind as a story that switched between two different narrative devices (one voice being the writings in a journal), and reading through the twists and turns became thrilling for so many.

    In my latest novel, Wake Me Up, I created a narrator who could see into other minds, read their thoughts and tell each of their stories, but in a believable manner that suspends disbelief even through the impossibility of how the story is being told. A teenager becomes the victim of a brutal assault by four bullying classmates and rests in a coma afterwards—his life hanging in the balance—but he’s also the narrator in this black state. The book has been described as a mix of the film Magnolia and The Lovely Bones because of the narrative perspective—there are four storylines converging. First person omniscient is not easy to pull off as a POV conceit, but it was worth the risk. When I speak to other writers I encourage risk-taking. Learn the rules of writing and know when these become barriers to creativity.

  5. I had a completely different answer to this but reading the posts that have gone up so far, I’ve changed my mind. First off, I think it’s definitely easier to tell your story with multiple points of view. The mention of Philip Marlowe – which was a stroke of genius, by the way, Bill, you couldn’t have proven the point better – and others who have to “be present for everything” really drove that home.

    One of the most important parts of my “Internet Tough Guys” series has been the dynamic duo protagonists but I hadn’t really considered it as it related to the narrative until this topic came up. The idea of the computer hacker teamed with the ex-commando, plus having two protagonists that can play their biting humor off of each other, is what I was after. Looking back, I realize how much it helps me to have obvious points for scene breaks, which allows me to keep the story moving. This is especially helpful in the action-heavy ITG novels.

    In the third book in the series, the recently released “You Think this is a Game?”, I actually spent some time looking through the eyes of the villains. I didn’t realize this was a narrative decision until now either. I really liked them, though, and I wanted to give them more screen time. That was the best way I could think of to accomplish it.

    My upcoming crime novel, “Concrete Smile,” features a triple threat of protagonists and, in some ways, is sort of an all-star cast of characters from previous books. Telling the story from three different perspectives really wasn’t difficult (though that book really came easily to me) but if I were to try and write it again from only one character’s point of view? I don’t think it could be done, frankly.

    In some other projects I’ve been working on, I’ve stuck with the dual protagonist formula, but at the behest of my muse, I’ve recently branched out to an even bigger ensemble. It’s important to listen to readers and, from the feedback I’ve gotten, multiple characters is what they’re after.

    I noticed this trend especially in anime and manga first, actually. In a lot of the stuff that’s coming out these days, characters that would have been supporting roles or comic relief are as big a part of the story as the hero. Sometimes it’s great, to be sure, but there’s a risk of diluting your cast. To name a specific example, the manga “Assassination Classroom” has a huge ensemble but, off the top of my head, I couldn’t really name any of them.

  6. I really pushed the limits of multiple points of view in my latest science thriller, The Orion Plan, which came out last week. The novel has six POV characters, including one who isn’t even human.

    The Orion Plan is about an alien invasion of New York City, but the scenario is very different from an “Independence Day” invasion with gargantuan spaceships. That kind of attack doesn’t make much sense because the energy needed to propel a huge spacecraft from one star system to another is FAR, FAR GREATER than all the resources that could be extracted from the Earth, even if the aliens scoured every square inch of our planet. The only kind of spacecraft that could feasibly travel across interstellar space in a reasonable amount of time is a small one — preferably less than a hundred pounds — because you wouldn’t need as much energy to accelerate and decelerate it. Fortunately, you can do a lot with a small spacecraft. It could be packed with miniaturized electronics and operated by an artificial-intelligence system that would choose a landing site at the end of its journey. And it could hold automated tools designed to extract minerals and metals from its landing site and use them to build everything it needs to explore the target planet — or colonize it.

