5 Tips for Writing Multiple POVs

h1DE1B460I’m a shameless fan of writing in multiple POVs. My series has a large, diverse cast of characters and I’m all about giving each of them a voice, where possible. I also believe that telling the story through the eyes of varied characters gives a well-rounded perspective on the tale that you would not get otherwise.

Of course, this is not always a popular narrative choice. Some readers are very vocal about their dislike of this style. Does that deter me? Not even a little. But it does evoke a stubborn desire to want to do it right.

Many people will tell you that you should nix a POV if it isn’t absolutely necessary. They’re only half right. If reading through your story you discover that a certain character’s POV is adding little value or point, then it’s your job to either give that character’s perspective value or eliminate it. And if you are married to the idea of a character having a voice, then you can and should find a way.

So how do you give a character value?  How do you ensure that multiple POVs adds to a story rather than detracts?

 

Here are five rules I always try to live by in my own writing:

  1. Their perspective must add something that no other character’s perspective can offer. A good example of this can be seen in stories where the author wants the readers to know something that they don’t want other characters to know. Maybe you want the readers to know the villain’s true intentions, but you want your protagonist left in the dark. Or you want everyone except the star-crossed lovers to know how each other feel.

  2. The character’s perspective must advance the story, not stall it. Flashbacks may be an exception (if used as a method of giving a crucial perspective), but there is nothing more frustrating for a reader than an unnecessary side plot. All plots and perspectives should serve to advance the central plot.

  3. Alternating character chapters should not be used to recap the same scene from a different perspective. The only exception to this is to give an opinion/reaction/perspective on a major event, however even in this case the chapter should advance the story.

  4. The character’s voice and viewpoints must be wholly unique so that the characters do not run together. Voice becomes even more important when you’re taking a character from a secondary to a primary, but it also becomes more challenging.

  5. The character’s perspective must serve some purpose other than exposition. If you can’t find any value in a character’s POV other than just explaining something that could be just as easily explained by someone else…then either rework that character’s role or remove the POV.

 

Any other writer tips on effectively using multiple POVs?

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87 thoughts on “5 Tips for Writing Multiple POVs

  1. This is so helpful! I’ve always written from several POVs but my current WIP has a far larger cast of primary characters than I’ve worked with before—some of their voices were clear from the start, others may have to be fleshed out or discarded later. But these points will definitely aid in that!

  2. I think the author to that best was Donald Westlake, a mystery writer. In particular his novel Dancing Aztecs (now available for Kindle, yay!) is a marvel–he has dozens of characters, and switches from one to another constantly, but somehow never looses the thread of the story. (One climactic scene towards the end of the book is actually shown through the point of view of a crow flying overhead–by that point you know the story so well that it’s clear what’s going on even from that perspective.)

    It’s a technique that I can admire as a reader, but I could never get to work as a writer. Once I start telling a story I get so deeply into the viewpoint character’s head that I can’t switch without it feeling like I’m starting a whole new project.

    1. I think I get the opposite…sometimes I get to deep into the head of a single POV that switching helps resurface me a bit. 😛

      I haven’t read anything by Westlake, but George R.R. Martin is another great example; though, sometimes, his books can be frustrating when you have to wait half a book to get back to your favorite character!

  3. I’ve been struggling with using two POV in my novel. Is it weird to have a chapter or two in a different POV than the main character or is that weird? There is only one main agenda I have for using the secondary POV I’m afraid if I introduce this other POV in the whole novel it will side track from the main plot (going against rule 2).

    1. Well, sidetracking is okay as long as it brings you back to the main point. Even in books where the other POVS are off doing different things than the main POV, there’s often a point where those stories all converge. So long as you can find a way to merge those threads, then I think you will be fine 🙂 Also, its less about quantity of chapters and more about how you use them. In my second book, I have a character who has only 3 POV chapters. To give him more would be overkill. To give him less would be blasphemy 😛

  4. My first venture into multiple POV has only two different voices, but even then I found it hard at times! It’s probably because it was my first time writing from a male POV, and to put in an extra character on top of that was a little overwhelming.

    I can’t imagine using as many POV as you! A round of applause is in order, I think 🙂

  5. Great post! I like writing (and reading) multiple POVs too. It can get too complicated if there are too many, but getting inside the heads of a a couple (or even a few) main characters really enhances a story for me. As you noted in point 4, they voices need to be distinct and we have to be careful not to stray from the POV of the moment.

  6. Very good post. I really like it as a reader, when POVs are used well. Some examples:

    I love the movie ‘Vantage Point’ for it’s use of multiple POVs. That meet at the central event of the movie and revealing the intentions and circumstances that had let to them. The infamouse aha-moment.

    How G.R.R. Martin is using it in his novels.

    When there is this first POV chapter full of hope and anticipation and the very same character simply got shot in the next chapter. Shocking and Surprising.

    A few year ago, I have read a German thriller: “Tannöd”. It has an interesting usage scenario for POVs. Besides the main story, there are every second to third chapter, this very short and disturbing point of view chapters, where some gruesome events take place. No names, places, no reference to the time. Not really any hints. Only in the end you discover how all this is connected. This builds up a strong tension.

  7. Nearly all the books I read have multiple PoV characters, and it comes so naturally I never even really considered doing any other way. I don’t think the epics I write could work from a single viewpoint. The most narrow focus I’ve ever had was a series with just two viewpoint characters, plus a handful of “interlude” chapters from the villain’s perspective.

    The only thing I struggle with is whether to have a set cast, or just jump into whoever’s head I feel like at that time. I’ve tried both ways, and I see strong advantages and disadvantages to both. Jumping around at random can jar the reader and make the story feel scattered, but sometimes, a story can really benefit from a chapter or two in one character’s head without the obligation of keeping them as a major viewpoint character all the way through. Jumping into a new perspective can be a way to signal to the reader that something very important is happening.

    1. All really good points, Tyler. I think both ways can work equally well. I don’t think its about structure so much as execution. I’ve seen books where a character only gets one chapter, but it was executed well. And very true about the switches being signals. That’s how I used the switches in my first book.

  8. Excellent post, Sarah. I was “taught” not to use multiple POVs (unless I was already an accomplished, published author by which time I could do anything I pleased). But with my novels, I find it necessary. Maybe it’s just two characters, maybe more, but using multiple POVs helps me to advance the story. I also find it to be more active than the omniscient third-person voice that just follows the characters around. Don’t get me wrong: that kind of narration can be most effective, but it’s actually harder for me to pull off than using multiple POVs.

    1. Agreed on omniscient…it feels too…narrative for my tastes and I struggle then with getting any real emotions across. Besides, there’s something to be said for seeing the emotions of other characters through the eyes of the current character’s POV, versus getting them handed to you on a platter. I don’t think I’ve ever effectively written anything in third person omniscient, and I have a heck of a lot of respect for people who can do it well!

      1. I didn’t say it in my review, but that is one of the many things I liked about St. Charles in the Dusk. I liked “hearing” Adrienne’s and Oz’s version of the facts. The multiple POVs added much to their character development and added to the suspense as the story unfolded as well.

      2. Thanks Marie…I was really conscious of how I used the POVs, and when and where they appeared. My earliest drafts didn’t have us hearing from Adrienne but I realized that her voice- even if only used sparingly- was necessary to move the story forward.

  9. I didn’t have time to read all the replies, but one thing I did want to point out is that nothing pulls me out of a story like having the POV changed from one paragraph to the next in the middle of a chapter.

    1. Oh, no doubt!! I think you’re talking about writers who choose 3rd person omniscient, which is a heck of a chore to pull off correctly. My advice is for alternating chapters in different POVs.

  10. This post gives me the positive reinforcement that I needed regarding how I manged a couple of characters in my book. Moses Grier was an old black man and his POV and voice was paramount to moving the story along and telling his own family’s story that included climactic points through his interview. Beatrice’s story gets the book started, and without it, we wouldn’t have been introduced properly to The Good Doctor, a character with a minor part but a major role in the story. Her voice is also important in understanding the trauma of her life being The Good Doctor’s wife.

    1. Good! I think the #1 rule for multiple POVs, all other points aside, is to ask yourself: Does it work? If the answer is yes, then you’re on the right track.

      Oh, and I added your book to my TBR list on Goodreads 🙂

  11. Thanks for the advice. Each book in The Twisted Trilogy are all written in the first person. Already, in the second book I’ve found that I had to bring in a few other people’s perspectives, in the 3rd person, to drive the plot forward. I’ve found it extremely fun to play around in my other characters heads and will definitely be writing multiple POV’s in the future. 🙂

    1. That’s exactly how I set it up in my first book. Though my MC was in first, the other character POV was in third. I’ve heard people say you should mix first and third in one book, but I felt and still feel it was the best way to do it…and I’ve read plenty of books where it was executed well. Glad to hear it worked well for you too 🙂

  12. I agree that it’s important to make sure that the new POV moves the story forward. But it’s also important to make sure that you don’t have so many POV that you never get back to the previous ones. I read a book like that and got so frustrated because there were some characters I liked, but once their chapter was done, it was someone else’s turn to tell the story. At least keep it consistent.

