Jilly: Are Two Heads Better Than One?

Are Two Heads Better Than OneAssuming you’re a romance reader or writer (and if you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance that you are), do you think it’s better to know one character deeply than two superficially, or would you say books that let the reader into both the hero’s and the heroine’s head have a better chance of delivering a credible happy ending? Of course both can work if the writing’s good, but I suspect most of us have a sneaky preference one way or the other. And if, like me, you’re in the Two Heads Are Better Than One camp, can you drill down further to figure out what style of double-header you enjoy most?

This week I spent a day or three looking at the first act of my story. I’d had feedback from a couple of different sources that some of my early scenes were in the wrong place and they got in the way of the central story just as it was developing momentum. As soon as it was pointed out I realized it was true (damn it), but I wasn’t sure how to fix it, so I let it sit for a while. This week I felt ready to face the challenge. I tried two or three different ways of looking at the problem and in the end I wrote a summary of each scene on an index card (pink for Rose’s POV, blue for Ian’s 😉 ), laid them out on the dining table, changed the order around and did a little tweaking here and there until the scenes gave the central story a push in the right direction instead of getting in its way. I’m not finished yet, but I think I’m getting there.

The exercise made me think about the way I’ve constructed the story. There’s a lot more to think about than I realized when I bashed out the first draft completely by instinct.

Not Rent & Cornflakes (still searching for the right title) is Rose’s story, but the book is split roughly 50/50 between scenes in her POV and in Ian’s, because those are the kind of stories I most love reading. In Billy Mernit’s excellent book Writing the Romantic Comedy he says: “Rather than asking ‘will the hero obtain his goal?’ the central question posed by a romantic comedy is: ‘Will these two individuals become a couple?’” That makes sense, but I think romantic fiction needs to go further: the end of the book must be the beginning of a lasting, blissful future together for the hero and heroine – a Happy Ever After, not just a Happy Right Now. As a reader I find I am more likely to buy into that future promise if I know both individuals equally well. I need to be convinced that My Guy is the right man for My Girl, and for me that means spending time in the heads of both main characters.

Both Rose and Ian are written in deep POV, which means the reader is right inside both their heads, seeing what they see and thinking what they think, and only that. I often read books where the author gives both hero and heroine equal real estate on the page, but tips the balance subtly by going deeper with one character than the other, and therefore making that character more intimately knowable. Sometimes that works amazingly well – for example, Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels is essentially about how gorgeous, pragmatic Jessica banishes gorgeous, tortured Dain’s inner demons, so it makes sense that we delve deeper into Dain’s messed-up psyche.

Going deeper into one character’s head than the other can also be an effective way to retain a little mystery – leave the reader guessing, as well as the other main character – but my Girls seem to think it’s not playing fair, and I’m not sure I could write that way.

I also instinctively write short scenes, around the 1,500-word mark, but I often write sequences of up to half a dozen scenes that follow directly on from each other, and I almost always alternate POV from one scene to the next. I don’t count this as head-hopping (your mileage may vary), rather, to me it reads like a chess match or a sporting encounter – one player makes a move, the other responds, and so on, back-and-forth. I like it, but it means the reader gets fast, frequent updates and I’ve been wondering if it puts them in possession of too much information. I don’t think so: even though we might see an extended sequence from both characters’ POV, at any point we only know what one of them is thinking, which means we (and they) are guessing about the other. The other bonus is that their responses are immediate, which make them more telling.

I really enjoy watching sport, and I especially like one-to-one battles of any kind. I like to think my story is something like a really good tennis final – two well-matched players with different strengths and weaknesses, exchanging blows, both playing hard and playing to win, no quarter asked or given, until one prevails. That’s my idea of a good time. You may not be a sports fan 😉 .

So … what kind of romance structure works for you? Do you like to pin your colors to one character (first person or third) and fight the good fight with them, or are you like me, with a foot in each camp? If you like to get both sides of the story, do you like to spend a good, long time with a character before you change POV, or are you happy with a quick back-and-forth? How knowable do you like your characters? Would you prefer a little mystery, and can you be in possession of TMI? Please tell all. I’d love to know.

14 thoughts on “Jilly: Are Two Heads Better Than One?

  1. I’ve never thought deeply about my preferences before — I feel that two POVs is an advanced technique that I’m not sure I want to do yet, but I do enjoy both single and multiple POVs as a reader. If I’m reading a multiple, though, I do want updates from both parties quite frequently as long as I am not being teased. By that I mean, I don’t want to be following a thrilling thread with Character A, then suddenly plunged into something less thrilling with Character B — especially if I suspect I’m being manipulated into some sort of cliffhanger situation.

    My first drafts are almost always single POVs. And I should probably loosen up and try things from a multiple POV, just so I have a better idea of what’s going on. I can tighten it up back to first POV again, after all.