    The first POV character in The Orion Plan is the NASA scientist who spots the spacecraft streaking toward Earth. The next three POV characters are the people who stumble upon the probe after it lands. The spacecraft is programmed to take advantage of ALL the resources at its landing site, including the biological materials, and so these three characters become pawns of the alien probe, which uses each person for a different purpose. I thought it would be interesting to follow each character’s story as the probe establishes a firm foothold on our planet and spreads its machinery underground. The POV characters are victims of the probe, but they’re also capable of fighting it.

    This kind of perspective allowed me to offer a new take on a classic science-fiction theme. Yes, it was challenging, but it was also a lot of fun!

  7. I enjoy Joel Rosenberg, Brad Meltzer and Lee Childs, who all write first-person POV thrillers. That said, first-person has to be the most difficult because 1) you must maintain an extremely strong, engaging, compelling personality to pull it off and 2) the poor character doesn’t know all that’s going on and that I want my readers to know about. Geez…
    Perhaps that’s why Meltzer bends and breaks the rules. (Once he even killed off the first-person, then picked up with a tally new first person.) Really!
    My first thriller, “Catching the Music,” is coming out in April and I used multiple POVs, including the jihadist villain. What a blast being able to get inside the heads of different characters, all with different life stories and world views.
    I think I’d seriously consider jumping off a high roof if I had to write single-person.

  8. My first two novels are written in from a single POV. It is limited in that you cannot get in the other characters’ heads, but its advantage is that it allows the reader to become entirely invested in the primary character and their world. The new novel I am working on has three POVs, and I like that it allows me to show how each character views the same set of events.

    I think what POV you choose entirely depends on the story. Both have their challenges. HUSH LITTLE BABY and NO ORDINARY LIFE were both stories about a singular character’s struggle to survive extraordinary circumstances, so single POV worked. My new story is about two protagonists, so it needs to be written in multiple POVs. The challenge I find in writing in multiple characters’ voices is remaining consistent and distinctive with each voice.
    To address this, one of the editing tools I use is to separate the manuscript into the three separate POVs then read each separately as if they are their own book. It helps in catching inconsistencies and in finding opportunities to define the characters and emphasize their differences.

    1. You’ve made some nice distinctions, Suzanne. And I especially like the tip about separating a multiple POV manuscript into its constituent parts to help define and sharpen differences in character. When I did this for an early novel that didn’t sell, I found that one of the characters had a story arc that made for a publishable novella!

  9. Just a note . . . another challenge I find with both reading and writing multiple POV characters is making sure the reader knows who the POV character is for each scene. I hear readers say often that they got confused by a book’s multiple POV characters and found it difficult to follow who was who and whose head they were currently inhabiting. As a writer, the challenge is to clue the reader in early in the scene so it’s easier to follow the shifts in character.

  10. Sorry for jumping in late. I’m on a book tour and finally got a little down time.

    I’ll admit right off the bat, I’m not the guy to listen to if you want to write traditional thrillers. There’s nothing wrong with them, of course. I read them. But as a writer, I have no interest in writing anything traditional. I’m looking to create work that still is recognizable as genre, while at the same time playing with the form. So if you’re interested in writing a traditional thriller, pretty much whatever I say, do the opposite. Caveat emptor.

    The biggest challenge of multiple point of view is the exact reason why a lot of people prefer it and is probably a good idea to use it. It allows for maximum clarity, giving insight into more characters’ thoughts and motivations. That seems like a good thing, right? I can be, but while that clarity has its place, it can also potentially strip the story of ambiguity, which is essential. To tight a bow crushes the package.

    I have the belief that the reader does 90% of the work when reading. That the reader doesn’t have to be spoon-fed. That the reader is smart enough to fill in the gaps. By leaving some story elements unanswered or at least ambiguous, it allows the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks, which I find more exciting as both a reader and a writer. Not to the point of it being a cheat, but leaving a level of mystery.

    I’ve written books in first person, third person, and most recently for my new novel Floodgate, both first and third. The story tends to dictate the point of view, but even in third I write a close third, keeping the reader at the same level of understanding as the hero. Too omniscient feels like cheating to me.

