Category Archives: Reader Investment & Empathy

Balancing Multiple Viewpoints

AvengersOne of the coolest things about a series is also one of the biggest challenges for the author: managing a large cast of characters.

One film that I think managed a large cast of characters well is the original Avengers movie. There are a lot of strong characters, and somehow they all got good screen time and some memorable lines. Part of me wonders how successful the upcoming Infinity War movie will manage the balance, now that the cast of heroes has grown so much.

As authors, the challenge of balancing our cast of characters can be even harder because it takes longer to develop characters in book form than in a movie. Precious words must be dedicated to the effort. Luckily, there are many options available to us.

Depending on the story and choices the author makes, the entire series may be told exclusively from the main POV character. For example, I can’t remember any scenes in Harry Potter not from his perspective.

Other series are told from multiple viewpoints, or even from an omniscient point of view. The popular Rangers Apprentice series has such an omniscient POV, with the focus flowing constantly between characters. Then there’s the Warded Man series from Peter V. Brett, in which each book has a different main POV character.

Each approach has pros and cons, which the author needs to understand to make sure they’re leveraging their story for best effect. Some of the advantages of using multiple POVs include:

  • Deeply exploring different aspects of a central theme from different points of view.
  • Leveraging multiple, different story threads and weaving them together into a more complex plot.
  • Exploring multiple socio-economic aspects of society that would be impossible to do with a single POV.

When done well, stories with multiple POVs enjoy a depth and complexity that is hard to rival. Unfortunately, handling multiple POVs is hard to do. Some of the disadvantages include:

  • For every major POV character, you need to spend time developing their voice, their plot, their character arc far more than other supporting characters. You’ll likely need to add at least 10,000 words to the length of your novel for each major POV character you decide to use.
  • Weaving multiple compelling plotlines is hard to do. If you start your story with a teen-age boy with a snarky, rebellious voice and attitude, your readers will grow attached to him. If you then try to weave that story with a middle-aged, reserved woman trying to protect the status quo, will your readers lose interest or grow confused?
  • Those emotional connections you’re building with your readers are fragile, and the more opportunities you give readers to break away from your story or lose interest, the more of them you’re likely to lose.
  • Can you bring all of the various plotlines to a satisfying conclusion through the final climax? Will readers who feel most connected to each of the POV threads all feel like their favorite character was given enough screen time?

Set in Stone CoverIt can be a daunting challenge but it’s doable, and the payoff can be amazing. I love big, epic stories, and I write multiple POVs. I personally find it’s useful to focus the majority of the story on the main character, and develop alternate POV threads with caution.

In my Petralist YA fantasy series, Connor is definitely the main character, but I decided early on to make three other characters POV characters too. Each of them needs to get enough focus to develop their stories and satisfy the fans who love them the most.

The temptation to keep adding more POV characters can be insidious. As a reader, I hate it when big series I love get bloated with too many side stories that interrupt the flow of the main narrative.

So imagine how embarrassed I was when my editor pointed out in my first draft of my latest novel that I havd over eight POV characters. Oops. Although each POV shift had seemed reasonable during the writing process, the benefits of those additional POV characters did not outweigh the cost to the story. So I went back and re-wrote those chapters, restricting the number of POV characters. It made the story flow better and carry a more powerful emotional weight.

So decide carefully what story you’re going to tell, and make conscious, deliberate decisions about how you’re going to craft your story. Will it be first person, or third? Omniscient narrator, or maybe deep penetration into one or more main POV characters. Study authors who handle similar stories well and analyze what they did.

In the end, you have to decide. If you’ve got solid reasons for your choices, your story will be stronger for it, and your readers will appreciate it.

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank MorinRune Warrior coverFrank Morin loves good stories in every form. When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he’s often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities. For updates on upcoming releases of his popular Petralist YA fantasy novels, or his fast-paced Facetakers Contemporary Fantasy/Historical thrillers, check his website: www.frankmorin.org

The Trouble With Series

Guest post by M.L. Humphrey

Writing a novel is hard. Few who set out to do so actually accomplish that goal.

But just when you think you’re in the clear–you’ve actually written and published a novel—you find out that writing a novel was the easy part. Because writing a series is about ten times harder than writing a standalone novel.

