Thirteen points to consider when writing multiple points of view
I am having quite a time with a book from one of my clients – he’s got, so far, twelve different points of view, and I’m only halfway done reading his book.
First, let’s quickly define the term “Point of View”. The point of view can refer to two different things: 1) the person through whose eyes we view the scene; and 2) the pronouns used and whose head we are in. Er… let me explain that better.
A scene is seen through a particular character’s eyes. We are in that character’s head as the scene plays out and everything that happens is filtered through their mind, their life’s experiences—all that makes them who they are. They walk into a room and see certain things because of who they are. They take meaning from what a person says because of who they are and what their relationship is to the person talking.
The second type of POV can be summarized as first person (I walked into the room. What the hell was going on here?), second person (You walked into the room. What was going on here, you wondered.), third person (She walked into the room. Was this a party, she wondered, looking around at all the people.), omniscient (Sandra walked into the room wondering why there were so many people there. Wow, she’s hot, thought Michael as he watched Sandra come into the party. – we know what everyone is thinking.), objective or camera’s eye (Sandra walked into the room. Michael watched her. – we don’t know what anyone is thinking, we can only see the action taking place.). It is generally an agreed-upon rule that a novel is written in just one point of view—usually either first person or third.
Okay, now that we know about the two different types of points of view, what I meant at the beginning regarding my client’s book was that we see the story through the eyes of twelve different people. Why is this bad? Well… let’s get into my thirteen points and you’ll quickly see why.
- There needs to be a really good reason for writing multiple points of view.
Why do you have a scene written from the perspective of a certain person? Why would you have it seen through the eyes of someone else? You need to know exactly why the scene (or chapter) is written from a particular perspective and not from that of your main protagonist.
- Who’s pov to write a scene in?
Following that, how do you know whose point of view a scene should be written from? There are three things to consider when making this decision:
Who has the most at stake?
Who will be impacted the most by the scene and
Who will convey what you, the author, want to emphasize in the scene?
- Having many povs means that readers can’t really connect with any one pov.
If you want your reader to get lost in your novel and identify with your protagonist, have one, possibly two points of view, but no more. If there are more than three points of view, your reader won’t have enough time, knowledge about the characters, or mental energy to identify with all of the characters. The more points of view you have the more distance you are creating between your story and the reader.
- You may end up not having a cohesive story with so many different people telling it, each from their own pov.
If you’ve got so many different minds all looking at the story as it is unfolding, you could very well lose the thread of the story. You will no longer be telling one tale, but many, and it’s really hard to have a cohesive story if the reader is looking at it through too many eyes.
- Ensure each pov character has their own distinctive voice.
Each character must be their own person with their own voice. If all of your characters sound the same, your readers will become even more confused and may not understand that they are now viewing the story through someone else’s eyes.
- Having too many pov characters may overwhelm and confuse readers.
I think this one is pretty self-explanatory.
- It dilutes the core story
So whose story is it? What’s the point of the story? Is it just one story or that of many different people? If you are viewing the story through the eyes of too many people, your reader won’t know the answers to these questions. They may not be able to recognize what the book is really about.
- It makes it difficult to keep track of so many perspectives, voices, and story threads.
This one goes along with #6. Not only will you overwhelm and confuse your readers, how are they going to be able to remember the particulars of so many different characters, each of the backstories, where they are in their life, and why they think the way they do. Too many voices and you just end up with a cacophony.
- Don’t have more than five povs.
Some writing teachers think that you shouldn’t have more than three points of view, others say five. If you have more than one protagonist, then, certainly have chapters or scenes from each of their points of view, just remember points #8 and #3 – we want to be able to connect with the characters, if there are too many we won’t be able to do that. How many people can we hold in our head at one time? Not that many. Stick to as few points of view as possible.
- Stick to one pov per chapter or scene.
For goodness sake, do not head-hop! Head-hopping is when you switch from one person’s point of view to another’s within the same scene. It is only allowable in scenes where two people are fighting or having sex and then you cannot switch back and forth multiple times, but switch from one person’s head to the other’s once to get the perspectives of both people and that’s it. Very few authors can head-hop and not lose their reader. Don’t even try it.
- Only mix third and first person for a very good reason, otherwise stay in just one.
I have to admit that I wrote a book where I switched from first to third person throughout the book. I had two different point of view characters—the protagonist and the antagonist. I wrote the protagonist’s scenes in first person because I wanted the reader to identify with the character and I wrote the antagonist’s scenes in third person because I wanted to keep the reader a little further away from the character. I think it worked and I’ve never had anyone complain. But you must be very careful when doing this and do it for a really good reason.
- Make sure it’s obvious whose pov we’re in.
I think this one is pretty self-explanatory. If you have many points of view, the easiest thing to do is to start each chapter or scene with the point of view character’s name so that your reader can mentally switch and know whose head they are in now. Make it simple.
- Each pov character must have their own narrative arc.
If you have many points of view, you can’t just have a throw-away or secondary character whose eyes we see a scene. Each point of view character must be important enough to have their own goal, motivation, and conflict. They must develop and grow throughout the story, otherwise, what’s the point of seeing through their eyes. They must be important enough in the story to warrant it.
And there you have it, thirteen rules to remember when writing multiple points of view. I hope this helps!