I’ve already talked about the worst writing advice I know. But I’d like to talk about a close second, and that is attempting to write a multiple POV story without learning how to tell a story from a single character’s perspective first.
This is one of those pieces of advice that instructors really have to be careful where their learners are on their mountain. The ability to write a story in which one character goes on a significant journey that comes to an emotional payoff for the reader is difficult. The ability to create an intertwining story between multiple POVs in which each POV character has their own significant journey as well that can deliver an equally emotional payoff to the reader is even more difficult.
During my MFA, telling a learner that what the author was attempting to do in their work was difficult was akin to me telling the author that it was either impossible, something they shouldn’t attempt to tell, or both. In reality, I was encouraging them to continue by laying out common pitfalls of trying to tell bend that particular foundational structure.
Take the unlikeable protagonist, for example. The unlikeable protagonist first chapter has one duty, and that is to get the reader to empathize with the character despite not liking them. Dr. Gregory House is an asshole, but he’s an asshole who cares even if he doesn’t want to be. The show was constantly building and stealing from just how much the viewer had empathy for House’s plight and most of the later seasons, they couldn’t keep it balanced correctly to keep the a lot of viewers even wanting to watch.
The reader must at some point be given some reason as to why they should continue reading about a thoroughly unpleasant character with no demonstrated redeeming qualities. Donald Maass says it best when he says the wounded protagonist has to want to get better, even if making those choices to become better seems impossible at the beginning.
Even Canadian Literature throws the reader an occasional bone. (If you’re not Ann Marie MacDonald, that is.)
Pointing out the need to build a connection to the reader beyond the character’s unlikeableness isn’t telling the author they shouldn’t even try to do it. But that’s the danger in teaching there are no rules. No writer ever agreed with me that the reader needs a reason to at least want to follow this character on their journey. The writer intended to write what they wrote and not a single level deeper. To point out that there might be need for a deeper level to an unlikeable character was treated as an offensive suggestion both in class and in private communications with my instructors.
It was *beyond* frustrating to hear learners agree they didn’t have to learn how to write characters readers have a chance to care about. And yet it’s treated like common knowledge in and out of MFAs.
I remember each story that wrote an unlikeable character empathetically. They were beautifully written pieces about characters so locked in their trauma that their lack of ability to attempt to save themselves was one of the most significant aspects of the work.
So when I say that it is difficult to write as single meaningful journey in which a protagonist character is impacted by their experiences, it is not saying that trying to do so from two POVs is impossible.
I’m saying it’s even harder to do. It used to be common knowledge that the POV of the scene should usually be the character with the most to lose. In a single POV work, that’s obviously the protagonist in most situations. In a multiple POV work, that’s fanagling the events of the story in such away that the character with the most to lose in any given situation is almost always the POV character.
There will be scenes where witnessing events affecting another character can be extremely effective. But to have any impact at all, those have to happen only when it matters most that it does. Otherwise, it’s holding the protagonist (and the reader) at arm’s length from the cost of the scene.
But again, that’s the danger of teaching there are no rules as a valid pedagogy. That some writers could pull off having protagonists and narrators be two separate characters and yet the narrator still has an emotional connection with the events is extremely difficult. They are by their very nature observers to their own story by not being the protagonist.
They can only react to the events as they happen. When they do impact the storyline, it should matter.
But multiple POVs means balancing at least two different journeys in which the protagonists’ actions all impact the story. Balancing the dramatic tension between what the reader knows and what the current POV character understands is a very difficult when the writer doesn’t know how to manipulate tension in general.
A single POV needs the control panel of Riley when she was a child in Inside Out. Multiple — even if that means just two — POVs requires the control panel of the teenager-Riley to be. Instead of doing one story well, the writer has to balance to two stories equally well and do it well at the same time.
I read a post a while back about writing multiple POVs for beginner writers and it had the assumption going in that the writer would know how to tell a meaningful story through a single character’s journey. Because how a writer would then write that across multiple POVs assumes the writer has that knowledge to begin with.
And most underpublished writers do, in the hypothetical. It’s when they sit down and transcribe how those events occur in their work that the problem occurs. Rather than show the events that matter, the events that matter are discussed in passing while the characters complete mundane tasks for a large portion of the word count.
But it’s the smaller portion of the story where the characters act on the events of the world meaningfully that shows the writer’s promise as an artist. They just need to commit to practicing their storybuilding skillset deliberately so that most of their story moves the character to act, or not act meaningfully.