I have recently read five books in which the author tells the story through the lens of different characters. Each chapter is a different person experiencing, sometimes narrating, a new situation, often in a new year or timeframe. One book, just one, has done this effectively, in my opinion. The other three were “fine,” but would have benefited from more limited perspectives. The last one, I tossed on the DNF (did not finish) pile.
Reflecting on these different works prompted me to consider what my different reactions to their content could mean for a writer who might be considering this approach to telling a story. I’ve included below a short synopsis of the books that I read followed by a thought or two for writers to take into account as they consider which character is telling what story and why.
I’ll start with the DNF and work towards the successful novel. But if you want to skip through almost 2,000 words of writing, I included a summary at the bottom.
Synopsis: My DNF was As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner. This was my first selection from the Book of the Month (BOTM) club, albeit a hesitant one based solely on the cover (shouldn’t judge a book by a cover…but in this case I should have). It is set in Philadelphia in 1918 and begins before the outbreak of the Spanish Flu. The mother and at least three of the girls each get a voice in the description of events. I should say, they do up to page 100 and then I stopped. At that point, no Spanish flu to be seen yet. Instead 100 pages have been used to talk about their move to Philadelphia, describing the house, meeting the neighbors. 100 pages and Mrs. Bright’s baby son has died prompting the move to live with an uncle who owns a funeral home, and the three girls are adjusting to a different environment – from rural to urban, and one falls in love – of course, with a soldier being sent to war. Now, this has all the ingredients (too many ingredients?) for finding a hook somewhere or developing a dynamic. There’s a war going on, there’s been an unfortunate death, a move, a love interest, an unusual environment. Instead, it is dull. It is one chapter after another of telling, little showing, and little distinction between the voices of the characters in the story let alone any development of their full personhood. Is this a case of too many cooks in the kitchen?
For Writers: If you are going to use multiple voices, make sure they are distinct voices. Make sure you have a clear and easy-to-understand reason for the multiplicity. I couldn’t decipher either of these points and that made it difficult for me to engage. The story could have been quite powerful told from the mother’s perspective, possibly from one of the daughters. Yes, the personalities of the other characters will be developed through one lens, but if that single lens is thoughtfully orchestrated and dynamic in and of itself, then the nuance that naturally comes from a character and the tension of growing relationships will express and create its own rhythm and pull.
Synopsis: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie tells the inter-connected stories of two families who immigrate to London but create two different lives in their adopted city. Isma, Aneeka, and Parvaiz are siblings on the verge of adulthood. Their mother recently died, and their father was an infamous jihadist. Each one pursues opportunities with varying degrees of success and consistency and purpose. It is the brother’s choice to follow his father’s footsteps that ultimately pulls the story forward. The line that then ties the group tighter together is the introduction of Eamonn, son of a powerful political figure, who has a chance to follow his own father’s ideas or strike out on his own. Incidentally, he also ends up as part of a brief and somewhat unbelievable love triangle between Isma and Aneeka. Another novel with potential for dramatic tension, and I think could have quite possibly succeeded if the multiple viewpoints were pared down.
For Writers: If using perspectives is your best option, keep it simple. Less is more. This seemed like one where choosing two instead of four viewpoints would have built the suspense better. In particular it likely would have worked to use Eamon and Aneeka as the storytellers. Their links with each of the other main characters and the ability then to weave a believable story that used both supplemental details and strategic information gaps would have ratcheted the storyline up to the level it could best succeed.
Synopsis: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is one I saw all over Bookstagram. It was another Book of the Month club selection, and one I anticipated. In fact, despite being four books deep on my BOTM reading pile, this was the one I chose to start with. The premise is simple enough: a newly married black couple, Celestial and Roy Jr. face twelve years of separation after he is falsely accused, arrested, and sentenced for a crime he did not commit. Just enough time for the best friend of the bride and best-man for the groom, Andre, to swoop in and fill Roy’s vacant shoes. I wanted to like this one because the set-up seemed to have potential to explore so many facets of modern marriage and the stressors forced upon it by injustice. But I just didn’t care about any of the main characters. Not a single one. They were whiny, selfish, and dispassionate in their conflicted roles. It has taken me a while to digest it and try to pinpoint what went wrong. I don’t think the characters themselves or the plot were at fault.
