1

I'm in the process of writing the first draft of my first novel (a medieval low-fantasy). In the story, I have multiple characters who slowly get possessed over time. The possession occurs through manipulation of the characters' fears and wants. I want to be able to show how the process of the possession is slow, but here's the thing: I switch character perspectives in the book. Each chapter is told from a different point of view, and I have seven different people I tell the story from (though a lot of them die and/or get possessed, so I slowly go down in number of perspectives).

Since I want to show the details of how these characters slowly lose their minds but I don't want to have an incredibly long book or have weirdly structured chapters, does anyone have any suggestions for how to show slow character changes without being long in page/word length? Note that all the different character perspectives occur at the same time. I can't have a month pass in one chapter and then in the next go back in time a few weeks. For the sake of consistency, time is continuous.

1
  • " weirdly structured chapters" What does this mean?
    – hszmv
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 12:35

4 Answers 4

1

Does anyone have any suggestions for how to show slow character changes without being long in page/word length?

Pardon the crassness of the metaphor, I'm about to drop, I learned it from a teacher at an all boy's high school who was clearly speaking to his audience:

The length of a goo piece of writing should be like the length of a girl's skirt: It should be long enough to cover everything but short enough to keep it interesting.

That said, the point is that you should not worry about keeping this short... do what you got to do for your story to work, length be damned.

Keep in mind that no one said you have to keep an order to your perspective characters in chapters (The author I best know for changing perspective of characters in chapters is K.A. Applegate in the Animorph's series. While she had a consitent rotation in the main line series of books (Jake, Rachel, Tobias/Ax, Cassie, Marco. At the start of the sieres Tobias and Ax got one book out of 10 while the rest of the four got 2 books out of 10. Later it was changed so everyone got 1 book out of 6, Ax's book being placed after Marco's) this was only done per book. In the Megamorph's line and her books based on secondary character's backstories, the narrators would change in chapters with no order between them. If Jake needed to narrate two chapters in a row, that's fine. Then Marco narrates, followed by Tobias... the needs of the story determined who got what chapter.

Additionally, Chapters need not be a fixed length. They are as long as they need to be to tell the story. I've seen some stories where the chapter is the length of a page (front in back). If you translate to a film, consider a chapter a scene. If you have a hero responding to the bad guy's bank heist, you can have a chapter end with his partner (just two days from retirement and showing everyone in the precinct the pictures of his granddaughter he's going to spend more time with... and she's hugging his beloved dog...) finds an odd device with a digital clock. Next chapter has a scene where the bad guy, sitting in his get away car, pulls out a device with a button and presses the button. End Chapter. Next chapter we're back with the hero and his partner and the digital clock starts counting down... and the partner realizes it's a bomb with 15:00 minutes on the clock.

Finally on "taking place at the same time" sometimes it actually works to advance the story... you can set up the partner to lock the hero out of the building so he can disarm the bomb himself. The hero is clear of the building when the bomb goes off. Nobody saw his partner leave. Fast forward to the climax where the hero is at the mercy of the villain's goons... and a shot rings out... the goon slumps over dead and the hero looks in the direction of the gun shot to see his partner, ending the chapter. The next chapter goes back to the bomb scene where we see it from the partner's perspective after he forces the hero out of the bank. We see what he does to survive the blast and get to the very next chapter from his POV. One thing we can also do is foreshadow by dropping clues as to how he made it out in the first run of the chapter.

1

Possession and transformation is a trope in both sci-fi and fantasy. You could look at various things for examples. Werewolves, vampires, zombies, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, multiple episodes of the X-Files, and so forth.

Showing progression requires showing change. That means you need "before and after."

For purposes of keeping word count down, and of having the story lines hold together, don't spend much time on characters who are going to die. So don't spend page after page describing the "before" of somebody who is not going to have an "after."

You can sneak it in to a limited extent. If Joe the baker is behaving strangely you can have his neighbors remark on it. "Joe is holding his head at a weird angle and glaring at people in a weird way. He never did that before!"

But most of the time you will need to establish how a person behaved before. You need to do that by showing them behaving that way. Interactions with other people, things they like to do or don't like, food they like, clothes they wear, places they tend to spend time, and so on.

Then you show they are not acting that way any more.

You can also, to some extent, show generic weirdness. That is, things that would stand out as weird without any preparation. Especially if they are doing this weirdness in a coordinated manner. Suppose that there is some "tell" that a person is in a certain stage of the process. Maybe they stand for a half hour looking at the floor without moving and without responding to anything around them. Or maybe they have what looks like a seizure. Or various other things. Then you can use the ones who are about to die to show these things.

Maybe the ones who have the most severe obvious weird behavior are the ones about to die. Maybe they have reacted most poorly and cannot sustain the change.

