Wednesday, November 14, 2007

POV part 2, Multiple POVs and Multiple Protagonists

First thing these are NOT the same thing.

Second thing, multiple POVs is bog standard as a tool for writing fiction and perfectly acceptable to pretty much the entire writing world. It only becomes an issue (not a problem necessarily, but definitely an issue) when you start to get into a bunch of in-scene POV switching. There it will often both confuse the reader and weaken their emotional investment in the scene's primary character.

Third thing, reader investment. That's really what it's all about. You, the writer really want your reader to have an investment in the story. You want them to feel a sense of possession–that this is their story too. That's the root of having your reader really care about what you write. There are two primary types of reader investment, emotional and intellectual. The emotional one is significantly more powerful in keeping the reader involved. Intellectual investment is important and can substitute for emotional investment to a degree, but it's not as visceral a commitment, nor generally as deep.

And reader investment is where multiple protagonist stories start to run into issues. Standard disclaimer, good writing trumps everything else and every writing rule has numerous exceptions.

One of the first things that a reader does at a conscious or unconscious level is to ask Whose story is this? If the answer is simple: This is X's story, then the reader brain moves on to the next tier of questions. If the answer is more complex: This is the story of a bunch of people and how they interact, or this is the story of a planet, or this is the story of a movement the reader brain has to do more work. Some readers prefer this. Some writers manage it so skillfully that the reader brain doesn't worry about it too much. But no matter how you slice it, the reader's brain is doing less work with a story that belongs to one character.

Likewise, it is much easier for the reader to emotionally invest in one central core character, particularly if other POV characters come into conflict with that core character. We are a tribal species and we tend to take sides. If we know whose side we're on going into a conflict, we're more comfortable. It's easier to have a best buddy in the story or a single person that the reader can project themselves into.

Can more protagonists be included successfully? Absolutely? Can you have a story about a planet? A conflict? A movement? Again, absolutely. But it will be harder to get solid reader investment in the story and therefor harder to do successfully. Like everything in writing it's a balance. Is the added degree of difficulty in engaging the reader worth whatever it is the multiple protagonists buy you in terms of the story you want to tell?

Thoughts? Comments? Vehement disagreement?

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