Saturday, 4 August 2012

Maintaining Viewpoint Balance

One of the questions writers often ask is how much of their character's point of view should be apparent within the narrative.  After all, the story should be from the protagonist’s viewpoint, and the majority of the scenes should concentrate on your main character.

Of course there will be scenes or chapters from other character’ viewpoints, and these are absolutely fine, but one of the problems that can occur is that a secondary character gradually overshadows the main character.  This sometimes happens naturally through the writing process because first and second drafts are usually the ‘bare bones’ of a novel and the writer is, therefore, finding their way with it.

The other problem is that viewpoints are not always clear during a chapter.  Is it the lead character’s chapter, or the secondary character’s chapter?  Or, as sometimes happens, is it a mix of all the characters?
The other problem is that sometimes this imbalance isn’t always picked up by writers, which means the manuscript then lands in front of an editor who immediately picks up on it when they read it because it is clear that the writer hasn’t made clear whose story it is.

The story always belongs to the main character.
The easiest way to find out if there is an imbalance between character viewpoints is to read through the finished MSS and then apply some basic maths.  Read through each chapter and male a note whose chapter it is. 

From this information you can ask the following questions:
1.    How many chapters are led by the protagonist?
2.    How many chapters are led by secondary characters?
3.    How many chapters have no clear viewpoint?
Take the results of how many chapters belong to which characters and convert them into percentages.  It should be obvious from these results just how the chapters balance.

The main character should always have the most dedicated chapters.  The rest of the chapters should be shared between the remaining characters.

A 60% / 40% balance is not too bad, i.e. 60% of the chapters are led by the main character and 40% of the chapters focus on the secondary characters.
A 70% / 30% is much better.  It means the writer has focused most of the chapters and scenes on what the main character is doing.  The remaining chapters are spread between secondary and peripheral characters.

For a simple example, a novel has 30 chapters and four important characters - Protagonist, Antagonist, Secondary Character and Peripheral Character.
The book has the following chapter breakdown:

14 chapters are about the Protagonist
9 chapters are about the Antagonist
5 chapters involve the Secondary character

2 chapters involve the Peripheral character

This kind of breakdown offers a simple visual so you can actually see which chapters are devoted to which characters and how much of the story shifts from one character to another. 
When converted to a percentage, it is clear that almost 47% of the book is focused on the main character.  30% concentrates on the antagonist, while just over 16% is about the secondary character and just over 6% is about the peripheral character.

This example, while fairly balanced, would benefit from some improvement to increase the chapter coverage so that more than half is about the main character. Remember, the story must always belong to the character; therefore most of the story should be about him or her.
This breakdown method is a simple, easy and valuable way to figure out just how balanced your character viewpoints are.  Read any popular fiction books and the vast majority will have a main character percentage that hits around 65% - 70%.

Your main character should always be at the forefront of the story, so by using this measurement you can check the proportion of character viewpoints to see if your main character is the focus, or whether he or she is wallowing beneath other characters who have taken over most of the chapters, or whether minor characters appear too frequently than is necessary etc.  You can then correct them and bring back a sense of balance prior to submitting your masterpiece to competitions, agents and editors.

 Next week: Dealing with single character scenes.

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