By Vaughn Roycroft
Headswerver Extraordinaire: What, you’ve never heard the term? I’m guessing you haven’t since I made it up. It’s a riff on the Shakespearian bedswerver, or one who is not faithful to a single bedmate, prone to swerving capriciously from one bed to another; a playful name for one with a voracious sexual appetite and/or an adulterous inclination.
I made it up because I happen to be one. A headswerver, not a bedswerver.
So what’s a headswerver? It’s a fiction writer who is not faithful to a single character’s point of view, prone to swerving capriciously from the viewpoint of one character to another. To deserve the moniker, one should be prone to writing from many characters’ viewpoints. I’m not alone. George RR Martin is a well-known headswerver, as are Joe Abercrombie and Guy Gavriel Kay, to name a few. Robert Jordan and Marion Zimmer Bradley were also eminent headswervers.
My headswerving may not be as outrageous as someone like GRRM, but I’m right up there. Most writing educators advise moderation when it comes to multiple POVs, some saying keep it to two or three, perhaps four at the extreme. I have eight. And that’s just in book one.
All told, in all four of my manuscripts, I have written from the tight third-person perspectives of twenty-two characters. Hello, my name is Vaughn, and I’m a compulsive headswerver.
Scale and Dimension: I didn’t know any better when I started. I had no sense of restraint in my use of multiple POVs. I simply wrote what I like to read, and considered this approach the best way to tell my tale. I write historical fantasy, and the scope of my world is, if I do say so, rather epic. I was interested in seeing my world from a variety of angles. Utilizing the viewpoint of several (okay, in my case, many) characters helps me to give readers a grasp of the scale of the story. Seeing the issues and conflicts from various perspectives adds dimension to what could be as flat as a map when viewed from a lone standpoint.
I’ll give you an example in relation to setting. In book one I have four characters from three ethnicities, hailing from disparate backgrounds, all starting the story from one place—a walled port city on the northern shores of the Black Sea. For one character, the Greek provincial governor, the city is an opulent world, his ancestral home, rightfully back in the control of his family, a wealthy shipping dynasty. For another, the Roman garrison commander, it’s a stinking backwater post, an assignment he deems beneath his noble standing. There are also two Gothic characters who start the story there, and to them the city is a prison, as they are both slaves. The younger of the two, a slave most of his life, escapes with the aid of the other slaves, bidden to bring back an army of his kinfolk. The other, an aging warrior from a wide green land, stays behind, willingly remaining cloistered in a windowless stone room for an oath to a dead king.
A simple port city could’ve been a distant and detached spot on a map for most of my tale, as neither of my MCs have ever been there. I’m hoping that instead, the experience of these four distinctive secondary characters give the place shape and shading, bringing its history to life.
On the Other Hand: I’ve read my share of stories, particularly historical fantasy stories, where the antagonists are just a distant looming peril. While there’s nothing wrong with looming peril, I believe a story can be enhanced if we get to know the opposition. And I’m not just talking about a scene where the dark lord uses telepathy to strangle a messenger bearing ill tidings, simply to show us he is merciless and arbitrarily cruel. For me it’s all the better that Sauron is a duplicitous fallen demigod, corrupted by a desire to create order from chaos; that the Nazgûl were deceived kings of men, lured to accept corrupting rings by their promise of power; that Darth Vader went to the dark side in a vain attempt to rescue lost love from death’s grip. I want more than simple good versus evil. Give me many shades of gray (no, wait—oh, never mind). I like to know what’s driving my favorite antagonists.
And what better way to get to know a character than to be in their skin, to feel their feelings of betrayal, loss, or injustice? What drove them to the dark side? Is their side even dark to them? Headswerving to your baddies’ viewpoints delivers the answers. Goals can be clarified, motivations strengthened, and conflicts escalated when we are brought deeper into the psyche of the antagonists by seeing the story from their perspectives. For me there’s an added bonus: they’re just plain fun to write.
Options for Optimizing: Headswerving also allows you to optimize the tension and impact for any given scene. It’s not just what’s happening, but who’s experiencing it. For example, say a character slaps another across the face. Who’s going to best sense whether the incident will escalate and how? The slapper or the slappee? Maybe it’s a bystander. Who best knows the depth of shame involved, or the amount of regret for the impulse? Which is greater? Rather than offering the reader just a stinging hand or cheek, you allow them to experience the event from the head that feels the fullest impact and senses the gamut of the potential repercussions.
How about a first kiss? Who is most shocked, or elated, or scandalized? Okay, how about a death? Who’s going to be horrified? Who least expected it? Who will be devastated? You can explore one or all of them—see the incident and delve the ramifications in any variety of ways. But most importantly, you get to choose the perspective that best moves your story forward and will deliver the biggest impact on your readers.
My Rose Colored POV Glasses: By now I’m sure you’ve surmised that I’m unabashed and unrepentant about my headswerving. I may love seeing from the eyes of many, but I’m not completely blind to the pitfalls. I’ve made my share of mistakes with my profusion of POVs, and I may make even more changes to my manuscripts before I’m done. So before you jump on the headswerver bandwagon, take a note of caution from a longtime devotee. Be aware of these potential complicating issues:
* Make them distinctive! Be sure each character has a unique voice and perspective. Does each character come across differently and offer the reader a fresh outlook? Use of quirks and vocal tics can be helpful, but don’t rely on tricks. Make sure each POV character has a singular personality and set of opinions. Don’t duplicate worldviews.
*Avoid head-hopping. Make sure it’s very clear to the reader whose skin they are in. It can feel disorienting or even creepy when they aren’t sure. Delineate the changes with a scene break or a chapter change, and quickly identify the new POV after the change—within a line or two.
*Don’t fall down the rabbit hole. Secondary character POVs can be a blast to write, and they often aid the pacing. The development of subplots can enhance your story’s themes and keep your novel’s middle from sagging. But beware of being sidetracked! Your readers want to follow your protagonists—after all, they’re the ones you put in the story’s driver’s seat. Get back to him/her/them… Often.
*Offer closure. Don’t allow yourself to leave dangling participants when you get to ‘The End.’ If you’re going to create them, give them an arc. Every POV character should have some clear reason for their departure or the end of their role in the story—for better or worse. (I know some of you brash young headswervers are going to kill a few off, aren’t you? It’s okay, I get it.)
Headswerving’s Head Recruiter: So tell me—are you already a headswerver, or do you enjoy reading them? If you haven’t yet, do you think you’ll ever try a story from multiple POVs? Or are you just annoyed by all this hopping around, wishing I’d join Headswervers Anonymous already?
Many thanks to Heather Reid for allowing me to fill in for her, and to all the H&C ladies for their hospitality! For those of you who don’t know me, feel free to drop by my other blogging home at vaughnroycroftblog.com anytime, and we can get better acquainted.
Image credit: rolffimages / 123RF Stock Photo