Ask an Editor: Writing from Multiple POVs
I’ve been reading and working on a lot of books lately with multiple points of view, and I realized that I have a lot of thoughts on the topic, and that, at first, they seem a bit contradictory. You can have a great book with a single POV and you can have a great book with 14 POVs (See A Little Something Different). Sometimes I might ask authors to cut back on the number of POVs in a manuscript, while other authors might get edit notes that suggest adding a POV or two. It all depends on the nature of the book and the story.
While it’s perfectly possible to tell a fantastic story from a single point of view, sometimes adding another perspective can deepen your story. There is always at least two sides to a story, and sometimes it can be nice to get a glimpse into what the other side is thinking. Two people can go through the same event and have completely different perspectives on it.
Adding another POV can also give us a better understanding of characters. We, as humans, don’t always know or recognize how other people see us. Characters with high self-esteem might not pick up on the fact that they aren’t really as popular as they think. Conversely, characters with low self-esteem might think that they are useless, but if you look at them through someone else’s eyes, readers can see that they are actually making a huge impact on people. (I think that’s why so many love stories are told from multiple POVs.)
Multiple POVs can also be useful in solving plot problems. With multiple POVs you can include scenes that your main character isn’t present for, or let readers in on information that the main character might not have.
That said, multiple POVs can be tricky. Some authors have a very strong and distinct authorial voice, and that can make it hard to differentiate your characters. If all of your characters think and sound like you, then it’s going to be very hard for the reader to tell who’s head they're in. You always want every character to have a distinct voice, but it’s VITAL for characters with their own POV. As a reader, I need to be able to immediately recognize whose head I’m in, without having to scan for names or go back to the beginning of the chapter. I should be able to tell from context clues and the voice of the character whose head I’m in.
Some authors differentiate their POVs by making one first person and the other third. It’s a good indication to the reader that something has changed, but it’s not enough by itself. The characters still need to think differently. Things like word choice and sentence structure become important. Are the characters from different cultures? Is one more formal or logical than the other? Are they different ages? Focus on the things that make them different and let those come through in your writing.
If you are writing in multiple POVs, try this quick exercise. Pull a random sentence from each characters' POV and read them out loud. Can you immediately tell the difference between them, or do they all sound like they could be part of the same scene or paragraph? If it’s the former, great! Keep going. If it’s the latter, you might need to do a bit more work.
Another thing to be careful of with multiple POVs is the fact that head hopping (or switching between different characters' perspectives) can be disorienting. Even when you have two very distinct voices and outlooks, it can be easy to get lost in time and space when you transition between characters. And if your reader is very invested in one character’s story and perspective, suddenly being dropped into someone else’s head can be jarring. For example, if you are following a thief across rooftops in a high-action chase and then suddenly switch to a character casually having brunch in a cafe, you can understand how it might take your readers a second to catch up with the switch. Even switching to a different perspective of the same scene can be jarring. Taking the thief example above, if you suddenly switch to the head of the police officer chasing the thief, your reader is still going to be thrown from one set of emotions and goals (escape) into something completely different and possibly even contradictory (capture).
Think of your novel like a rollercoaster. If you’ve built it well, the reader is going to be solidly attached to one character’s track, pulled into their story and speeding along their journey. But then you add a second POV and suddenly your reader is being thrown onto a different track entirely. If you haven’t built in sufficient buffers to catch them, it could be bad. You might lose some of your readers.
Make sure when you switch perspectives that a.) each person’s voice is distinct and immediately recognizable, and b.) that you’ve provided enough context clues in the opening sentences to anchor your readers in time and space. And remember, you might be in several different characters' heads, but your readers are still only going on one journey—one rollercoaster ride—so you need to make sure that the emotional continuity and pacing of the story remains smooth. You don’t want your readers to go flying right out of your story.
This might feel like a lot to some authors, but don’t be discouraged. Remember, you don’t need multiple perspectives to tell a great story. But, if it’s something you are interested in, or if you think it might make your story better, try it. Even if you don’t get it right on the first try, with a bit of practice and editing, you can learn to make your voices distinct and to nail those transitions.
Just… if you are first starting out... maybe start with 2 POVs rather than 14. :)