A few weeks ago, I got into a discussion at Suanne Warr’s blog Tales from the Raven about why the novel Bitterwood has so many different point of view characters. While Bitterwood may be the hero who gets his face on the cover of the book, in reality he is just part of an ensemble cast of nearly a dozen important characters all working toward their own separate goals. Bitterwood is the title character only because he’s the prime mover of the book. His murder of Albekizan’s son Bodiel dislodges all the other characters from the status quo of their lives and sets them on paths of inevitable conflicts and surprising alliances. At the time of the murder, we don’t know Bitterwood’s reasons for killing Bodiel. Like the rest of the cast, we glimpse the legendary dragon-slayer mainly in shadows. Bitterwood isn’t considerate enough to leave a long and detailed manifesto explaining his reasons for killing Bodiel. The other characters paint the mysterious bowman with their own needs and fears—he is a monster to some, a hero to others, and some of the more worldly characters are doubtful he even exists.
Bitterwood is a tale of events that forever change the world. In most movies, world changing events are left in the hands of one man and his allies. Luke Skywalker, with the help of Hans Solo, can blow up the Death Star. Alternatively, a broad cast of characters with conflicting personalities can learn to overcome their differences and work together as a team to save the world, as in the X-Men. In Bitterwood, I try to create a world changing event in what I feel is a more realistic way. The human race is marked for genocide by Albekizan, king of the dragons. No single person is able to halt his plan. Nor do my characters ever manage to put aside their differences and work together to stop the king. The core trio of protagonists, Vendevorex, Jandra, and Bitterwood aren’t on speaking terms by the time of the final climatic battle. They each are following the course of actions they’ve deemed best without any coordination with the others. Tangential protagonists Pet and Zeeky are both fighting to survive in the final battle, yet they not only aren’t working together, they aren’t even aware of each other’s existence. This gets complicated further by the fact that the dragons are all pursuing separate agendas as well. Albekizan, Blasphet, and Zanzeroth all have very different reasons for being present at the battle of the Free City, reasons that are completely at odds with one another. Bitterwood’s actions do change the world, but not in a way he ever dreamed or planned for. If the world is a better place by the end of the book, it’s not due to the design of a single character, but through the unintended consequences of numerous independent actions.
Decentralized heroics aren’t the norm for most fiction. For one thing, speaking as a writer, it’s a real pain to coordinate so many characters pursuing different goals and still manage to bring it together as one coherent plot line. For the reader, it takes a little extra effort to assemble the grand story arc from the many smaller plots. Still, I chose this structure because, as I see it, this is how the world works. Historians like to boil down the story of the world to coherent tales of the actions and decisions of a few individuals. World War 2 was the story of millions of people working on their own little tiny pieces of history, but over time it gets condensed and compressed into a narrative that fits on a 3x5 card with only Hitler and Churchill getting mentioned by name.
In truth, big stories are a bit like human bodies. Humans look and function like single units, but if you keep examining them on a closer and closer scale, you find them to be composed of billions of cells mindlessly following their own functions. With big events in history, when you zoom down to the fine scale, you find them to be composed of countless smaller stories, with dozens or hundreds or millions of individuals chasing their own goals.
No single person has the power to steer history to his liking. Yet, through the collective uncoordinated pursuit of our own agendas, each day humans easily, carelessly, make the world anew, and guide history toward a future that no one can ever fully imagine.