5 Things to Know About Multiple POVs

  1. It's a normal and common structure. I know folks who aren't sure if multiple POVs are okay or not. They are. Some examples: Westerfeld's LEVIATHAN, Gaiman's NEVERWHERE, most of Terry Pratchett's DISCWORLD novels, Sanderson's MISTBORN trilogy, Card's ENDER'S GAME (those snippets of conversation at the beginning of each chapter constitute a separate POV), and many, many more.
  2. Multiple POVs can be used with any narrator except an omniscient one. Third person limited is the most common, but in theory it could be done with first person too. Though I suspect it would be more difficult to signal whose POV it is.
  3. Switching POVs is jarring. Readers get used to being in someone's head, and it's easy to forget what's going on when they rejoin an old character. You have to signal to the reader not only that the POV has changed, but who it has changed to, where they are, and what they're doing. Some ideas:
    • Switch only at chapter or scene breaks.
    • Switch consistently (e.g. alternate every other chapter between two characters).
    • Get the POV character's name and situation as close to the first sentence as possible.
    • Give each POV character a unique narrative voice.
  4. Switching POVs is a chance for the reader to put the book down. That means, in addition to signalling to the reader whose POV it is, you also have to make each POV shift start somewhere interesting, with a hook to immediately draw the reader back in. Every. Time.
  5. Each POV character should matter. Don't use a character's perspective just because you need to show certain interesting events. Use that character because they are interesting, because they have their own arc and crucial decisions. Ask yourself, if this perspective were the only one in your novel, would it be worth reading?
Have you ever written with multiple POVs? What would you suggest?


    Anonymous said...

    I love multiple POVs in third person limited. I can tolerate them in first, but they all have to sound pretty darn distinctive, and I can't stand it when one POV is in first and the rest are in third. Too weird.

    I definitely agree with the distinct narrative voice; if you can't do that, I'm not sure multiple POVs is the right choice for you. Nothing like having no cues other than names as to who is speaking ...

    As for advice, I'd advise NOT doing the Tolkien thing, which is to go through one person's entire storyline before going to the next person. It's tiring slogging through all of Mordor when you really want to know how it's going over in Gondor, and if you hate a character's POV and know you'll be stuck with it for 200 pages, it's easy to get annoyed and put the book down, I find.

    Adam Heine said...

    Ugh, yeah, the Tolkien thing almost killed me the first time I read LotR. For me it was leaving the cliffhanger of "Will Aragorn, et al, find Merry and Pippin? Are they okay?" for the drudgery of "How many pages does it take to walk through Emyn Muil?"

    Susan Kaye Quinn said...

    I've written 1)alternating male/female POV in close third, 2)three POVs (two male, one female) in close third, 3)first person, and just started 4) two male POVs in close third. The first person was by far the easiest to to keep tension up, but I love doing alternating perspectives as well.

    Rick Riordan did alternating 1st person in Red Pyramid, successfully I thought. The voices were very distinctive.

    I agree with all your points, and would add that the structure of whose-POV-when should be driven by the story, rather than a formula.

    Great post!

    Iliadfan said...

    I love multiple POV books (both reading and writing them). But in a few writing classes I've taken, the instructors often object to that structure because they don't fit as neatly into screenwriting tools.

    I'm with Susan as far as how to decide whose POV to use when. As long as it's obvious whose POV the story's currently in, I don't think there's any need to establish a set pattern of when it's each characters turn...

    Adam Heine said...

    Iliadfan wrote: "...the instructors often object to that structure because they don't fit as neatly into screenwriting tools."

    Interesting. I'd actually say the opposite: that multiple POVs are more screenplay-like than a single POV. Take Return of the Jedi, for example, where the climax switches between Luke, Han & Leia, and Lando's POVs to give us the whole picture.

    Iliadfan said...

    Oh sorry, I was thinking multiple pov AND multiple protagonists. The two don't have to go together, but they often do in books/movies I've loved, so I tend to think of them together.

    I meant tools as in plotting methods, not software - though none of the truly famous ones are coming to mind just now. But things similar to IngerManson's snowflake method, which lend themselves more easily to one protagonist. When Ingermanson wrote about this on his blog, you were the first person to comment... http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/blog/2010/12/02/having-multiple-protagonists-in-your-novel/

    Adam Heine said...

    That makes sense, Iliadfan. I hadn't read it when I wrote that comment, but Westerfeld's LEVIATHAN is a fantastic example of multiple protagonists done well.

    Susan Kaye Quinn said...

    @Adam Interestingly, I think books are moving toward closer-in POVs (more 1st person) and movies are as well for a given scene (although they still hop around). I was surprised to see a screenwriting book talk about POV, as in "the story is better told when holding to just one POV per scene." Interesting how these things evolve over time.

    Ted Cross said...

    For me the master of multiple POV protagonists is George Martin. He gets away with doing so many of them.