One of the ways in which authors give characters depth is by sharing their perspectives – their stories. When we see the way different characters view the same event, a few things happen. First, we get a broader view of what happened. Second, we get a better sense of those characters. It takes a deft hand to do that without confusing the reader but when it’s done well, it can add richness to a story.
Agatha Christie uses that strategy in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). In that novel, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to investigate the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of her father Amyas Crale. Crale’s wife Caroline was convicted of the crime and died in prison, but Carla is sure her mother was innocent. Poirot takes the case and begins the job by interviewing the five people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time of the murder. Each of the people he speaks to has a different view of Caroline Crale and of what happened on the day of the murder. In addition to the personal interviews Poirot asks each person to write an account of the crime and the days that led up to it. In those accounts and those interviews, Poirot finds clues that lead him to the truth. It’s a fascinating way to look at precisely the same person and crime from five completely different perspectives.
We see that also in Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal. Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik have been having some marital trouble. Still, Eva has always wanted a happy family life, especially now that she and Henrik are parents to young Axel. Then Eva discovers that her husband has been unfaithful. In the meantime we also meet Jonas Hansson, whose fiancée Anna has been in a coma for over two years after an incident in which she nearly drowned. By chance Eva and Jonas meet one night in a local bar. The events leading up to that meeting and the events that result from it spin the lives of just about everyone completely out of control. As Alvtegen tells the story of what happens, we see many of the same incidents from different perspectives. For instance, we learn about Jonas’ meeting with Eva from each of their points of view. That strategy allows us to get to know the characters involved and see what their motivations are.
That’s also true in Y.A. Eskine’s The Brotherhood. That novel uses a wide variety of perspectives to tell about the murder of Tasmania Police Sergeant John White. White and probationer Lucy Howard are called to the scene of a break-in one morning. Tragically, White is stabbed while they’re there. The murder itself is told from the perspective of Howard and the perspective of seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, the prime suspect in the murder. The investigation that follows is also told from different perspectives including those of some of White’s co-workers, his boss, a local journalist and Darren Rowley’s attorney. Erskine takes this approach in The Betrayal too, which focuses on the date rape of one of the Tasmania Police officers. It’s a very effective strategy for letting readers get to know the various characters involved.
And then there’s Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. That’s in part the story of the murder of former journalist Robert Dell’s wife Rosie and their two children. They’re killed in an ambush when their car is forced off the road and into a gorge. That particular incident is told from Dell’s perspective and from the perspective of the murderer Inja Mazibuko. Mazibuko is a locally very powerful Zulu leader who’s ‘in the pocket’ of the minister of justice. Dell is framed for the murder and it’s not until his father Bobby Goodbread engineers his escape from prison that Dell gets the chance to go after Mazibuko. Goodbread has his own reasons for targeting Mazibuko so the two travel to Zululand together. The story of the journey is told from both men’s perspectives and the events that happen in Zululand are told from Mazibuko’s perspective as well as those of Robert Dell and of Mazibuko’s intended bride Sonto. There are other parts of the novel too where exactly the same event is told from at least two different perspectives. That strategy lends depth and suspense to this novel.
It does to Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar too. PI Jayne Keeney, who lives and works in Bangkok, travels north to Chiang Mai to visit her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. While she’s there, Didi’s partner Nou is brutally murdered. Then Didi himself is murdered. The official police explanation is that he killed his partner and then resisted arrest when the police went to interview him. But Keeney knows that isn’t true. So she decides to do her own investigation. Her search leads her to some ugly truths about child trafficking and the Thai sex trade. Several incidents in this novel are told from more than one perspective. For instance, Keeney’s arrival at Chiang Mai is told from her own perspective and that of Nou. Later, when Didi is killed, Keeney decides to go into his home and search through it for clues. That part of the story is told from her perspective and from that of the police officer who’s been ordered to keep watch. That strategy – describing exactly the same incident from a few perspectives – is a very effective way to develop the characters and to tell the story.
Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer is the story of beginning attorney Catherine Monsigny. As the story begins, Monsigny has just successfully defended Cedric Devers in an assault case. That event is told from her point of view as well as Devers’. With that success behind her, Monsigny gets an even bigger chance to make good when she is asked to defend Myriam Villetreix against the charge of murdering her husband Gaston. More than once she goes to the prison in which the defendant is being held to interview her. Those meetings are described from both women’s perspectives. As the investigation continues, Monsigny finds that she has to decide who exactly is telling the truth about the murder: her client or the victim’s cousins, who insist that she is guilty. In the meantime Monsigny is facing her own personal demon. When she was a toddler, her mother Violet was murdered. Monsigny was present at the murder, but remembers little about it. When it turns out that the Villetreix trial is to be held not far from the place where Violet was murdered, her daughter decides to find out the truth about that killing too. The actual incident – Violet’s murder – is told from several perspectives. There’s Monsigny’s own sketchy memory, there’s the perspective of the murderer and there’s another perspective too. It’s a fascinating way to look back on the incident.
But not everybody feels that way. What about you? Do you enjoy looking at the same incident through more than one pair of eyes? Or do you find that too distracting? If you’re a writer, what do you think of it as a strategy?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop.