This one was on writing point of view, and the direction he gave was so heartening to me. In the past, I have heard agents say to limit the number of POV characters in your novel. They suggest no more than two points of view, for example, the male and female leads in a romance novel.
But I can name any number of novels written from the viewpoint of multiple characters.
So I did some more checking. Turns out there are as many opinions as there are plotlines.
Jane Cleland, in Mastering Suspense Structure and Plot (I highly recommend, by the way), points out the mysteries and suspense often use the multiple perspective structure, allowing both the hero and the villain their say, and sometimes, the victims, too.
Here’s an example from Robert B. Parker’s Night Passage. You’ll see that each chapter is told from one character’s POV:
- Chapter 1: Jesse Stone, the protagonist
- Chapter 2: Tom Carson, a victim
- Chapter 3: Jesse Stone
- Chapter 4: Hasty Hathaway, the antagonist
- Chapter 5: Jesse Stone
- Chapter 6: Jo-Jo Genest, the villain
- Chapter 7: Jesse Stone
- Chapter 8: Carole Genest, a victim
- Chapter 9: Jesse Stone
- Chapter 10: Jo-Jo Genest
- Chapter 11: Jesse Stone
I’m following a similar pattern with my book, giving POV perspectives of the protagonist (Sheriff Cooper Jones), as well as the female lead (Rumor Vargas) and the three murder suspects. I’m introducing the POVs in an alternating order, with the Sheriff, rotating between the others.
Despite the multiple perspectives, the story still follows a chronological structure. This technique allows the reader to observe how various characters think, to witness cause and effect, and to feel the rippling tension of growing suspense as deadly events are set in motion.
Before you jump in, though, consider some of the ways the multiple POV tactic can go wrong.
- Readers may lose interest in your plot if they discover who the villain is before the protagonist figures it out.
- It’s easy to reveal too much, too soon.
- If you switch perspectives too often or too quickly, you may interrupt the narrative flow.
#1. Make sure you have a good reason to be writing multiple points of view. That reason should come from the story itself. Ask yourself the question: ‘Why does this story need to be told from multiple points of view?’
The answer could be that there is more than one ‘main’ character whose perspective is vital to the story, or that the scope of the story or world is large and using only one perspective would be limiting. Two excellent examples for the need for multiple POVs are Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. For very different reasons, too.
Decide what’s driving your plot. You have two main options with multiple POVs and plot. One, you can write about a single set of events from different perspectives. Or two, you can use several sets of events that move from place to place and character to character without a lot of overlap.
#2. Give each POV character a clear and distinct voice. You must develop each individual voice so that all the perspectives presented are clearly distinct from one another. The livelier and more individual the better. Everything about a character—from their dialogue, speech patterns and actions, to their internal thoughts and motivations—can be used to develop their unique voice as a POV narrator. For fun, try distinguishing each character by using a different dominant sense they use the most.
#3. Create complete character arcs for each POV character. This includes identifying goals, stakes, and pitfalls, and how those move the story forward. THIS, by the way, is usually my motivation for making a character have his/her own POV: They have their own subplot woven into the main story, and that subplot needs a voice.
#4. How many POV characters? Unless you are George R.R. Martin (or maybe even if you are), too many POV characters can overwhelm or confuse readers. Some experts and writing coaches say no more than 3 to 5 POV characters is a safe bet. That way, you can develop each character fully, and tie their subplot story lines together succinctly.
#5. First Person vs Third Person. You have three main options when writing a novel from multiple points of view.
Option #1 is to use first-person POV for each character. Each character receives its own narrative. But, and a big BUT. If you do this, you must create a distinct voice for each character. As a reader, I should know who’s speaking with blatant clues (i.e. this is Tom speaking). You will need to channel each character when writing in first person, regardless of how many POVs you have. First person is close-up and personal.
Option #2 is to use third –person POV for each character. This option is subtle; you can glide from following one character to another. You’re limited to only what that character knows and experiences, but your narrator voice doesn’t need to shift as it does in first person. I still recommend using chapter or scene breaks to switch between characters, to avoid a jarring transition.
Option #3 is to use a mix of first and third-person POV. For example, have one main character in first person and shift to third person for supporting characters. Keep in mind, it’s not always easy to transition from first to third and back again throughout the novel. It can feel like whiplash for your reader, especially if your scene breaks aren’t well delineated. I recommend you switch to a different POV at the end of a chapter (not scene).
In Harlan Coben’s Gone For Good, all the scenes featuring the protagonist POV are in first person, while all the other POV characters are in third-person for their scene. The first-person narrative brings the reader closer to the protagonist because it’s intimate storytelling, while the third-person narrative perspective keeps the reader at arm’s length from the other characters.
#6. Stick to a one-chapter-per-POV approach as much as possible. When you’re writing multiple points of view, you need a way to clearly transition between perspectives. The most common method is shown in the Robert Parker Night Passage example at the beginning of this article. Writing one chapter from one character’s perspective, the next from a different character’s perspective, and so on. A scene break may be more appropriate if the chapter continues in the same moment or includes something where a chapter break might be too harsh a transition. Regardless of the reason, if you do switch POV characters without ending a chapter, there needs to be a clear scene break or marker to distinguish between the two perspectives.
When starting a new POV chapter, you must orient your reader as quickly as possible so they know whose perspective they’ve switched to. You can do this by titling each chapter with the POV character’s name, although I am not a fan of this approach. I’d prefer to make it clear, preferably in the first chapter, whose head we are now in.
#7. Choose carefully which POV you write each scene from. This may be clear in some parts of your story, but less easy to decide in others. If several of your POV characters are present in the same scene, ask yourself these questions to narrow down your decision:
- Which character has the most at stake in this scene?
- Through which character’s perspective will the scene have the most impact?
- What do I want to convey with this scene, and which character will help me do it best?
#8. Consider choosing one “main” POV character. Here one character receives more screen time (i.e. more POV scenes) than the other POV characters, and his story and character arc is the overall focus of the novel. (See the Jesse Stone example earlier). Simon Wood even gave us a formula in our class, depending on how many POVs you use, but the basic rule of thumb is to give your protagonist roughly half of the POV scenes.
#9. Examine the Action
Take a look at what you know about this story. Where is the plot going to take the characters? What’s going to happen? Which characters are going to be present at the most important events?
With a little ingenuity, it’s amazing how much action you can successfully convey to readers without needing a POV character to be right on there on the scene. But it’s best to examine the overall needs of the story’s plot before choosing POV characters.
#10. Examine the Climactic Moment
With the obvious practical considerations out of the way, take a moment to consider which POVs really matter to your story—on a thematic level.
How do you know? Look at your climatic moment. Which characters are involved in this final confrontation that definitively decides your conflict one way or another? These are (or should be) the characters who are most inherent to the story’s thematic arc. These are the most important characters in your story. These are your best and most obvious choices for POVs that will meaningfully contribute throughout the story.
This does not, of course, mean all the characters present at the climactic moment should be given POVs. But if they’re not present at the Climax, you have to question if they’re really important enough to get POVs earlier in the story.
Knowing other characters’ roles in the climax will also help you determine how their POVs should be structured—or if they should be given a POV at all. The climax is where every piece of your story will prove itself either part of a cohesive whole, or a random, ill-conceived loose end.
Knowing how your story’s conflict ends will give you a huge clue into the right choice for just about any POV question you need to resolve.
Writer friends, tell me your opinions! Have you written stories with multiple POVs? How do you determine which POVs deserve to be included in your story? Tell me in the comments!
Until next week, happy writing!