    One voice is not necessarily easier or better than the other. It’s all about what you are trying to create. There are definitely stories benefited by multiple point of view, just as there are stories benefited from a more closed story. It’s an interesting question to be sure.

    1. Johnny, you said, “The story tends to dictate the point of view . . .” This is so true! Some stories just demand to be told in one POV, they beg to be told from one character’s eyes. Others require a variety of characters. The challenge for the author is to be sensitive enough to the needs and demands of the story to get it right.

  11. One of the first things I do when planning out a new novel is to decide from what characters’ point of view the story will be told. This is an easier task when putting together ideas and notes for an existing series since I already know the characters. If these are new characters I round out who they are before I settle on my POV choices. In most cases who the characters are and what happens to them during the course of the story decide the POV for me.

    As a reader I enjoy hearing a story from different angles and this filters into my storytelling style. I find it more difficult to craft a novel when writing from only one character point of view, though I’ve done it from time to time. Getting into the heads of different characters, be they protagonists or antagonists, lets us see those characters from different perspectives. There is more than one side to every story and multiple points of view are one way to see all those sides.

    When I begin writing I let the tone and feel of the novel guide me. I’ve written novels from a single point of view because that’s what the novel dictated. If I can’t introduce the second point of view in a reasonable amount of time I generally stick to one POV. My preference is using two points of view when possible. It all really depends on the story and the characters. In my thriller/suspense series Circles there is a mix among the books with how the story is told and by whom.

    In my upcoming urban fantasy/scifi thriller series The Vampire Guard there isn’t simply two main characters, but a team. The interesting and fun thing writing novels with an ensemble of reoccurring characters is mixing up the POVs of each story in the series.

  12. Got a question for authors . . . When writing in multiple POVs, do you write your story from beginning to end, switching characters as you go, or do you stay in one character’s POV and write all of his/her scenes and then go on to the next character, finally splicing them together for the final product? I’ve done it both ways and while I enjoyed staying in one character’s POV and totally focusing on that character, the splicing together part didn’t go as planned and I had to to a lot of editing to smooth the transitions from scene to scene and character to character.

    1. I generally work from a (mostly) chronological outline, and I switch characters as I go depending on who seems to have the most at stake in the new scene or chapter. Naturally, on revision some changes seem necessary as well as some shifting of scenes. I’ve never tried to do all of a character’s scenes upfront, although once I let a character hold the reins for too long, twisting the plot too far in one direction. In the end, that was fairly easy to solve by splicing in scenes from a subplot taking place at the same time.

  13. Hi Elizabeth, Every story takes its own unique journey. I don’t always write chronologically. Sometimes an idea for a scene will strike, and I don’t want to lose the mojo, so I go with it, knowing it will get woven in down the line. That being said, because all the characters in a story are interconnected, I think it would be difficult to write each character’s story separately then try to combine those stories into a coherent whole. It seems that inherently there would be a disjointed quality with that approach, which could possibly work, if that is what you are going for and it is intentional, a sort of parallel journey experience, but it would definitely be a unique way of going about it and very challenging.

    1. Hi, Suzanne,

      I have a whole file on my Google Docs specifically for those scenes that demand writing RIGHT NOW. Even if I don’t write the scene completely I’ll get the basics written out so I don’t lose my thoughts. Oddly enough sometimes when I get to that part in the book sometimes the character POV for the scene will change, though the scene will remain basically the same.

  14. I’m just an average reader but prefer multiple POVs. I like to know what everyone is thinking and feeling. I feel more involved in the book. In my opinion, it takes a great author to keep me reading a book in first person. Just my thoughts.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Terry. Yes, writing in a single POV is very challenging but works if the story is “small,” meaning there aren’t a lot of characters involved, the plot is fairly tight and focused, and the scope of the story is limited. The reader sees the world from one person’s eyes. That’s limiting both as a writer and reader but can be very effective.

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