First, there’s the continuity issue. You told a story in book one and now that story has to continue in some way, shape, or form in book two. You can’t change your mind and decide to go in a completely new direction. You set down rules in book one and now you have to follow them.

Book two no longer belongs exclusively to you. Because the readers who are going to read book two are presumably the ones who enjoyed book one. And they have certain expectations. They want a continuation of the story they already started.

Of course, part of the challenge is, what story was that? Did they like your world-building? The playful banter between your two main characters? The way you explored that important scientific concept? The fact that your story included dragons?

I’m here to tell you, what you think you wrote is likely not what readers thought they read. I still remember a throwaway comment Peter Watts made on his blog about one of his novels. He thought he’d written a complex story involving cutting edge science. A large part of his audience for that book turned out to be teenage girls who thought he’d written a cool book about starfish. They were not pleased with book two.

So with book two you have to write a story that meets your readers’ expectations. Whereas book one was a clean slate and you could’ve gone in any direction, book two has a path it’s now on and needs to follow. (At least to some degree.)

There’s also the style issue. If book one was in first person, you should seriously consider writing book two in first person. If you wrote with short, clean sentences, you’ll want to keep doing so. If your first novel had long gorgeous phrasing that was like eating a ripe peach (you can tell I’m not that type of writer), you’ll want to continue with that. Because, again, readers have expectations based on book one that need to be met in book two and three and four and…Ugh. (This is why I write trilogies.)

Now, just when you were thinking this doesn’t sound so bad. It’s easy to continue that story you started in book one—that was the point after all—and that your voice is your voice is your voice, there’s one more obstacle to overcome.

Books two and three and four, etc. should also be different somehow. Your readers want more of the same, but not the same. If in book one your character climbed to the top of a mountain, found the sacred chalice, and saved the village, book two can’t have them climbing to the top of a mountain, finding the sacred sword, and saving the village.

(Yawn. Been there, done that.)

But have them wade through a swamp to find that sword and you’re all good.

So you have to mix it up. But not too much. Just enough to keep them guessing. While still giving them the same kind of experience you did with book one. Got it?

Easy, right?

Yeah, sure it is.

 

 

M.L. Humphrey is a self-published author who writes non-fiction, fantasy, and romance. She finished her first fantasy series, The Rider’s Revenge Trilogy (published under the name Alessandra Clarke) in 2017. You can find her talking about self-publishing (particularly AMS ads) and life in general at www.mlhumphrey.com.

Make me care – the two sides of Bioware storytelling

I am an avid gamer, as many folks are. Over the years I’ve come to focus primarily on strategy games and role playing games, with the draw of both being the story that unfolds out as you play.

This is especially true for the role playing games produced over the years by Bioware. Bioware has a knack for combining winning gaming systems with engrossing stories that has kept me involved in their products for more than twenty years now.

For the purposes of this post, I’d like to highlight two of their most famous game series and how the writing for those series helped me become a better writer myself. Ironically the big lesson for me lay in studying why Mass Effect, one of my favorite games of all time, failed to get me emotionally engaged with the main character.

Mass Effect is the story of Command Shepard, a player-created character who embarks on a mission to save the galaxy from the oncoming threat of the deadly Reapers. The story spans three games, each of which can take hundreds of hours to play through completely. Mass Effects world building is peerless in its industry, and to this day it is my favorite science fiction universe created in the past twenty years. From one corner of its galaxy to the other, the mythos and lore of Mass Effect pulled me in deep.

Yet as connected as I was to the world, I could never connect with Commander Shepard himself (or herself, as I did a second playthrough with a female Shepard). It took me a while to work out why this was, but over time I realized it was a lack of personal stakes for the main character of the story.

Shepard walks through the three Mass Effect games almost as a blank space with the whole world being colored around him. Shepard himself has no family, no background beyond a cursory few paragraphs and no real motivations beyond what the player might give him in their own head canon.

