From Another Point of View

Photo by Alfons Morales on Unsplash

All the Black Iron Legacy books use multiple points of view – each of the books has a half-dozen or so major point-of-view characters, and happily hop into one-off heads as needed, from candle monsters to sentient buildings to weird divine visions. Some tricks that have worked for me when handling the associated headaches:

Timitál, Timitál

Tolkien used the Icelandic word timitál (timetable) to refer to his handwritten attempts to co-ordinate times and distances across Middle-earth. These days, use a spreadsheet. It’s easy for different points-of-view to get out of synch, and then you realise that three days have passed for one character and another character’s travelled for two weeks. If your story takes place over a long period of time, then you can get away with having lots of downtimes and gaps in the chronology, but as you approach a climax and the timelines need to line up, then be prepared to spend as much time in Excel as you do in Word. (This is where I find Scrivener really handy, as you can reorder chapters and scenes really easily.)

I tend to have two Excel sheets. One’s got my point-of-view characters, one per column, and a list of major events for each character. I use that to work out the order of events as they’ll be presented in the book. Some events have a logical chain (POV A orders the invasion of the city; POV B is in the city as it gets invaded), others are more fungible and get slotted in where it makes emotional or narrative sense (if the narrative in both POVs A and B is very dense and dry, then I can drop in an action scene in POV C for a bit of relief).

The other Excel sheet is a proper calendar, where each row is a day (or morning/afternoon/evening, if I need to get granular), and the events for each point of view get slotted in there. Chronological tweaking gets done in later drafts; as long as the POVs are roughly in sync, you can sand off any rough edges easily enough.

The Broken God was the trickiest of the three books in terms of timing, as there are events going on in two different cities, separated by a wide ocean, but connected by magic…

Character defines Language defines Character

To a degree, writing multiple POV is like writing several short books simultaneously. (It’s also exactly not that – the points of view need to combine into a single cohesive narrative, building on the themes and action of each other, or what you’re writing is actually an anthology). The language and style of each point of view really has to reflect the character. Partly, this is just good writing technique, but in a multi-POV novel, you’ve got very little space to establish and develop each character. You need to cram as much characterisation in, and that means using prose style as much as action to show personality. Everything, from the metaphors chosen to the details observed to the cadence, should be considered through the lens of the character you’re currently writing.

Carillon uses short sentences. Fragments, even. Staccato. Hasty. Whereas Spar’s more likely to have longer, more ornamented sentences, labyrinthine even, wending on like streets and also yes the architectural metaphors so many of those.

Start (Lightly) Weaving Early

As I’ve learned to my cost, switching characters between novels in a series can be off-putting. Switching characters between chapters can be a challenge to the reader, too. I just got invested in this prince in a castle, and now suddenly chapter 4 is about some other guy entirely on the far side of the world? And chapter 5 is about an entirely different group of wizards? The reader knows that this is supposed to pay off eventually when you cleverly bring all the different POVs together for the big finale, but that does mean juggling a lot of plot lines. I find it helps to establish little connections between plot lines to reassure the reader that these disparate events are all happening in a shared space. A minor character shows up in two different storylines; a decision taken in one plot line becomes background action in another. Even if the early connections are just trivial details, they help build a coherent, connected, living world. It’s the narrative equivalent of nodding at an acquaintance as you pass each other on the street – an acknowledgement that you’re two different perspectives on the same set of events.

Look for Bleeds

Often, you can slip exposition needed for one point-of-view into the background of another. A taciturn barbarian may have no reason to stop and explain the ways of his people, but the scholar in another point-of-view may enthusiastically talk about barbarian spirit worship. Look for places where you can bleed elements of one point of view into another; don’t assume that each point-of-view has exclusive claim on particular topics.

In The Broken God, a lot of the background material about the gods of Ishmere comes through Baston’s point of view, as he’s running around the former Wash, now the occupied Temple District in Guerdon – but the Ishmeric gods really play into a totally different set of events that Baston’s unaware of. That doesn’t matter – the reader is the one who needs the information, not necessarily the character.

Beware Your Own Habits

Every writer has a few stock phrases, repeated words, plot elements or concepts that recur in their writing, ideas they deploy without thinking. In a single-POV book, that’s easily fixed – you’re unlikely to use the same stock element twice in one story. But multi-POVs books can feel like separate stories, and it’s all too easy to use the same plot beat or character trope twice or three times without noticing. For example, I like burning buildings – a fast-spreading fire throws everything into chaos, forces characters to act promptly, provides a source of danger, it’s fun to describe. There are a lot of burning buildings in The Broken God – but I moved them around so they’re not all clustered in one part of the book, and made sure that each burning-building scene was sufficiently different in terms of setup and action that they don’t become repetitive. It’s important to step back and take a look at the book in toto, instead of through your array of points-of-view.

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