Many storytellers enjoy looking through the lens of more than one character. In speculative fiction, multiple viewpoint characters are often used to show different places in the world, or illustrate a conflict that is epic in scale. Unless the story involves a device that is both a time-turner and a teleporter, a single main character can’t fight in a battle on every continent at once.
This technique is not limited to writers. GMs occasionally create the same effect by splitting the party for an extended period, so they can tackle different aspects of a problem. Players alternate between taking action with their character and observing what’s happening elsewhere. Eventually the GM, or the writer, brings all the characters together for an epic climax.
It’s wonderful to watch all the pieces of a story click together, but is it worth having separate viewpoints in the first place?
Multiple Viewpoints Interrupt Story Flow
I finally got around to reading Ender’s Game a few months ago. Right when I got to the point where he encounters his first bully, I remembered I hadn’t read Harry Potter either. So I put Ender’s Game down and read the first chapter of Sorcerer’s Stone. Then I stopped and read more of Ender’s Game, and then more of Sorcerer’s Stone, and so on.
Just kidding, I didn’t do that. Why would anyone tear themselves away from Ender before seeing him overcome the bully? Or take a break from Harry when he is about to discover his heritage?
But if you write a book that has multiple viewpoint characters living on different continents, you are forcing your readers into doing just that. They have to pause a story they were enjoying to start a new story with a different protagonist. Similarly, if you’re a GM and you split your roleplaying party into two groups that go off on their own, your players must now spend half their time waiting for the story to come back to their character.
It’s impossible to make all characters and plotlines equally attractive to your audience; each person will have preferences you can’t anticipate. Readers satisfy their tastes by picking out the right story. Roleplayers do it by influencing the direction the story will take. If you force them to read or listen to a different story in order to get back to the part they chose, you are removing the control they need to have a good experience.
How Multiple Viewpoints Can Work
Many stories use multiple viewpoints without any of these problems. TV shows frequently switch out different characters in their scenes, and no one insists it should be otherwise. What’s the difference?
Keeping each viewpoint short helps, but the most important factor is how closely related the viewpoints are. The decisions that one viewpoint character makes should impact the other viewpoint characters soon after. When this happens, the viewpoints are simply different vehicles for the same story. When it doesn’t, they are different stories.
Let’s look at the roleplaying example in Mike’s post on Metagaming. Nimble the rogue is supposed to be disarming a dungeon full of traps for Stoic the paladin. While Stoic is away, Nimble is kidnapped by angry villagers. Stoic’s player will be watching what happens to Nimble with bated breath, because Nimble’s disappearance means she’ll be walking into a corridor full of armed traps. While Stoic faces those traps, Nimble’s player will be riveted, because if she fails to get past them, she won’t be able to save him from the villagers.
It’s not enough for your characters to hear news of events happening elsewhere. To be the same story, the outcome of conflicts in one viewpoint must also change the other viewpoint, or change the audience’s experience of the other viewpoint. Like I mentioned in my post about cutting scenes, a good plot is like a boulder rolling down a hill, building momentum as it goes. Every scene should build on the one before it and throw the story into the one after, even if those scenes are starring different characters.
What to Do With Unrelated Viewpoints
This simplest solution is to split them up. Split your two roleplaying parties into two different sessions until they rejoin. Anyone who wants to know what the other party is doing can come watch. Split your epic novel into separate books. Readers can then read all the books to get all sides of the conflict, or they can just read about their favorite character. Control is back in their hands.
Separating stories can be problematic when they come together in the end – but it can still be done. Take John Scalzi’s The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale as an example. These are two stories happening concurrently, and they stay completely separate until the end, when the outcome of Zoe’s Tale becomes crucial to the end of The Last Colony. Scalzi could have intermixed them, wearing on his reader’s patience as they wondered when Zoe’s story would have some relevance. Instead, he separated them so readers of The Last Colony could choose to read about Zoe if they wanted to know more about how the ending came together.
If you have a story that absolutely demands multiple viewpoints characters on separate continents, it’s better to start the characters together, à la Wheel of Time. Then when the characters hear about what’s happening to their old buddies on the other continent, it can effect them on a personal level. In addition, the audience has time to become attached to the characters before any of them must carry the story alone.
But that’s still second best. If you want to keep your audience riveted, don’t interrupt the story they love to start a new one they might not.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?