Writing Multiple Points of View: Should I Do It and How?
Writing a book is a process of a million little choices, both big and small, that will hopefully mean that you end up with a piece of writing that people will love to read over and over again. One of the biggest choices you have to make as a writer is who is going to tell your story, who is going to be the viewfinder through which the audience experiences the book. It can be tough to decide if this should be one or many characters, so here are a few tips on when you should write multiple points of view, and how to do it successfully!
When to write multiple POV
When you are considering whether to write your story from multiple points of view, the first and most important thing to consider is whether or not you should. Writing multiple POV is hard! Readers don’t always love it! You have got to have a solid reason for making this choice before you suddenly find yourself halfway through a manuscript, having forgotten why you did this to yourself in the first place. If you’re looking for a place to start thinking about the why, here are a few things to consider:
- Are your characters in different places?
This seems really obvious, but the most common reason to use multiple POV is that you have a large cast of characters who are in different locations in the story. Possibly the most famous example of this are the George R.R. Martin books—he’s got characters in every corner of Westeros (and beyond!), and since he wants readers to know what’s going on everywhere, he has to use many different points of view. While not every multiple POV book has characters in many different locations, it’s a pretty good basic rule of thumb for when you’re considering whether you should do it!
- Characters have a very different perspective on events
Nothing frustrates me more than reading a book with multiple perspectives where the characters are not only in the same place, they view everything that happens the same way! I’d much rather read a multiple perspective story where the two POV characters have the same goal, but drastically different thoughts about how they should get there. That keeps things interesting and keeps me reading. This is also good to keep in mind even if your characters are in different locations—the goal of those kinds of books is almost always to have every character end up in the same place eventually, so each perspective should be distinct!
- Does it serve your story?
The ultimate question you have to ask yourself when you’re considering multiple POV is the question you have to ask yourself about everything that goes into your manuscript: Does it serve the story? Does having the perspective of two or three or four different characters enrich the experience for the reader and make your book better? If not, I would stay away!
How to do it well
Okay, so you’ve decided you’re gonna take the plunge and have multiple perspectives in your book. Now you gotta actually do the thing, and do it right! Here are some things to keep in mind as you craft your manuscript:
- Make your characters distinct
This is the number one thing that can go wrong with multiple POV: the reader not being able to tell when you’re switching perspectives. Each character needs a distinct voice, and their own motivations and character arc. If you can’t find a way to make each perspective feel different, you might not be writing the right kind of story for multiple POV.
- Less is more
It’s easy to get carried away with multiple POV stories and end up with 37 different perspectives, including the family dog and the chimney on the house across the street. Resist the temptation! Remember your why for writing in multiple perspectives and try to stick to the characters that you know you need. If you are going to go for many (or odd) perspectives, make sure that they’re—you guessed it!—serving the story. In Please Ignore Vera Dietz, author A.S. King includes several perspectives, including the town’s hilltop pagoda, but she chose each one of them for a very good reason, even if it sounds weird! (Another great example: A Little Something Different by our very own Sandy Hall!)
- Can’t be all-knowing
One of the things about writing in multiple perspectives is that you can’t be “all knowing” or omniscient at all, because readers are inside your character’s heads, and one character doesn’t necessarily know what the other one is thinking/feeling/doing/seeing! As the author, who does know all of these things, it can be easy to accidentally slip in some information that a character shouldn’t know, so this is something to keep an eye out for when you’re writing from multiple perspectives!
- Equal story weight
The final thing to keep in mind when you are writing multiple POV is that each character needs to have an equal weight in the story. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they each need to have an even slice of the pie in terms of chapters (although it often can mean that), it just means that each story needs to be equally important, and serve equally in moving the story forward.
There you have it—it’s not an easy task, but when done right, multiple POV can be a wonderful tool to make your manuscript richer and more nuanced. Go forth and write!