Three years ago when I sat down to begin plotting my novel, Promised to the Crown, I knew I had a huge task in front of me. I was dealing with an era most readers would only have a cursory knowledge of, and a series of events they would probably not be familiar with at all. The settling of early Quebec isn’t something most history teachers spend much time on… if any.
So how to convey the reality of 770 women who were sent over as “mail-order brides” by the king in order to marry the settlers and make little Canadians? You can’t. But what you can do is try to give a larger picture of what the women experienced by selecting a sampling of characters that can provide a wider lens to the reader on the world you’re trying to show.
With only the historical premise of Louis XIV’s “King’s Daughters” (so named because he paid for their dowry and crossing to Canada), I set about crafting three completely fictitious characters who came from different situations, but who would have to face the same challenges and realities in the New World. I didn’t want the limitations of using real historical figures because my goal wasn’t to tell the story of one or two women—I wanted to convey a larger truth. These are some of the methods I used to weave three separate narratives into one cohesive story:
Start with archetypes. “The mastermind” “the mother” “the artist” are all concepts you can use to formulate how your characters take on the world. The person obsessed with solving problems is going to address issues differently than the person combing the world for inspiration for their next poem. You want to make sure your POV characters have a different enough world view to make it worth the hassle of writing from more than one POV. I began my characters with three very basic concept characters: the mother, the teacher, and the sheltered farm girl.
Diverge from those archetypes. There is no person so simplistic that you can simply write them off as a two word personality type. Your character has likes, dislikes, needs, wants, and a past that shapes how they deal with reality. Making a rich character will make it easier for your reader to parse who is speaking. What if my maternal character was barren? What if my teacher character loved children, but was petrified to have her own? Dig deep into their psyche.
Make sure each chapter or section advances the plot.Telling the same scene over again simply to get another character’s take is tedious. In small doses, it can be brilliant, but forward motion is key. This was a challenge in my early drafts because I wanted to tell each of my main characters’ in the moment they decided to leave for Canada. This made for 50+ pages where the characters got no closer to the new world. Choosing one character to focus on and begin the story in France, then giving the other characters’ ‘pivotal moments’ in bite-sized chunks of back story propelled the reader through the action faster and made for a much more compelling read.
Make sure each main POV character gets enough “screen time” to make us care.You don’t need to make sure that the number of words you spend with each character is the same, but it shouldn’t feel lopsided. We also shouldn’t go so long away from any one main POV character that we’ve lost track of where they are and what they’re doing. I made several passes through my manuscript to ensure each main character was at least mentioned if they were ‘offscreen’ for a whole chapter, and tallied up their word counts to make sure there wasn’t a huge disparity. I didn’t have a perfect rotation of POV, but I made sure it was fairly close.
In addition to strong characters, your voice for each must be on point.Pet expressions, gestures, vocabulary limitations, and more are key in keeping your POV characters distinct. The illiterate character, no matter how smart, will not have the vocabulary to match an educated counterpart. This is important, even when not dealing with multiple POV, but absolutely essential when you are. I made sure my Parisian characters were more worldly than my rural ones, and the literate ones more eloquent than those who had been denied an education.
In most cases, it’s great to show one main POV character from the eyes of another. Is your detective as witty as he thinks? Is your ninja as cunning as she would have you believe? Let the other characters show us another angle on the truth. I loved showing my insecure character through the eyes of her friends. She was much more capable than she ever recognized.
If you are travelling between different time periods in a dual narrative, make sure the language, setting, props, and more all fit the eras so as to keep the narratives separate. It’s easy to slip in an inappropriate word that will take the reader out of the appropriate context.
Make sure that if you have a large number of main POV characters that you achieve a satisfying story arc for all of them in addition to an overreaching story arc. Each main character deserves a fully fleshed-out storyline, and for this reason, multiple POV books tend to be longer than single narratives. If you take on this structure, invest the time to do it thoroughly.
Make sure you make transitions from POV character to POV character smoothly. Titling a chapter heading with the POV character’s name is very common. You can also shift from scene to scene in a chapter if you are very distinct with your voice, but this does not mean “head-hopping” willy-nilly within a scene. Stick with one character for a logical chunk of the story.
The golden rule: Do not use multiple POVs for the sake of using multiple POVs. If you can tell your story without the shifts, you don’t need them. Use of multiple POVs is a really compelling tool if used well and is a necessary part of your narrative structure. If it’s not vital to the story, you’re just making your novel more complicated for no real reason, and complicated is not the same as complex and/or interesting.
We have seen some really wonderful multiple POV books in every genre recent years: The Poisonwood Bible, the Song of Ice and Fire series, The Girl on the Train and more. Is this structure to your liking, or do you prefer the author to stick to a singular narrative?
Aimie K. Runyan writes historical fiction that highlights previously uncelebrated contributions of women in key moments in history. Her first novel, Promised to the Crown, comes out in April of this year. She loves travel, music, and books above almost all things. She lives in Colorado with her husband and two children.