    1. I agree…although I call out George R.R. Martin as a good example of multiple POV, he is also a frustrating one. Sometimes he goes through so many POVs that by the time you get back to your favorite, half the book has passed and you’ve already forgotten what was going on!

  13. What about introducing another POV late I to the novel because you had no use for ot before, but now you do, is that a nono? Because I am currently at that point in my novel.

    1. Not only do I not think this is a “no no,” but I also think you can strengthen a story with this technique. Especially if you build the tension about this character early. I’ve definitely had stories where my characters had either few chapters, or late entrances. It’s all about execution.

  14. I have been reading a great deal about this subject, because I have that problem in my story now. Some authors say YAY some say NAY. I think I ended up with the conclusion that I couldn’t get the storyline work with only one POV. But when you write with several POV’s, do you always have in mind who is the ultimate protagonist?

    I have this problem as well: In some of the beginning scenes, people talk different languages. One of the POV’s is a kid. The things that is happening, is happening to her. But other people talk about her over her head in a language she dont understand. I want the reader to know this conversations (if not, it would be some rather dull chapters). One could say that it would be easier to just let that girl understand. But a big point is that she dont understand much at all, living in the wilderness where someone finds her. (Yes, like Tarzan 😉

    I’ve been trying to add the conversations, together with the Tarzan-girls senses. But I am afraid that will unhook the reader. The solution could might be to write in another main characters POVs. Then I get a little of both – but also loose some.

    1. While I think you can absolutely write multiple POVs with one main protagonist in mind, it isn’t necessary to do so. I write with an ensemble cast, so while some POVs may be more provocative to readers, I go in treating each of my characters equally.

      As to your specific problem…. is it necessary for readers to understand the others? Reason I ask… one of my favorite books, Outlander, has quite a bit of un-translated Gaelic. This is because the main protagonist does not understand Gaelic, and by leaving it un-translated, it puts the reader in a similar mindset as Claire, the protagonist. She gleans some of it through other context (behavior, body language). This is a very effective strategy.

      However, if you *do* need readers to understand what the others are saying, have you considered writing in third person omni? It would be a way to make the words clear, while still leaving the girl in the dark.

  15. Thanks for this! I’m currently writing a multi POV Fantasy and I really can’t imagine it any other way. I wrote a novel in a single POV and while it worked for that story, it did feel really restrictive and I’m now enjoying the freedom of working with w 6 different POVs.

    I’m a little concerned about one of my characters, I’m not as passionate about voicing her but I feel like it’s necessary to keep her in the loop in order to provide balance to the other views (I need a strong/ quasi-Feminist voice to balance out the 3 men and the other gentle woman). When I look at my story as a whole I feel like she is absolutely necessary but I’m still trying to figure out how to humanize and voice her right without letting my own annoyance with her shine through. She’s an antagonist to the other woman and several of the men. She’s frequently off doing her own thing so I can’t figure out how I could redo it without her as a POV.

    One of the things I’m worried about is that I will have a [GoT] “Bran” in my book – you know … the POV that you’re tempted to skip because after like 3 books he’s still looking for a friggin bird. Then there’s Dani who runs around collecting former slaves … that got old for me pretty quickly.

    An issue that arises with multi-POV is the question of how to keep all of the story lines unfolding at an even pace. For instance …
    Chapter 16 is in Clothilde’s perspective, her father (Lord Rolf) receives news of being summoned North by the Queen (covers a few days)
    Chapter 17 is from Lord Rolf’s perspective – here he and his men leave Haethon Hall and journeys north to the capital. (this should take a week) …
    Chapter 18 is another perspective in a different part of the kingdom (several months)
    and when I return to Rolf’s POV I want to do his arrival at the Capital but if everyone’s timeline moves together, that’s already happened. (I want the chapters to rotate views so you don’t have to wait like 100 pages before getting back to your favorite strand) Just something I need to work out …

    Another thing I’ve found is that (even though the POV characters are related)
    Rolf is the father of Clothilde, Vlad & Ivan are brothers and Katya is the former fiance of Ivan … I still need to bring in a huge # of secondary and tertiary characters (where my single POV book got by with I think no more than 10 or 12 total).

