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Writing an Epic Fantasy Trilogy with Alternating Narrators

I did not set out to write an epic fantasy trilogy with alternating narrators. The truth, I suppose, is that I didn’t set out to do much more than get to the end of my debut novel! The Waking Land was my first book (that got published; I could probably paper my town in failed attempts), and I wrote it—and rewrote it—in a marathon of instinct and enthusiasm. The novel was one thread in a larger narrative I’d attempted to write, without much success. So when I turned to The Waking Land, I deliberately wrote it as a standalone novel featuring a single narrator. Maybe, I thought, if I only had one lead character, I could do a better job of developing her arc.

Eventually, the book sold, and the idea for alternating narrators grew out of a discussion with my editor over its sequel, The Memory of Fire. We decided that each novel in the trilogy would feature a different first-person, present-tense narrator: Elanna, Jahan, and Sophy, respectively.

So, what are the advantages to writing a trilogy in this way?

• Character Arcs. This is, to me, the clearest advantage. Sustaining a single lead character’s—or even several lead characters’—arc over the course of three books can be a challenge. By diving into a new character’s head in each book, you have the chance to start fresh. More importantly, it allows you to bring the character full-circle, letting them evolve dramatically from the first page to the ending. Each character can start the book from a position of weakness, and over the course of the book, you can steadily guide them into their own. (For a craft book that really delves into this idea, I highly recommend The Anatomy of Story by John Truby.)

• A (hopefully) more satisfying ending. If each book ends with that character’s big moment of self-actualization, then ideally the reader has the pleasure of seeing the character’s arc get fulfilled, without having to wait a year or more between books. But things don’t have to be neatly tied up! You want to leave some—or many!—dangling threads so the reader is propelled into the next book.

• The character’s “big moment.” To be honest, this is one of the reasons why I wrote a standalone—so I could get more quickly to Elanna’s explosive moment at the end of The Waking Land. I had the vision in my head for the climactic scene, and I wanted the reader to see it, too.

 

You don't have to outline as much. There, I said it. Pantsers, this method is for you! I am something of a reformed pantser, since I’ve come to learn that the right kind of outlines are invaluable for me, but I am also here to tell you that I signed for a trilogy with only the smallest seed of an idea for the final book. If you’re daunted by writing an intricately plotted fantasy trilogy—where you the author need to know the ending of the last book before you finish the first book—this might be something to think about.

• Each book is fundamentally a standalone. Even though your books build on each other, you still get the chance not only to write a new character, but to say something new each time. You’re elaborating on a main theme, perhaps, but you can take a new angle, with fresh insights and new twists. This is true not only for main characters but for secondary ones, too. Since each person relates to their world in a different way, your world and its inhabitants can become deeper and richer.

Reasons not to write your trilogy this way:

• You have too much story to squeeze into one book. With each installment in my trilogy, I am acutely conscious that I could have written double the word count for the characters. The narrative has to be paid out relatively quickly in order to reach a suitable climax—and each book requires set-up to develop new characters and places that weren’t in the previous book(s). You may want a slower pace—i.e., multiple books—to explore subplots and to develop the characters.

• You want a broad scope. Tying the narrative to a single character’s point of view can limit the breadth of your worldbuilding and your story. If you want a huge, sweeping epic fantasy narrative, you might need more characters (and the third person).

• Your story isn’t cohesive without multiple points of view. Some trilogies just need multiple characters over multiple books to build to the final, epic conclusion!

As always, this is just my experience and perspective on writing and developing a series. I hope it helps you create your own unique work.

Callie Bates is the author of THE WAKING LAND, an Indie Next and Library Reads pick, and its forthcoming sequel, THE MEMORY OF FIRE, second in a planned high fantasy trilogy. She is also a harpist and certified harp therapist, sometimes artist, and nature nerd. When she’s not creating, she’s hitting the trails or streets and exploring new places. She lives in the Upper Midwest. Follow her on InstagramTwitter, or visit her website.