Saturday, April 26, 2014

Fight Club: Multiple POV Fights Back [Part II]

[Note: This is a simple continuation of my blog post on multiple POV, divided into two parts because it ran so long. The entire article is archived as a single downloadable PDF at my website.]

Photo by USMC Lance Cpl. Chris Korhonen,
in the public domain
....[continued from part I]


Unlike adult books with multiple viewpoint, where authors feel free to change POV characters in the middle of a chapter, a scene, or even a page, all four authors were very careful to make it clear for young readers when the viewpoint changed, and whose viewpoint it was. They always changed chapters when they changed viewpoint characters, and they flagged this in multiple ways. The viewpoint character's name was prominently displayed at the start of each chapter, and sometimes in a header at the top of each right-hand page as well. In addition, different fonts were sometimes used to distinguish each POV character. 

And in some cases graphical elements were  used to help readers remember which  viewpoint character was speaking at any time. In Every Soul a Star, each character had an astronomical symbol: crescent moon [my favorite, as in my own novel Cheshire Moon] for Ally; the planet Saturn [also my favorite planet] for Jack; and a star for Bree. 

I especially liked how this was handled in Wonder. Each viewpoint section had a sketch of a face. For every character other than Auggie, there was only one eye in the face: the character's left eye. For Auggie's three POV sections, the graphic changed. In Part 1 he had no eyes; in part 6 he was wearing an astronaut's helmet with one eye—his right—and a hearing aid. And in part 8, he too has one left eye represented, just the like other characters—as if to signal that he now sees the world as a more welcoming place. Clever.


1. In each book but Every Soul a Star, I think the writers simply used too many POV characters. There were six in Wonder, seven in Mr. Terupt, and nine-plus in A Tangle of Knots. Even with all the effort made to distinguish which character was speaking when, I frequently got confused. And if a professional writer and editor couldn't keep all the viewpoint characters straight, I doubt young readers would fare any better.

2. In Wonder, I think the author veered away from Auggie for far too long. He appears in Part 1, and then doesn't reappear until the final quarter of the book, in parts 6 and 8. That's far too long to stay away from the character you want your readers to empathize with the most. 

3. In both Mr. Terupt and A Tangle of Knots, I think the authors spent too little time with each character, and changed characters too frequently. 


Despite my strong Puritan prejudice against multiple POV, I now have to admit, however grudgingly, that there is a place for it in children's literature. How could I deny that after reading these four delightful novels by such talented middle grade authors? 

But why use multiple POV at all? Remember the first article in this series, the one in which I compare viewpoint to wearing glasses? Well, on her website, Palacio says that she didn't initially intend to write Wonder in multiple POV. But after she started the book, she got interested in Via and the different way she viewed Auggie and his problems. In other words, Palacio wanted kids to put on Via's glasses for a while and see the world through those lenses. Then Palacio says she got interested in Summer's glasses, and so on. 

"The Glasses Apostle," 1403
by Conrad von Suest

In an NPR interview, Buyea said that all seven characters in Mr. Terupt suddenly appeared to him one day while he was working his mother's garden. So in his case, it wasn't a conscious decision—this was simply the way the Muse decided to deliver the gift of this novel to him.

What does multiple POV accomplish that single POV cannot? I think Palacio says it best. It's a way to help young readers see many different sides of a story. Kids tend to be very ego-centered. I don't mean that they are selfish; I mean that they tend even more than adults to see other people as reflections of themselves. That is probably why single POV is so effective in gaining young readers' attention, because it mirrors their own experience of life. 

Photo by Tangopaso,
in the public domain
But that may be precisely why a multiple POV book is a refreshing change of pace for kids. It knocks the glasses they're used to wearing off their noses, so they are forced to look through someone else's lenses and discover that not everybody sees the world the way they do. There aren't just two sides to any story; there are a thousand. Shifting between several different viewpoint characters encourages readers to imagine how one event can be experienced in unexpected ways by a variety of different people. 

And that may be the best reason to use multiple POV in a middle grade novel. 

However, as I said above, I'm only a partial convert. I stubbornly maintain that multiple POV is not to be undertaken lightly. It is very, very difficult to pull off—even as much as I liked these four books where the authors handled it well, I still had some issues with how they used it. 

And unfortunately, I've also read many books with multiple POV that were not done well. I'm not going to list those here, because that would be mean-spirited. 

Like so many things in writing, there is no one right way to craft a book. I hope I’ve been able to step far enough aside from my own aesthetic preferences to allow multiple viewpoint a fair chance to duke it out against single POV. Even I have to agree that a compelling case can be made for using multiple POV in some books. There are always risks and trade-offs to doing that, however—a subject I’ll speak about in the last installment of this series.

In the meanwhile, with writers as gifted and skilled as Palacio, Buyea, Mass, and Graff as its champions, it's clear that this narrative technique needs no help from me. Sometimes multiple viewpoint may be the best way to tell a certain story.

Next time, however, I am finally going to write about a specialized form of single viewpoint that is near and dear to my heart—something called Deep POV. I can't wait!

Next time: What Is So Special About Deep POV?

No comments: