Your characters are not mere instruments of plot

I’m 25,000 words into my second novel. Inspired by Ian McEwan’s Atonement, I wanted to tell my story through a variety of perspectives, with one character handing over to another to show multiple perspectives. 

As I started writing, I was worried that I wouldn’t justify this use of perspective shift, having never used it before. But, as I wrote, I found the style drove the story forward. Jumps in character wrote themselves and it became clear where the transitions should be. I employed a tactic of covering the handover piece of time twice: once by a character towards the end of their chapter, then once by the the next character towards the beginning of theirs. It meant that, chronologically, the moment the last character ended was a few hundred or thousand words into the next character’s chapter. This worked well, and I was developing a flow of overlapping stories.

Character and Plot Timeline

What this allows me to do is break off at a crucial moment, delaying gratification for the reader. The challenge here was remembering to go back, not only in time, but in the experience of the character picking up the lead. When the chapter begins, Character 2 can’t know something that comes in a crucial conversation later in the chapter, although this may already have been written at the end of Character 1. In this sense, the reader sometimes knows more than the character, and sometimes less. It’s an interesting style to play with. No doubt when I edit the whole work, I’ll find incongruities. But that’s what editing is for.

The issue I discovered yesterday though, is that while these character jumps may be useful at building suspense for the reader, I’m not doing enough to distinguish their actual characters. Their external side is helping the story develop, but their internal side – their thoughts, emotions and fears – are not working hard enough yet. 

My challenge now is to develop characters which fit into the 25,000 words I’ve already written. Needless to say, this will make the first edit a harder job. But I’d rather realise it now than after the book is published.

Onwards and upwards. It’s time to get back to my writing desk.