The game is more about the rich worlds Shepard visits and the amazing companions he meets along the way. Over the course of the games characters like Garrus, Liara and Mordin grew into friends to me and what happened to them became important. They grow and change, each going on story arcs that are deep and very impactful. Yet Shepard doesn’t change at all. He’s the same guy at the end of game three as he was at the end of game one. I guess this is why, while I love the Mass Effect series, the main character always left me cold. It was like watching a movie where they forgot to put in the main character.

For the most part, this is the modern Bioware model. The main character is a cipher by design to allow for player insertion. The plot and side characters flow around the MC, and while the player gets to impact the world in a very meaningful way, the game isn’t *about* him or her.

Bioware made an exception to this is the second game in the Dragon Age series, and this deviation is one of the main reasons this game is so divisive among the fanbase. Unlike all three Mass Effect games and the other two Dragon Age games, Dragon Age 2 is very much about its main character Hawke.

Right from the first scene we are given Hawke’s family, fleeing in terror from a horde of monsters destroying their home country. We meet his mother and siblings. Early in the story one of the siblings is killed and the rest of the family is reduced to refugees, begging for work in the streets of their new home of Kirkwall.

Through the course of Dragon Age 2, many of the standard Bioware tropes are still on display. Characters with deep and rich backstories come to your side, and Kirkwall gains depth as a setting as the game goes on. The plight of Hawke and his family never leaves center stage though. Hawke’s fortunes change for both better and worse through the story, and at the end of the tale he is a significantly different character than who he was at the beginning.

I connected deeply with Dragon Age 2’s Hawke in a way I never did with Shepard in the Mass Effect games. The story was about him, rather than just how he impacted the story. Hawke had personal stakes – he wasn’t just a hero trying to save people because that’s what heroes do. He had family in the thick of things, and he had to sacrifice and change as a character in order to try and save them.

The difference between Hawke and Shepard is subtle but important to me, and it’s one I’ve tried to remember as I am writing my own stories. I try to give my heroes personal skin in the game, to make them more than just ‘good guys’ who rode into town to right wrongs but to have something on the line that is personal to them and requires them to grow in order to see things set right.

Role Playing as Story telling

Welcome to Agnara

Welcome to a story that has been growing, evolving and branching into new lands, new realms and new worlds for going on forty years now. Pretty much every part of this continent has been part of the story, as well as other continents and islands not shown here. But it’s all one story.

Yes, it’s a Role Playing Gaming campaign. But “campaign” is too small a word for it. It probably left “epic” behind a dozen years ago. Hundreds of characters have been created, lived, died and a few have become demigods in their own right.

It all started here:

If you look close, you can see a small black star that marks the location of both the first D&D session I ever ran, and the first story told in this world.

The thing is, that this story is not my story. It’s a story with dozens of writers, all working together to create a sweeping tale of triumph, tragedy and humor. But all of that follows a thread, and occurs on a stage that I did create, and continue to create to this day.

It’s a world with dark secrets, powerful and evil villains, and great heroes. The first campaign followed the near extinction of the entire race of dwarves, and the heroism of a now-legendary party who fought to the very gates of hell to restore dwarvenkind to the world.

But that was merely the start. From there the story spread across seas, and even across worlds. The great heroes are immortalized in legend, song, monuments, even the names of cities. Ceorl the half-elf wizard, Drax the Defender, Dane the Deadly, and finally Forkovr the dwarf, whose exploits were so astonishing that he rose into the ranks of the divine, and whose followers now rival the size of other sects.

While heroes tend to come and go, the great villains are somehow never fully defeated, rising from the ashes again and again to threaten new generations of Agnarans.

I started this world around 1980, and it has hosted campaigns using several RPG rules systems. But the story goes on.

This isn’t all fun and games. Although it mostly is. I learned a great deal about story telling, about conflict, about character development and plot. Most of that works as well in novels as it does at the game table. I also learned how to create highly detailed, imaginative worlds filled with a diverse collection of races, political intrigue, economic systems and entire mythologies. My novels and short stories are much richer for the experience.

I like to tell people that running D&D campaigns was the best training I ever had to be a project manager. It was also great training to be a writer.

The story isn’t over. I’ll be starting a new chapter soon. Who knows where that will take the story? I don’t. That depends as much on my players as it does on me. But wherever it goes, it will become more history for some future campaign.

Sound like fun? Then let’s roll some dice!