Thursday, 20 March 2008

Structuring a Novel with Three Main Characters

In my last novel I had one main character, first person and roughly followed the Hero's Journey structure.

This time around I want to have three main characters and follow each of their lives through the novel (the connection between the three is that they all work at the same place).

I'm considering doing what Carole Matthews did in "The Chocolate Lovers' Club" which is tell the story of the main character of the three in the first person and the stories of the other two in the third person. It seems to me that this might be tricky to do. Then again, telling the novel in the first person for each character (ala Kate Long in "The Bad Mother's Handbook") also has its difficulties because I'll need a distinct voice for each character and they're all pretty much the same age.

The alternative is the write the whole novel in the 3rd person but I really love writing in the first person so this option doesn't really appeal.

Okay, so that's half of my dilemma...

The other half is to do with structuring the novel. In terms of chapters should I go:

Chapter 1 - Character A
Chapter 2 - Character B
Chapter 3 - Character C
Chapter 4 - Character A
Chapter 5 - Character B

or mix them up a bit?

How do you deal with getting the balance of cliffhangers and suspense right when you're juggling the stories of three different characters? Leaving one hanging and then start from the POV of another?

I realise I'm asking lots of questions and I don't expect anyone to answer them all. If anyone can point me in the direction of a useful website or book (ideally a How to.. book) that can help me out with this I'd be really grateful.


K.Imaginelli said...

Hmmm...this is all v. tricky. A couple novels that I can remember having multiple points of view are Beautiful Bodies but I think it's written in 3rd person. I haven't read The Jane Austen Book Club but it seems like a book that would have multiple pov.

Maybe with a book like this you have to write the draft out as it comes to you (maybe once you're writing you'll naturally gravitate toward the pov you want to write from next). Then you can sort out the structure during revision....

KeVin K. said...

If you can find Allen Drury's A God Against the Gods -- about 30-some years old -- he did an excellent job with the multiple first person structure

Rowan Coleman said...

Cally I think you have to find your own way here, I'm not sure a book will be able to help you define you own style.

I wrote my first two novels in the first person present tense and it was really hard but I enjoyed it and I think the results stan up well. I write my children's novels in the first person past tense and my most recentl adult novels in third person past tense because I feel this allows the most narrative freedom - you can be inside any character's head at any time. And even though its third person you can write from their POV by describing how they are feeling what they are thinking/seeing etc. You could look at Diana Gabaldon's books - she uses first person for her main character and third person for other sections of action. When you are talking about creating pace, tension and cliffhangers that's more down to plotting and structure than POV. I often use flashback to reveal plot that has occurred before the novel 'starts' but that has relevance to the main action. Disclosing information throughout the book in FB. At the end of the day I'd suggest you use the style that you most feel comfortable and natural writing in, that you don't over complicate matters and sacrifice you idea and book for a complicated structure - think of the reader, at all times. Think of how they are going to see your book.

Kate said...

I've done a few novels with multiple POVs and I think I may have tried all your different options, Cally. This isn’t a plug to read mine, more an observation as it’s something I’ve worked on a great deal.

Book 1: 1st person present for main character, with various other POVs in 3rd person past.
Book 2: 1st person present for main character, 1 other character's POV in 3rd person past.
Book 3: 1st person pres for main character, plus 4 other characters in 3rd person past (in this one I started doing about 20,000 words all in the 3rd and had to put most of it back into the 1st, arrgh).
Book 4: 1st person present entirely, with flashbacks also told in 1st person present

In many ways, book 5 is the most relevant as I have written this one (out in June) in 3 1st person present voices for the 3 main characters. It was an absolute b***ard to write, but oddly the publishers seem to think it's my most enjoyable so far, so I guess it must have worked. It was complex to plot, because the women are all working together as mystery shoppers, so they are often in the same scenes, yet keeping secrets from one another, so I had to juggle to avoid repeating scenes etc. I had one ‘main’ heroine, plus two very big sub-plots, and I tended to find it was roughly divided as: Character A:50 per cent of chapters, Character B: 30 per cent of chapters, Character C: 20 per cent of chapters. This wasn’t really deliberate, but I did work out that it wasn’t quite right to give them equal weight, especially C, because she was quite acidic and a little of her went a long way.

Getting the voices distinct was hardest – I gave each some speech tics which I overdid at first, then scaled back. It was also about attitude: one was bitchy and ‘spoke’ in her mind to someone who wasn’t there, one was very forthright yet avoided swearing, and one was given to fabulous flights of fancy.

