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Jumping from head to head

April 3, 2013

Although it’s a less popular technique than it once was, some authors successfully use multiple viewpoints to present different perspectives on the same events. In The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling jumps into the heads of more than a dozen main characters to examine the impact of the death of local councillor on the residents of small town. Throughout Anna Karenina, Tolstoy switches between men and women, aristocrats and officers and even humans and dogs!

While they were talking, Laska, pricking up her ears, kept looking up at the sky and then reproachfully at them. “What a time they have chosen to talk, thought she.”

Switching viewpoints provides insights and information that a single character might not possess. But this technique can distance the readers from the characters. And switching too often can be confusing.

Both Rowling and Tolstoy address the intimacy issue by fully inhabiting each viewpoint character and using that character’s knowledge, emotional state, diction and worldview to colour the scenes.

Krystal pretended to everyone that they had a television at home. She watched enough at friends’ houses, and at Nana Cath’s, to be able to bluff her way through. ‘Yeah, it were shit, weren’t it?’ ‘I know, I nearly pissed meself,’

It’s a kindness to the reader if the author sticks to one viewpoint character in each scene, as Rowling generally does, but Tolstoy often switches more quickly and more frequently. In the hunting scene, he moves from Levin’s heart-sick human perspective to Laska’s impatient hunting dog view and back, in just a few lines, always making sure readers know what perspective they are looking from.

Rowling switches viewpoints to dissect the inner moral workings of a small town. Tolstoy uses the technique to compare and contrast widely different attitudes about love and marriage, passion and fidelity, and city and country life.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Frank Gavin permalink
    April 4, 2013 6:08 pm

    Russell Banks in “The Sweet Hereafter” and in “Affliction” presents the same events from different points of view, in both cases very effectively. In each you get quite comfortable with a particular narrative point of view but then have to adjust to a very different perspective, one that not only makes you see characters and events in a new light but also makes you a more alert reader.

  2. Valerie McDonald permalink
    April 11, 2013 1:58 pm

    “Making you a more alert reader” is a benefit I hadn’t considered!

  3. Frank Gavin permalink
    April 16, 2013 11:27 pm

    Maybe it also requires the writer to be particularly alert or at least less able simply to settle into a single point of view. Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” is a good example. I can’t think of an example from a short story, though.

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