    • I never thought of two POVs as an advanced technique, Michaeline. In my mind, a single one is harder, because so much is invested in that one character – they have to fascinate the reader and carry the whole story. I’m much more comfortable reading one POV in urban fantasy or adventure stories – where the love story isn’t at the heart (ha!) of the book. If it’s a romance I prefer to get to know the hero for myself rather than seeing him solely through the lens of the heroine (it’s usually that way round).

      I know what you mean about being manipulated. My husband loves mysteries and police procedurals, and he read a book lately that featured an absolutely shocking piece of cheating. He yelled so loudly I thought he’d hurt himself. He’s still furious about it a week later 🙂

      • Huh, that’s very interesting. For me, I only need to get to know the insides of one brain, so I think it’s simpler. Also, it’s how I experience life, so the stories I tell myself have been practice for the stories I’m telling other people. (Although, of course, I don’t run into demons or asteroids or lovable transvestites on a daily basis.) Maybe there’s a flaw in my thinking — I do have to know *all* the characters in order to have them act appropriately in the story, so in theory I would know the insides of all the brains. But I experience story as a very linear thing — action leads to reaction, leads to next thing and so on.

        I’ve mentioned before that putting on the POV is like snuggling into a bear costume (or whatever the character has to be). So . . . for me, multiple POVs means that I have to take off or put on various costumes as I write them. A single POV means that I’m reacting to the surface of the other costumes.

        I’ll have to think about this some more.

  2. I’m going to go off on a closely-related tangent. My WIP is running pretty long–I’m at 60,000 words (220 pages) and I haven’t reached the midpoint yet. One reason is because of what you’re describing–I’m spending a lot of time with both characters, examining their motivations and their views of what’s transpiring. In my case, I think this I’ve actually taken this to an extreme because I’m not 100% clear on who’s the protagonist and who’s the antagonist. Jenny always said the antagonist is a protagonist is his own mind, so maybe that’s okay, but I’ve even got two different titles: The Devil She Knows and Demons Don’t, depending on which protagonist I wind up with.

    Anyway, the most satisfying reads for me are the ones where the protagonist has a significant character arc. And the more you split your time between characters the more difficult it’s going to be to do this without jumping over important, tiny changes or writing something that’s 600 pages long. Are both your characters arcing? To the same degree?

    Although, as I think about this more deeply, in the scenes where they’re together, you’re kind of getting double bang-for-your buck. Because even if your protagonist doesn’t have the microphone, we’re seeing how they look through the other character’s eyes.

    No help at all-sorry!

    • LOTS of help, Jeanne – I’m after food for thought, rather than answers, and I got plenty from this post. Thank you! Are you going to write to the end before you decide who owns your story, and then edit? My immediate reaction was that if you’re not sure whose book it is, then it must be beautifully balanced, making it their story, not predominantly hers (or his). Exactly my catnip!

      I think (hope) both my characters are arcing, and they’re driving each other to change. Their actions towards each other drive the change, and that has a knock-on effect on their families and their community. I don’t think I had this so clearly in the last draft, but I’ve realized this is what I want to achieve. Ian and Rose are together and in conflict in all the key scenes, so I really hope I’m getting a double-bang-for-my-buck payoff.

    • Oh, this makes a lot of sense to me, too. If I write single POV, I’m only worried about one character arc. (Which is a failing — my antagonist should probably arc as much as the protagonist.) I tend to fall into the trap of having my love-antagonist actually being a mature, rock-like presence of sturdiness. He’s already arced, and he’s (usually he) is frying other fish in the love story, arcing in his career for example, instead of his lovelife. Or arcing in his lovelife, but not his career when it’s his career that’s the center part of the story.

      Oh boy, that makes no sense, and I never saw that before. In my love story, my antagonist is more concerned about his career (he’s SURE of the love part). In my war-between-species story, my antagonist is messed up by love and that’s what’s driving his arc. Oh, man. Sounds fundamentally broken . . . . Officially freaking out now. (Give me a minute, I’ll probably be OK by the time you read this.)

  3. Wow, Jilly, thatsa lotta questions. Addressing the amount of time spent in each character’s POV: I tend to find stories that have one character, either the hero or the heroine, having more obstacles to the relationship to overcome than the other character (like your Lord of Scoundrels reference) to be more believable. So, just as in LOS, I want to see more POV from the character who is struggling. Above and beyond that, I need to see enough POV from the hero to know that he is a man with whom I could fall in love, and I need to see enough POV from the heroine to know she is not whiny, judgy, or selfish; in other words, a woman with whom I could be friends. The amount of space on the page in each POV should (for me!) be determined by how many words it takes to establish these things.

