Yesterday’s question by KHaL, with his two narrators, brought to mind a novel I tried to read 12 years ago, “Atlas de Geografía Humana” by Almudena Grandes (who, coincidentally, is presenting a new novel these days). I had enjoyed her previous work, “Malena es un nombre de tango“, enough to give her another go.
“Atlas…” tells the story of four women. If I remember well (I don’t have the book at hand), each chapter has a first person narrator, though it swtitches through all four of them. If I don’t remember well, then it might be a third-person omniscient limited narrator. So let’s talk about “viewpoint character”, which fits both situations. One way or the other, we have something to learn here, from somebody else’s mistakes.
The problem was that characters did not identify themselves at the beginning of each chapter, so you had no idea who was speaking now. The idea was, I presume, that one doesn’t call oneself by name when one thinks. The reader should be able to identify the narrator by context. Well, call me stupid, but I was unable. All four women were interchangeable to me, because I never had the time to learn each other’s traits before I was mixing them all up. I never finished the book.
George R. R. Martin has created an absurdly large cast for his “A Song of Ice and Fire“, but at least each chapter is headed by the name of the viewpoint character, so at least you know who it’s referring to, which is about the lowest level of comprehension you need. If you have forgotten who it is due to the excess of names or because he hasn’t turned up for five hundred pages, well that’s an entirely different matter.
So you see where I’m heading to, right?
A writer spends many months, normally years, developing characters and plots for their novel, until they become more familiar than their family. Readers, however, will rarely dive so deep, and might even let days or weeks pass between reading one chapter and the week, or even worse, between paragraphs. It’s not like we have to spell everything out for them: readers like to be treated like intelligent creatures. But sometimes a minimum amount of redundancy can be healthy: we don’t like to be treated like we have nothing else to do with our lives apart from learning your characters’ family trees. As usual, balance is the key, and the key to balance is craft and intuition.