For Writers: Writing from multiple perspectives limits the amount of information you can include in a chapter to both develop the character and advance the plot. I get that. You have to focus. For example, the parents of the three characters in this book, and particularly Roy Sr. and Olive, were my favorite people, but there was too much time spent with them and worrying about them that would have been better served deepening or intensifying the conflict between the love triangle. I understand the necessity of showing that parents wield strong influence over the decisions of their children – particularly in regards to financial support – but this would have been better demonstrated as peripheral information and not as some of the focal scenes. Keep the action in the story. It would have been more compelling to read Celestial’s experience visiting Roy Jr. in prison – and the preliminary waiting and body search that accompanied it – rather than hearing about it through one sentence dropped in a conversation later in the book. For this one: all your perspectives and chapters should enhance the thematic focus and build character rapport through the experiences that move the plot forward (show, don’t tell).
Synopsis: Salt Houses by Hala Alyan is a multi-generational, multi-location story of the Yacoub family. Primarily it follows the life of Alia as she navigates being daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother, and herself. It is a story of places made and left behind but of family remaining. Alyan places the chaotic realities of the region in their place by not making them the primary influencer of the central conflict, but the disruption persists. It is a novel of routines and decisions and coming of age and aging. It is about life. Like the other two that ended in my “eh” response, it had moments of being a good read and I did read it to the end. But it lacked sticking power. While there may be many reasons for that depending on the reader and the book, part of it for me was again in the factional storytelling combined with regular displacement.
For Writers: This book combined two factional dynamics that created a reading experience where I was never fully engaged. One factor was the fragmented storytelling that comes through multiple perspectives and the other disorienting aspect surfaced from the shifting locations. The combination of both created too much movement between character and setting to follow and appreciate the purpose of the story. The book’s description ends with: “Lyrical and heartbreaking, Salt Houses is a remarkable debut novel that asks us to confront that most complicated of all truths: you can’t go home again.” So much bittersweetness in that sentiment, but for me, lacking in execution. Sadly, The larger meaning was sacrificed through the choice to engage multiple locations and multiple voices. When writing from multiple perspectives, use caution when trying to diversify the other structural elements – make sure you have something solid connecting the shifting narratives.
Synopsis: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is a novel spanning 300 years and over a dozen different voices. Basically, it breaks every suggestion I just made. And it works. The narrative starts in Ghana and ends in Ghana. It follows the lineage and legacy of two sisters. It grapples with complex characters, wretched history, hopeful moments, and the sweeping potential for good or evil. The narratives do not go back-and-forth between characters which helps the flow and connectivity, but in this case because the progression of time is a factor it is an appropriate approach whereas it may not be as possible or effective with other storytelling situations. It is a beautiful and epic and difficult novel to digest, but in employing multiple perspectives it is exceptional.
For Writers: I think there are two factors at play here. Factor one: writing is not just a list of rules for every exact situation, it is an art and a craft that does not play well with too many restrictions. Hence, I can make the aforementioned cautions while holding on to a book that ignores them all. Factor two: using multiple perspectives allowed history to become one of the characters. The progression and development of history worked through each chapter. Each chapter reached back to the realities of the past on the decisions of the present while simultaneously aspiring towards a different future. As past, present, and future reached backwards and forwards while standing within a specific time and place, history took on a vibrancy and intentionality that pulled me forward with expectancy while also allowing me to inhale the grit and reality that the past had written on that present moment. It was more than that old cliché of history coming alive, history was, in a sense, the character that held all the components together. And for such an ambitious undertaking as charting a connected narrative through three centuries of history, having something to hold it together was necessary.
What it will not do is allow you to develop on character deeply. To effectively do this the writer must acknowledge that limitation and pick the most precise and indicative scene from that character’s current situation to advance the plot, add a layer of understanding, and develop a human with which a reader can immediately and to some depth identify with and care about. Not an easy task, but I think Gyasi nailed it here as well. Her writing was vivid, her moments were indicative of both the moment in history and the personal predicament of the character involved.
*Make sure the characters have distinct voices and a defined purpose for being included as the storytellers. (As Bright As Heaven)
*Less is more. Be selective and intentional with what characters you choose as narrators. Too many and the story fragments and loses emotional heft. (Home Fire)
*Focus. Show, don’t tell. (An American Marriage)
*Use caution when attempting to diversify the other structural elements. Make sure there is something solid connecting the narratives. (Salt Houses)
*Recognize your limitations. (Homegoing)
What about for you? Writers, did you have different takeaways from any of these books? Readers, did you have a completely different opinion of how these books were executed and resonated?