Sunday, July 07, 2019

When characters get together and multiply.

Pictured: Sorry Luke, you're fifth-wheeling from now on... this is an ENSEMBLE,  babe!

Hey Writers,

Still here? That's great!

So last time I talked a bit about my "the process" when it comes to putting together the protagonist for my current WIP. I did the whole "world-building as character background", planned some sort of an arc, (won't say which), and carried on with plotting. Then something else happened.

[digression=1]So, quite a while ago, maybe even a decade ago, I and a brother got to stoppin', collaboratin', and listenin', and we set out to plot a cyberpunk (I know) story called *REDACTED*. See, Broseph had a general scheme in mind, and truth be told, he very likely could have (and probably will someday) plot something entirely different and better than the Hollywood-blockbuster-meets-anime we cooked up. Characters became more fleshed out and even outshone the original protagonist. We even added at least one new character that really took root with his new fictional life. What was a somewhat isolated protagonist became a member of an ensemble. [digression=0]

Ensemble casts are really nothing new if you watch a lot of flicks, the first Star Wars might be the poster child for Joseph Campbell's Hero Myth as applied to farm boy Luke Skywalker. The Skywalker family is the crux of the overall narrative, but by the time Empire had rolled around, Luke had shoved over and Han Solo was taking turns behind the wheel, Sometimes Han and Leia drove the Pontiac Plotmobile station wagon (with wood paneling) while Lukie slept in the back seat. The point is, some stories are made for the lone protagonist, some characters start as strong support and just take on a life of their own, and some narratives just don't go to plan, and a solo romp becomes a group outing.

So in piecing together VIRTUAL MACHINES, I had fleshed out a few supporting characters, one of which I grew pretty fond of. She was originally supposed to be an antagonist, and about 30 thousand words in, something happened.  Suddenly, I became very interested in what was going on with Rachel Inverness. So things got shuffled, she got some chapters of her own, a supporting character from Nathan's tale became a supporting character in her story (he's still Nathan's partner too!) And even he grew substantially. It's confusing, but it works. While Nathan is the straight man, a buttoned-down pro with skills, a reasoned investigator and capable fighter, Inverness is a total wildcard; her affiliation is never really entirely squared away, her approach is radical, violent, and she's a might unpredictable. I also love that this hard-edged but stylish  British punk rocker is in truth, the only one who knows what side is up, and she's got zero tolerance for ignorance or bullshit.
Adding Shifts to her perspective added something I felt I was missing; whether it's character, or dynamics, and it added some extra depth to the mystery(or mysteries) at the core of my story. It also gave two supporting characters, Liam Garner (the protagonist's partner) and Sada Yazji (social activist and internet celebrity) some additional meat as well. It even introduced a new supporting -supporting character (we heard you like supporting characters, so we added a supporting character for your supporting character). And even, lastly, gave me a damn good hook (and an all-new protagonist) for a potential sequel (Machine-made?)

Shifting perspectives is tricky for a novel. I'm used to screenplays, I'm used to scene transitions in that form. In a film, shifting perspectives is almost always in the name of exposition or furthering the plot. Everything still relates to our hero-protagonist. In a novel, sure, it can be done in the same fashion, but more commonly we're getting several parallel narratives unspooling simultaneously. Contemporary use brings George RR Martin to mind; chapters that take the currently involved character as their heading. Several distinct narratives unfolding independently, and never, or maybe never, or possibly the twain (or five-ain?) shall meet. You've really got to break out the road map here. What I did was a timeline (day one AM, day one PM, etc.). On that timeline, I pasted in EVERY major character related happening in chronological order, and then I used that to rebuild my chapter order and plot out when to shift my perspectives to either A: keep things from being confusing, or B: heighten the dramatic tension.
I don't know if it's right or wrong, but It's helped me keep everyone straight so far as where and when they're supposed to exist in the story, and in fact, it helped me plot everything out a little better as well.

How do you feel about multiple protagonists? What are some books or flicks you enjoyed wherein you had multiple plots from varied perspectives?

Until next time,


David Brake said...

*cough* Rashomon. Or Ensemble casts and different perspectives is actually two different things (though they often go together). I am a sucker for the unreliable narrator, especially when you aren't given the hint that the narrator is unreliable until partway in...

SteveTP said...

I don't know how I feel about The Usual Suspects as an ensemble piece. I love it, and I get why people cite it often, that's a ton of strong performances. The movie really belongs to Chazz Palmanteri and Kevin Spacey though, and theirs is the meat of the thing. I imagine that's a flick that would have worked incredibly well as a novel with shifting perspectives, maybe give each of the 'suspects' their own chapters.

SteveTP said...

Also; have you seen 'The Game'?

David Fincher's follow-up to Seven, starred Michael Douglas, and was utterly brilliant.