Another avenue is when the person involved has some vague idea what is happening. If Joe the baker realizes he is falling to it, he may do various things. Maybe he runs away and hides. Or gets roaring drunk. Or tries to kill himself. Or tries to kill his enemies. Or demands that the village healer save him. You get the idea. Either from desperation, or from the oncoming effects of the process, he may do a variety of things that stand out. Some may be similar for many people affected, some may be specific to him.

There are also plenty of trope characters to go with the idea. The guy who denies anything is happening. The guy who thinks he knows what is happening but is tragically wrong. The guy who knows what is happening but is only worried about panic. The guy who plans to loot the victims. The guy who thinks what is happening is really good and should be hurried along. The guy who thinks he can control what is happening to his own advantage. The guy who is planning to just go on with his ordinary life until the last possible moment. And so on.

1

Second Draft

It's a first draft. Pacing is something you fix in the second draft, once you are more firm on your story beats and characters.

Just write the story. Readers are perfectly fine head-hopping from character to character. You don't need to switch protagonists at each chapter, or follow some self-imposed structure. Just follow the perspective that feels the most interesting or logical in the moment, and tell the story.

The alternative is to 'plot' your story beats first on a timeline. In this case with so many characters, and a deliberate progression that needs to move steadily and synchronously, an outline (at least) would save some time and frustration.

Character Development: Start

For each character you need a start-state, an ostensibly serine status quo where some (privileged/powerful) characters seem to want nothing..., some have an un-easy status quo where they have 'settled' or made the best of their circumstances..., and at least 1 character who is very dissatisfied in their starting status quo.

(If the 'possession' effects animals, start there as foreshadowing. A work horse goes amok, a dog turns on its owner.)

As the the villagers are effected, the dissatisfied person will be the most eager to change their status quo, having nothing to lose. They may appear to 'level up' quickly (or turn to violence quickly), which other characters are likely to notice but dismiss because the person is relatively unimportant, or already a social outcast.

The characters who have privilege and power will indulge their impulses, but use their influence and status to cover it up. Only a few will witness this behavior, close subordinates who are likely to help provide cover for their superiors, at least at first. This will flip the power dynamics. The elite will now have vulnerabilities, and their subordinates will have leverage.

Finally the characters who have settled in their lives, or exist in an uneasy status quo, will be more sensitive to changes in power dynamics. They will have already decided what is worth fighting for and what is worth accepting, so bringing these things into question will jeopardize whatever compromises they have already made.

Middle:

The characters who struggle but resist because they are already underdogs who must suppress desires, are good characters for your longer-lasting protagonists.

An outsider who witnesses an elite's indulgence, may assume that was always their behavior, or be shocked by the behavior, either way it may become a justification for their own impulse indulgences.

You could introduce interpersonal conflict (ie: plot) as someone loses faith in someone they have looked up to, meanwhile an opportunist may try to blackmail or otherwise capitalize on what they've learned.... One destabilization triggers another, like a row of dominoes.

End:

What you want is a small community where things seem idyllic at first, but as the threads start to be pulled, bigger and bigger holes start to unravel. The changing dynamic reveals unacknowledged resentment, which triggers reactions, which lead to more conflict. And so on...

When the saintly and salt-of-the-Earth people finally flip, it will be big, like a sweet old lady putting an axe in her husband's head. But before you get there, there will be personal struggles and quiet backstabbing and secret sabotage..., also coping and compensating.

By the 3rd act, the world order is upside-down. Even your self-denying disciplined protagonists will find it hard to hold on to moral values in a world turned to chaos.

Out-of-the-box example

There's an indie film called Impulse (1984) which follows a very similar plot in a rural town (the reasons are not supernatural). The protagonist is a prodigal outsider who witnesses increasingly bizarre behavior, but she already has a bias against the town which she left long ago.

The story is framed as a psychological thriller where we're not sure if the town is going crazy (or was always crazy), or if she is overreacting because of past trauma. The reason is eventually explained but since none of the characters understand why, it becomes superfluous next to the immediate danger of the other people.

0

If your seven characters are co-located, or mostly co-located, then you might think how you can show the non-POV-in-that-moment characters' continued progression from the POV-of-the-moment character's viewpoint.

For example, we have characters A-G. We see the status quo of their lives -- maybe from only A and G's POV. Then you can start cycling through the viewpoints of all of your viewpoint characters, making sure they witness some of the other characters behaviors.

I imagine this method will mean that the reader will have more of an idea of what is going on than any of the POV characters, who'll remain somewhat ignorant of why the characters are behaving or talking so strangely. The POV character's reaction to those behaviors provide a good way to flesh out the viewpoint character's personalities. And that insight the reader gains from the multiple viewpoints might be a good source of either tension or dramatic irony.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.