Generally, stories are told through the eyes of a character. This character is known as the point of view character (POVC) and it is through their reactions, thoughts and feelings the reader learns about the story. This is true in first person (written like a diary eg: The Soldier Son trilogy by Robin Hobb) and third person points of view, the most common for story telling. But sometimes the story is larger than one character so the POVC changes to show something from another perspective. As in all things, there are guidelines you should use when doing this.
When and when not?
A change of character can be likened to a scene cut in a movie. We watch Pippin and Merry escape from the orcs and scurry into the forest. Cut to Strider and co finding the orc camp all chopped to bits. In the first case we see the orc camp and the attack through the eyes of the hobbits, once that has resolved to the point that tells us what is going to happen we cut to the other group where we learn about the aftermath and Strider, Gimli and Goldy Locks believe the hobbits to be dead. When you are writing you want to do the same thing. You need to follow a scene to its conclusion for the given character before swapping. Head hopping, as it is called, mid scene is a no-no because it confuses the reader which means they may lose faith in you as a writer. If the reader loses faith you end up with season four of Lost. Think about it. The first season all sorts of cool things happened. There was a monster, numbers and a bunch of people from peculiar backgrounds. The second season pushed ahead making us believe there was some big and creative story behind it all. The third season kind of started to lose it. They got rescued didn’t they? So season four… WTF? Personally, it was confirmed for me that the writers of the show didn’t have any clue about what they were doing. You don’t want your readers to have that feeling because you want them to buy your next book.
– Between chapters is quite good. It is an established practice that shouldn’t throw your readers too much.
– If not between chapters, then between scenes. Let the current POVC’s scene have a natural ending, be it a cliff hanger or a resolution but the reader shouldn’t be left blinking and re-reading the last sentence to check they haven’t missed something.
– There are examples of breaking this rule and some good places you want to, but err on the side of not trying it without good reason.
Why would you?
Why swap to another character? Often there is a part of the story that happens away from the main character that you want the reader to know about. You may want to provide some background and motivation for the bad guy. In The Half Blood Prince, we had a bit of time looking into Snape’s past which painted a different picture for us. Without that peek into his life we wouldn’t have understood why Dumbledore trusted him. Another use of head hopping is to increase the pace and to build tension. For example in one scene you foreshadow something bad happening to the main character, swap to another character making the bad thing happen, swap to the main character’s mother who sits staring at the phone wondering why the main character hasn’t called yet, swap back to the main character. This is like what directors do when making a movie and they want to increase tension, get the pace going. Quick cuts showing the build up to something. Finally we go back to the main character and play out the event.
Head hopping happens in most genre’s and most stories to some extent. Sometimes it is just a brief few pages used to build a little bit of the world, sometimes the entire story is made up of a lamination of characters. Epic fantasy seems to employ the point of view switch more often than other genres. George R. R. Martin writes each chapter from a different character’s perspective and names the chapter for the character in it. Robert Jordan started sticking primarily with Rand but started mixing it up a little. One consequence of switching POVC is the story pads out. If you told the story of Hansel and Gretel from not only Hansel’s perspective but also his parents and the witch you would end up with a story nearly three times as long, but it would also have greater depth because we’d get to see some of the motivation and personality of the extra characters. Horror probably has the fewest POVC changes because greater revelation is often counter to the build up of fear.
Why am I writing this post?
In The West Queen, I have two main characters and a supporting cast of three others. The story I have to tell could be told from just one point of view, but it would lose some of its grandeur. I’m aiming for an epic fantasy in the true sense of the word. The story must span many characters, locations and affect the entire world it is written in. What better way to achieve that than to show how all the different parts of the story unfold and how they affect different characters? But one of my readers raised the point that they weren’t sure about the swap from one character to another. For me it seems natural, but that’s because I wrote it. I have to pay attention to what other people think or I’ll never succeed. So I have to evaluate if my head hopping is appropriate given the context of an epic fantasy where such character changes is seen as almost required or if I have botched it. Tricky because though I’ve listed some “rules” it doesn’t mean that by following them I’ll win. There are authors who succeed by breaking the rules. Maybe if I get some interest, I’ll post the first few chapters of The West Queen here and you can let me know what works and what doesn’t.