It did mean I had to do a lot more work early on with character questionnaires etc, and also a great deal more editing later.

Fiona said...

I wrote Sitting Pretty in the first person present for all three characters and gave them a chapter each ending, mostly with a cliff hanger.

My creative writing teacher said that my book should be divided into forty - FORTY! - chapters.

It's up to you though - nothing 'should' be anything, IMHO. Try reading The Other Side of The Story by Marian Keyes as she pulls it off very well.

Your book sounds great so good luck!

Kate said...

If you figure out how to structure multiple main characters then let me know! In most fantasy novels you follow more than one character (Feist's 'Magician' does this), and I'm wondering the same thing about how to structure my own fantasy novel.

Seems like Kate, above, has given a great answer (thanks!), so I wont even try. Good luck with it! And good luck with the POVs.

A good book to read with shifting POVs on the same character is Margaret Atwood's 'The Edible Woman', which jumped from 3rd to 1st then back again (or the other way around.. I forget which).

Cal said...

That's fantastically helpful. Thanks everyone for all the advice and recommendations (I may be reading for some time!).

I was hoping there was a nice, easy formulaic grid/pattern I could follow but, as with pretty much everything to do with writing, it's not that easy! Looks like I'll just have to write it and see how it goes (gawd, the thought of editing it gives me shivers and I haven't even started it yet!). I think what I need to do will become clearer as I start writing - which I'm not going to do for a while yet. I need to spend some time thinking and planning and stuff. AND and...I'm going to read lots too. Who better to learn from than the experts. So Kate, Rowan and Lucy, your books have been ordered on Amazon and will be winging their way to me very soon. Can't wait. 'Studying' has never been so much fun :o)

p.s. Kate, I ordered 'Brown School Ties' which I THINK is the third one you mentioned? Rowan, I couldn't decide between Accidental Mother and the Baby Group. Chose the Accidental Mother in the end (that way I can follow on with the Accidental Wife when it comes out :o)).

By the way guys (fellow unpublished novel racers) you realise our published authors, according to The Bookseller, sell on average around 100,000 copies of their books *does an I'm not worthy Wayne's World style bow*

p.p.s. If I DO figure out how this multiple character thing works I'll do a post here (in about a year's time ;o))

Graeme K Talboys said...

Just wondering if it would be easier to write the three stories separately to begin with in order to keep inside each character's head, then do the chopping and arranging of complete storyline. I did this last year with a short story - two 3rd person strands, and that was hard enough. I wish you luck.

Leigh said...

I can second Fiona's recommendation of Marian Keyes's The Other Side of the Story, which offers, I think, three viewpoints - all quite equal. It is done very well.

As for how to leave each character's story and move on to the next... I am sure good hooks and hangers are the key! I know one reader who decides which story she is enjoying the most, and just skips the other chapters!

Personally, I prefer stories a little more mixed up than one POV per chapter, but that's because I like to keep moving, and not get too bogged down in one story; but this is so dependent on the story itself, the length of the chapters, and the time available in which to read them!

Currently writing in 3rd person, past, with a main character having about 70% of the book, and three other characters (also 3rd person past) split pretty equally for the other 30%. Mixing up the POVs (a bit) in chapters, but with quite clear scene changes in between.

Browne & KIng (Self Editing for Fiction Writers) have some good points on this subject, I think. I'll check and email you.

Cal said...

Thanks Graeme - that's the approach I was thinking of going for. Hmmm...

Leigh - thanks for that. I've got Self Editing for Fiction Writers. I'll have a look at it.

Gawd. I'm getting the feeling I may be biting off more than I can chew with this, especially as it's only my second attempt at writing a novel!

Anonymous said...

Multiple First Person Characters
I've never tried this myself but I instinctively feel that it could work very well. What I suspect you'll need to do is to make the distinction very clear, otherwise the reader will get confused between them. You could do this by making their behaviour and speech very distinct and/or arranging the story structure around their points of view, e.g. a chapter per character, as you yourself have suggested.

Chapters & Cliff-Hangers
I use storyboards. The more I use them the more I realise what a powerful writers tool they are. They help clarify the plot and slowly develop it from the 'top down'. They also clearly indicate where cliff-hanger points can be made, thereby showing you where you can put chapter breaks.

On the subject of chapters, I do not believe there is a magic number of chapters that a book should have (sorry, Fiona). I read some books with hundreds of short chapters (James Patterson) and some with just a handful of long chapters. To me, the main important thing regarding chapter structure is pace! Drop the pace and the reader will probably get bored.