    As for mystery in my H&H, no thank you. I NEED to know that my requirements above have been met. I don’t want to wonder if either of the main characters is psychopath with brilliant social skills.

    The amount of time in each POV before switching that I find preferable? It doesn’t matter to me as long as I haven’t spent so much time in one head (like a third of the book, say) that moving into the other head comes as a shock. Fifteen hundred words at a pop definitely does not seem short enough to qualify as head-hopping to me.

    • Sorry for bombarding you today (not) 🙂 . I love your acid test for hero and heroine – a man to fall in love with and a woman who’d make a great friend. Re: more POV for the character facing the greatest struggle – I’m assuming that character (hero or heroine) would be the protagonist? If so, that kind of ties back to what Jeanne said – that the most satisfying reads are the ones where the protagonist has a significant character arc.

      Going to add that to my list of things to think about. Both my hero and heroine face challenges and both change, but who changes the most, and does the story spend enough time and space to support that change (no matter whose POV I use)? Hmmmmm …. thanks!!

      • Nope, character facing the greatest struggle does not need to be the protagonist for me. Especially in a series, I find it tedious if the protagonist of every book is always the one throwing up roadblocks. Of course, it would begin to seem repetitive if the protagonist was always the more emotionally healthy of the two, as well, book after book of steady men and women working for a relationship with individuals who have more issues. I like series that mix it up. Variety is a good thing.

  4. I recently made the monumental (and thus labor-intensive) decision to split a single scene into two POVs (not every scene, but certainly where it was warranted…mostly Nate and Susannah scenes). Before, I had a scene (say, at a bookstore) that was solely in one POV. When I changed POVs (I have 3), I left the bookstore. The problem with that is at the beginning of the next scene, my character had to do a heck of a lot of “sittin’ and thinkin'” (or “walkin’ and thinkin'” as it were) to process/react to the person they’d just been with. Too cumbersome and it got in the way of the forward motion of the story.

    Although it’s going to be a little bit of work in some places, I think this was a brilliant decision for me to make, because it allows me to show the character arcs while the action is happening, rather than a bunch of musing later.

    A comment that I got from my critique partner is that I’m waiting too long to get the story going (a la Nate and Susannah), and I’m giving up too much information too soon. The scene I have where Nate meets with the Home Secretary and discusses what they’ve learned about Susannah? I’m going to bring it in later. That info is important, because it allows the team to learn the uncle’s motivations and timeline, but it’s too much at first, and improbable that they’d have such detailed info about the girl when she’s only been there a few days.

    Instead, Nate’ll meet with his sidekick, Guy, who will inform him of a strange lady who has taken up residence at the uncle’s home. There’s other info they’ll share about what the uncle is doing and what’s going on in Europe (because that drives the uncle’s movements). It’s just not so much info at one time.

    • I like the sound of all those changes, Justine. Faster-paced, more streamlined, getting the Nate & Susannah storyline moving and holding back some of the mystery – sounds really good.

  5. In my books so far, both my H and h have a POV, but one character definitely changes more than the other, and that’s almost always the woman. I think that’s because I don’t understand men very well! I’m not sure I’m getting a nuanced male POV/voice/characterization right, so I go light on it, most of the time. But for me, it’s essential to have a male POV, because otherwise there’s nothing for the heroine to bounce against.

    But in addition to developing one character more than the other because I think I understand women better than men, I don’t feel that I have the space to develop multiple characters at length. I always have strong secondary plots (or primary plots) that aren’t about romance, and you don’t need (or maybe even want) tons of development on multiple characters to keep the action moving.

    • That’s interesting, Kay. I enjoy reading the hero’s POV and so far I’ve felt comfortable writing it – maybe it’s because my work colleagues over the years have been predominantly male. I also remind myself that fiction has to be better than reality and that includes heroes: I’m aiming for a man that Jennifer could fall in love with, not necessarily one that a male reader would find convincing (see female characters in many thrillers for this principle in reverse).

      I think the point about needing space to develop multiple characters is a good one. After much thought I took out a secondary plot (I’ll give it the space it needs in a later book) because I didn’t have room to do it justice and develop the two main characters to my satisfaction.

  6. Sorry, coming late into the comments here… I don’t have a specific preference because I think different POV splits suit different stories (so, for example, I enjoy 1st person POV with no male viewpoint – as in traditional British chicklit or traditional US mysteries – but completely love the dual H/H POV of a lot of US romances). I’m also really interested (technically) by how you can use different POVs (and levels of POV) as a way of telling the same story in different ways (so, for example, staying closer to one main character than another at certain points of a story to allow confusion/conflict). I guess what I am saying, not very well, is that POV is a completely exciting tool that we will all learn to manipulate better as we get more experienced.

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