I think you have a good premise.
It is worth asking some rhetorical questions about why you would (and would not) want to shift POV with an ensemble cast.
- Keeps the pace and tension strong. There is always something interesting happening somewhere. You have eyewitnesses at different strata of the event, and no one has a complete picture.
- The protagonists are "everymen". They are normal people in an extraordinary situation. They are all relatable and recognizable, solving problems as they come.
- The broad character motivations are clear, but each character has to resolve a series of escalating conflicts and obstacles, meanwhile their escape options are steadily reduced. The situation has inherent tension.
- There is no cartoon villain scheme to conveniently lead the plot, instead the story is a slow burn (pun intended) of "yes but…; no and…" situations which force them all to change course. An ensemble can show different reactions to the same inciting event, with each character acting in plausible ways which ultimately leads them deeper into trouble.
- Cut the scene at dramatic moments to create "cliffhangers" and other
narrative tricks to maintain suspense. (Your situation has plenty of
danger, it can "earn" the tension legitimately.)
- Some will live, some will die, but the reader won't guess who. (The genre is adventure: "man against nature", not murder mystery. Again, the story can earn the tension legitimately, no need to "trick" the reader with red herrings and misdirection.)
The POV will not be confusing because each protagonist will diverge into their own "voice", and even though this is not really a character-driven story each will have a unique character motivation and experience level. Stress allows us to see the core person. On the surface, characters will all have the similar concerns about survival, but how they act under stress, how they approach problems, how quickly they abandon one plan to go to another, and how they assess their own (untested) abilities will make each character a unique person.
One way to define them is a surface personality "A" and an underlying heroic personality "B". Stress will push them from their normal "A personality" to their "B personality" which is actually a bit more interesting, but it doesn't always work to their advantage. The "A personality" is introduced first as their normal day-to-day reactions, while the "B personality" is revealed like a hero with fatal flaws that emerges as stress increases.
I'll play with your characters, but these are just suggestions:
A young housewife who lives in the foothills of the mountain behind
the town and her struggle to help neighbours and herself save their
houses and escape after the fires have taken hold of the area.
Housewife is a natural hero. Her B personality is to put others ahead of her own safety, and it's easy to understand how that might put her in danger. Her situation can become more complicated as she takes charge of more people than she can actually save. She would not be able to leave an elderly person behind, even when they are hostile to strangers.
Her A personality could be a contrast. Perhaps she's had previous run-ins with these neighbors. Maybe she is a little acerbic or sarcastic, or a bit aloof as she is better educated than her rural neighbors (maybe that's just how they see her).
(You could flip these personalities around. The A persona is too-nice and meek, while the B persona reveals a strong and charismatic leader. It is interesting either way.)
A man who leaves work and has to battle through the blaze to get home
to his wife and children, never knowing until the end whether they are
alive or dead (perhaps tying this into the first character, ie. she's
He is an anti-hero. He is doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons. His B personality rushes towards danger. Instinctively he doesn't have faith that his wife and kids will get themselves to safety, and he certainly doesn't have faith in the many authority figures telling him to turn his car around.
His A personality might be a protective husband/father who has tried to shield them. Maybe he has a long commute or lives on the road – maybe he works extra hours to move them out of an urban environment. The irony is a: Nature puts them in danger, and b: he is not there to save them.
His A and B conflicts arise every time he passes up helping someone else because he is headed in the wrong direction. He may miss crucial information because he is avoiding the main roads. Maybe he rescues people who are glad to get a ride, but not so glad when they realize they are going the wrong way.
A teenager girl who, after being sent home with her younger siblings,
is left to escape with them on their own after not being able to make
it home through the fires.
Teenager is a reluctant hero. She didn't ask to be the default babysitter, it means sitting around and doing nothing when she could be with friends. Her A personality might be resentful about her annoying siblings, and the burden of being the responsible one. "Just go home and wait. Ugh!" I suggest they get to the house and wait for Mom, as instructed.
Her B personality, her hero aspect, is more than just overcoming teenage self-centeredness. As a child she did as she was told, but she's now old enough that "because mom said so" isn't the only reason. While she is curious to see the fire herself, she also knows she has to tell her brother "no" because he would go do something dumb. Little Bro is still a child, but Teen Girl is neither a child or an adult. The fire seems to be getting closer, and Mom still hasn't returned. Now what?
Remember there are 3 reactions to stress: fight, flight and freeze. A very normal reaction is to do nothing, especially for people who have never had authority. Baby animals are left under a tree or hidden in tall grass, their defense is to do nothing and let danger pass them by (sometimes while Mom leads danger away). What Teen Girl has to decide is when to stay put (like a child) and when to take action (like an adult). They stay at the house too long until access is cut off, but can she get them over rough ground to the highway? Her younger siblings are simultaneously depending on her ingenuity and self-reliance, and also threatening to tell mom on her, giving her child/adult struggle a literal voice.
A young man and his co-workers who work in the telegraph office and
struggle throughout the fires to spread possibly life saving
This guy is not a character, he is an infodump – but lets force the same heroic struggle onto him. (I do not know the historic incident, so pardon the melodrama, it is just an example.)
He is what I call a Science Hero. He may at first have a rigid (narrow) understanding of his tools and how they should be used (during an emergency or otherwise). His heroism is having the vision that his tools can be used in a whole new way. He may also have a better sense of the terrain than his superiors but lacks authority to persuade them, or his actions are in someway antithetical to his job (telegraph offices are to turn a profit, not coordinate rescues). The conflict may not be a power struggle at all, just a race to coordinate a system of reliable information.
This leads to a showdown within his office, where he breaks the rules, oversteps his authority, or otherwise jeopardizes his job – potentially removing him from his position to help others. At any rate you still have an A personality to start, and heroic B personality that emerges under stress. He may be too eager to help and tell people the wrong thing, thus his information can hurt people before he gets it under control.
The important trick is to make everyone's heroic personality a double-edged sword. These people are not professional heroes. Their B personalities are untested, and they will make big mistakes by doubting their instincts and also through inexperience.
When you frame each protagonist as a different "heroic archetype", and understand their "heroic paths" as separate but equal journeys, each character's voice and story beats will make more sense, both to you and the reader.
What about the passing of time as what each of these characters are
going through is all happening at the same time?
Chronological time is presumed to move forward everywhere in the story world, even when we are following other characters. Use the shift in POV to skip over things that are dramatically unimportant, such as straight travel or a long section without a change in character or conflict. When you return, the reader will assume at least the same amount of time has advanced for these characters too, unless you explicitly say otherwise. Give a timely in-scene cue as you would in any scene, especially if the time gaps are inconsistent or need to overlap.
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