    …. It might seem a little off topic but there’s a Russian book Master and Margreta (probably misspelled that) and while it was a horrible book that I would never recommend, it had an interesting way of being told. The chapters alternated between the story and the story (within the story)- which is to say it would be a few chapters of standard plot then a chapter from the book one of the characters was writing. It was probably the weirdest way I’ve ever seen multi-pov done and though I hated the book I thought it was a unique way of telling a story (in a story). The voicing of the character’s book almost revealed more about him than the primary story.

    Okay, now I’m just rambling. Thanks for posting this 🙂

  16. This is fantastic advice, and I was actually thinking of writing my novel in third person because I had too many POV’s (I have around 6-8 voices) but now that I know there are ways I can include them I feel more excited and happy about my novel!

  17. I am currently editing my fantasy novel which uses three POV main characters. I try to keep their POV’s limited however there are scenes that one or more have thoughts or say things out loud in their head that they don’t wish others to know. At first, I was using italics for the thoughts, but it looked like a lot. Then I tried the italics only for the things the character said out loud inside their head. Most of those lines are snarky or come back grievances of sorts—stuff they mutter to themselves that could get them into hot water if said out loud.

    There is one chapter where my main character, Jennifer, is answering her mother in a few words but goes on to explain what’s really going on in her life in her thoughts. It is a poignant scene but wordy. I’ve thought about setting up the scene so I let the reader know up front that Jennifer’s answering in her thoughts. I think it would make sense since she is speaking about a spirit and the reader knows that his existence is being kept a secret.

    My other question concerns finding an editor who is open to working with several POV’s? My first editor walked me around the bookstore and showed me each of her approved writing single POV styles and told me it couldn’t be done. Nothing makes a person work harder than when they’re told it can’t be done.

  18. I write romance. Romance has two protagonists. They are both equally important and at times when they are in the same room and conversing, their inner dialogue can be very important to the scene. These are things that cannot be spoken out loud. Internal conflict is the antagonist. I prefer multi POV, (let me make this clear…NOT head hopping) and in the same scene sometimes. I never had anyone complain that they were lost, but now editors balk, agents balk and publishers all but refuse. In my opinion this limited attitude toward writing is sucking the life out of stories and not adding to them.

    How do you compromise. I believe it is a matter of voice. We have turned writing (like every other art) into a cookie cutter. Are we force feeding readers or are they force feeding us? If we eliminate the variety, aren’t we just contributing to lazy reading?

    Then, when the dust settles on the deep POV, it will be 1st person only, and onto the next trend. And all I really want to do is write a story.

    This is the most liberal post I have yet to read on the subject. I thank you for that.

    Cheers

    1. I’m a rule-breaker, so this makes me both great and not-so-great at giving advice to others. When it comes to anything in writing- style, POV, usage- my personal belief is that as long as your target reader doesn’t get completely lost by your style choices, then there’s nothing wrong with them. My first book had a mix of first and third person, which I was told was a no-no by people in the industry. Not a single reader commented on it, though. In the end, this is my hierarchy: What I think > What the reader thinks > What well-meaning professionals in the industry think. I’m fortunate to have an editor who embraces my rule-breaking spirit and helps me remain clear in my message. All that to say: Write your story the way you want. Don’t compromise your voice because X article says not to do Y or you get an editor or agent who is stuck in their ways. Only you know how to properly tell the story in your head.

  19. Thank you for replying. I am currently being berated over this by a group of writers who have yet to read anything I write. I don’t believe in writer’s block, but this has stifled me. One of my books is being read by an editor currently, and they seem to be open to at least some of my style, which is hopeful.

    Writer/readers are the worst critics.

    I love the examples you’ve given and the encouragement to stay true to voice.

    Now, if I could just find an agent as open minded. 😉

    Me / reader / industry … I’m going to put this on my wall! THANKS

    1. Here’s some, albeit unsolicited, advice: Put a distance between yourself and those who stifle your creativity. This can come in the form of author groups, or even people close to you. Don’t let anyone else dictate the terms of your inspiration. Get out there and write the story you want to write. 🙂

  20. Thank you, I have found this blog to be extemely helpful. Everywhere I turn to tells me multiple POV should not be used, and if you must, you should at lest be an experienced author. Phah, tosh to that. It’s my story, and I find getting inside characters heads is a brilliant tool to explore.

    1. Psh to that rule! Or any rules, really. As long as you can write a compelling story, that’s all that matters. My cast of characters has increased significantly over the years, even more so from when I wrote this article, and I write better when I can spend time in different heads. I’m glad this helped you. 🙂

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