Juggling Multiple Perspectives in a Single Narrative

As a writer, I admit that I tend to write most of my fiction from a single perspective. Not necessarily first person. In fact, most of my novels are written in third. However, I often employ what I call “limited third person,” meaning I’m not dipping in and out of various characters’ minds, but still telling the story primarily from the perspective of a single character. That seems to be where I’m most comfortable.

However, sometimes the demands of the story insist that a writer step outside their comfort zone. And a writer’s job is to always listen to the story and rise up to the unique challenges each one presents.

When I sat down to write my novella When it Rains, I realized immediately that a single perspective would not work for this narrative. The story would have a relatively large cast of characters stuck together in a confined space during a mysterious and potentially dangerous event. It felt important that I get as many different views of this event as possible, and in the end I decided to tell the story by alternating between eight different character perspectives (as well as interjecting the occasional excerpt from a nonfiction book about the event written some time later, a device that has been used for ages, going back at least as far as Stephen King’s Carrie).

When it Rains by Mark Allen Gunnells

This multiple perspective approach was a bit of a juggling act, but one I found exciting and thrilling. One of the benefits from employing multiple perspectives is that it can add scope to a story that a single perspective cannot. Tensions increase when you know what many different characters are thinking, especially when they are harboring secrets from one another. You can highlight contrasts in personality and motivation and temperament which add to the richness of the tale. 

I went in knowing these benefits, but then I found myself faced with the question of the best way to weave together a tapestry narrative. How could I make the whole thing work as a cohesive story? The doing of it led me to realize what an interesting article this could make. So below I’m going to offer a few tips to make the multiple perspective approach work in your narrative. Keep in mind, this is only one storyteller’s point of view based on my own personal experience.

My first bit of advice might seem obvious, but it is also the most important. Make your characters distinctive. This is a good rule of thumb for any narrative, but never more so than when you are employing multiple perspectives. The goal would be to make your characters so readily identifiable that even if you were not to announce in some way which character’s perspective you were employing in a certain chapter, the reader would instantly be able to tell. You want to give your characters uniqueness that sets them apart. Distinctive patterns of speech, of the way they look at the world, of the pop culture references they know based on their age. All of these things will vary person to person and makes each character more easily distinguishable from the others. Even small things you may not think about could work in this effort for distinction.

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An example from When it Rains has to do with the mysterious rain that starts falling, a slimy gelatinous substance that coats everything it touches. I had almost every character call this substance something different. Some called it gunk, others snot, others slime. There is also a character whose name isn’t revealed in the early part of the story, and every character thinks of him by a different nickname. I actually created a document to keep track of how each character referred to the substance and the nicknames they used to ensure consistency in my differentiation of them all. This may be something the reader never consciously notices, but I do think it is one of the building blocks to successfully juggling multiple perspectives.

The second thing I suggest is to think strategically about which perspective you use for each section of the story. When you are using different perspectives, you should try to make sure everyone has a fair amount of “screen time” as it were, but I wouldn’t recommend throwing in a scene from a certain character’s perspective only because you haven’t heard from them in a while. 

When you sit down to start a scene, think about the action that will occur in that scene and which perspective it would be most exciting to filter that action through. For instance, if you have a scene that will provide a huge revelation, you will want to maximize the impact of that revelation. Then peruse your cast of characters and consider who might have the most dramatic reaction, or who might have the most to lose (or gain) from the turn of events. Is there a character that has some kind of personal connection to whatever is being revealed? 

Another thing to be aware of as you go through this process is if you find you have a certain character that brings nothing new to the mix. Meaning, that character’s perspective doesn’t increase the drama or the suspense or provide any surprises. If that turns out to be the case, that may be a perspective the story doesn’t need. It’s okay to let a ball drop if it isn’t essential to the juggling act.

When it Rains by Mark Allen Gunnells

My final bit of advice here is to make sure to use the different perspectives to reveal character in ways you can’t with one lone perspective. I don’t simply mean by getting deeply into the minds of the characters, but getting to see the characters from the outside in. When we have a single perspective, we learn how that character views the world and interacts with it and how that character believes they are perceived by others. However, the way we think we present to the world isn’t always how the world sees us. So it can be fun to play with that. Maybe you have a character who believes they are exuding confidence and keeping it together, but when you switch to different perspectives, the other characters may see chinks in this façade and think the character is coming off as a little too desperate to seem truly okay. That can be a fun way to develop character, by exploiting the dichotomy of how we think we are being seen and how we are actually being seen.

Another fun way to reveal character this way is to filter the exact same event through these multiple perspectives. We all react to things differently based on our individual life experiences, and in that way two people standing side by side will in essence witness two different events because their own unique perspectives will color what they see. An example, you could have someone who breaks down and starts to cry. To one character, they could see this as a needed emotional catharsis and feel only sympathy. Another may see this as a manipulative attempt to get their way and get angry. Yet another may view the breakdown as a sign of weakness and lose respect. None of this says a great deal about the actual person crying, but it reveals so much about each of the characters reacting to it. 

So those are merely a few tidbits on the subject of juggling multiple perspectives in a single narrative. This structure can be a bit more challenging, but I think it can also be greatly rewarding for both the writer and the reader. I know when I wrote When it Rains, it added to the fun for me as the storyteller and I hope creates a rich and engrossing tale for the readers.

Mark Allen Gunnells

Mark Allen Gunnells

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