I recently read Lyn Miller-Lachmann‘s young adult historical novel, Torch (Carolrhoda Lab, 2022), and am eager for Lyn to share her insights on writing in multiple points of view with Cynsations readers. First, from the promotional copy:
Seventeen-year-old Pavol has watched his country’s freedoms disappear in the wake of the Soviet Union’s invasion. He’s seen his own dreams disappear too. In a desperate, fatal act of protest against the oppressive new government, he sets himself on fire in public, hoping to motivate others to fight for change.
Instead, Pavol’s death launches a government investigation into three of his closest friends. Štěpán finds his Olympic hockey ambitions jeopardized and must conceal his sexual orientation from authorities who could use it against him. Tomáš has already been accused of “antisocial” behavior because he struggles to follow the unwritten rules of everyday interactions, and now he must work even harder to meet the expectations of his father, the regional leader of the communist party. And aspiring film director Lída, Pavol’s girlfriend, is pregnant with his child, which brands her a traitor by association and upends all her plans.
With their futures hanging in the balance, all three must decide whether to keep struggling to survive in the country Pavol died hoping to save . . . or risk a perilous escape to the other side.
Tell us about the evolution of Torch. Was it always multiple POV? Were there always four POV characters?
I always wanted to write Torch with multiple POVs, to understand Pavol and his fatal act of protest, and to understand the three people who consider him their best friend, but are not friends with each other at the beginning. Because they’re targeted by the secret police after Pavol’s death, they must find each other and work together to survive, or else turn on each other to try to save themselves.
I’ve always been fascinated by the collective protagonist, multiple protagonists whose desires and circumstances are so intertwined that they become a kind of single protagonist, one that can be undermined or aided by a decision or action of any of the component protagonists. Most of the collective-protagonist stories I’ve read are members of the same family, and in Torch Štěpán, Tomáš, and Lída become a found family to resist the divide and conquer strategy of the police.
Each of the POV characters (Pavol, Štěpán, Tomáš, and Lída) represents a different aspect of society in the Czechoslovakia of 1968-69, yet their connections feel very authentic. Did you plan those connections before you started drafting, or did they emerge as the story took shape?
I had all their backstories and evolving relationships in mind before I began writing. I had a separate character arc for each of the surviving characters, as well as for them as a collective protagonist.
When I started writing fiction for teens, I would have a general outline of my story and main characters, but I liked to be surprised. That also meant my manuscripts meandered and digressed, and I ended up cutting 80 pages or having to start over altogether.
I knew my structure for Torch would be complicated, so I became a plotter rather than a pantser with this book.
In a post for School Library Journal, you wrote of the main characters forming a “collective protagonist in which each one’s fate is tied to the others.” Do you feel that’s a key element for success in multiple POV stories?
Not necessarily. I’ve identified four different types of multiple POV stories. One is the ensemble cast, a staple of TV series and many book series as well, in which readers follow multiple characters whose arcs may intersect but don’t depend on each other. In those cases, the parts are greater than the sum, in the sense that readers come to care about individual characters and follow their arcs.
Another is the highly structured dual POV focused on a friendship or romance. My other 2022 novel, Moonwalking, which I co-authored with Zetta Elliott (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), is an example of this type of multiple POV story; it explores an unlikely friendship between two seventh grade boys in Brooklyn in 1982.
A third multiple POV story is one in which there is a dominant protagonist and the other narrators are major secondary characters who add obstacles, context, and depth. While the other narrators may have full character arcs, those arcs are less important to the story than that of the dominant protagonist.
In a collective-protagonist story there is no protagonist whose individual arc matters more than the others, all members of the collectivity have a collective desire along with their individual desires, and achieving that collective desire is essential to achieving their individual desires.
What tips do you have for other writers working on multiple POV stories?
Besides what I mentioned about planning your story and each POV character’s arc, you need to ask yourself the question: “Whose story is this?” That will help you decide what kind of multiple POV story you want, or if you even want to write it as multiple POV.
In addition, when you choose a protagonist to narrate a chapter or scene, make sure it’s the character who has the most at stake in that scene and the one whose decisions and actions drive the scene. Planning ahead is crucial to knowing this before you choose your narrator and write, but there were still several scenes in Torch that I ended up rewriting with a different narrator.
What mentor texts were helpful for crafting this story?
Kate Albus’s middle grade historical novel A Place to Hang the Moon (Margaret Ferguson Books, 2021), about three orphan siblings who hope to find parents to love them after being evacuated during the World War II London blitz, and Robin Benway’s YA contemporary Far From the Tree (HarperTeen, 2017), with three adopted half-siblings in search of their birth mother, are excellent examples of collective protagonists.
What do you hope young readers will take away from the story?
Related to the collective protagonist, I’d like young readers to think about friendship and how we treat both friends and those we may not consider friends because they’re different. Pavol, Štěpán, Tomáš, and Lída live in a place where those in charge try to get friends to betray each other and use disaffected outcasts as scapegoats and as weapons to target others. Governments in unfree societies pit people against each other to maintain their power, and my characters’ friendships become a kind of resistance because they are so different from each other, but they put aside those differences in order to help each other survive the persecution to which they are subjected.
What are you working on now/what will be published next?
After taking on the challenge of the multiple POV/collective protagonist, I decided to try a verse novel. In 2018, I started Eyes Open, set in Portugal in 1967 during the right-wing Salazar dictatorship, in which a teenage girl writes poetry to honor her political prisoner boyfriend but comes to realize that she can be a hero in her own right. I put it aside to work on Moonwalking but returned to it last year, and Carolrhoda Lab, which published Torch, will publish Eyes Open in spring 2024.
This is the first time I’ve had two books for young readers with the same publisher, and I’m thrilled to work with my editor, Amy Fitzgerald, again.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of the YA historical novel Torch (Carolrhoda Lab, 2022) and co-author (with Zetta Elliott) of the middle grade verse novel Moonwalking (FSG, 2022), both of which are Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selections, recipients of multiple starred reviews and on the 2023 Notable Books for a Global Society list.
Her recent nonfiction includes a biography of Temple Grandin in the She Persisted chapter book series from Philomel (2022) and Film Makers: 15 Groundbreaking Women Directors (co-authored with Tanisia “Tee” Moore) from Chicago Review Press (2022). She also translates children’s and YA books from Portuguese to English, with YA graphic novel Pardalita by Joana Estrela, due out in April 2023 from Levine Querido. Her debut picture book, Ways to Play, illustrated by Gabriel Alborozo will be published by Levine Querido in fall 2023, and her YA historical verse novel Eyes Open will be published by Carolrhoda Lab in 2024.
Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an undergraduate degree in Journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma. She has published numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and two regional interest books for adults. Now she focuses her energy on inspiring curiosity in young readers through stories of hope and adventure.