Using Multiple Points of View (POV)

by | Jun 11, 2013 | Prose and Cons | 1 comment

“many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view” – Obi-Wan Kenobi

Knight, Princess, King, Wizard

A story can be told from many points of view

The story you tell will take on the flavor of whoever is doing the telling. A first-person narrative is intimate, but boxed in. Following a single character tells their story, not the whole tale. If you are trying to convey a broad understanding of events with a vast scope, one tool in your arsenal is the use of multiple viewpoints. A plane crash looks very different from the perspective of the pilot, a passenger, a first responder, or a news reporter. A war looks different to a general, a king, or a soldier on one side versus a soldier on the other.

Advantages of multiple POV

  1. You can examine a story from all sides. When there are many things happening at once, no character is going to know all of them, and you can convey that lack of understanding by showing the reader all the things each side is missing, letting them connect the dots and anticipate the interactions that the characters cannot.
  2. It gives the reader a change of pace. You can use the POV changes to quicken or slow the action, depending on whose perspective you switch to. A drama of political intrigues may be fascinating in small doses, but you can break it up with more active scenes from characters who aren’t a part of those intrigues, or who are at least physically removed from them.
  3. It allows for easy of world-building. In fantasy in particular, you need to make your reader believe in a world of your own making. Contrasting cultures and samplings of different lives, different races, different climates, all serve to make a world seem larger, more realized.
  4. More characters to love, more characters to hate, more characters to kill. The latter is a key and interesting point. Modern readers are savvy enough to realize that if a story is following a single POV (especially if it is in the first person), then that character is rather strongly guaranteed to survive to the end (or close enough to be heroic about it). However, if the story is sweeping, the scope beyond a single character, you can offer up your characters as sacrifices to the greater plot. They can die when it makes sense for them do die, rather than having to conjure ways out of every scenario your dream up for them.

Pitfalls of multiple POV

  1. You have signed yourself up for a lot of bookkeeping.
  2. Every major POV needs its own story arc, and should be interesting enough on its own to hold reader interest.
  3. Plotlines can get lost in the shuffle with too many other things going on
  4. Seeing the same event from many perspectives can be fascinating, but can cross the line into tedium if overdone

Major versus minor POV

Most of the advice here revolves around major POVs. A major point of view is a protagonist or antagonist (some stories muddy the two), who is going to be a recurring POV throughout most or all of the narrative. With a handful of major characters in the fold, you have all the POVs you really need.

However, once in a while, you can change things up. Introduce a new character who has a perspective on a particular event that none of your POV characters would be aware of. You can do the same thing with minor characters who have just never had the spotlight all to themselves. You can use this to foreshadow, or to give the reader closure on something that the characters did not have the luxury to wait around to see. It’s best not to get too close to the character in these scenes; you can listen to their thoughts on the situation at hand, but you don’t want to spend time really fleshing them out as complete characters, getting into their philosophies, dreams, moral dilemmas. Just use them for the scene and return to your main POV characters.


Changing POV: When? How?

A POV change is something jarring. You’ve traveled inside the head of one of you characters, seeing through their eyes and listening to their opinions. TO suddenly be in a different head, you need something to reset the reader. They need to know they are in another POV. If each chapter in your book is a single scene, then a chapter break is a fine time to switch POV. If you switch scenes within chapters, a scene break is sufficient, even if you are not changing locales or characters. In fact, a change of POV is a valid reason by itself for the scene break.


Image Credits:“Image by Christian Ferrari”, Dmytro Samsonov, Florida Center for Instructional Technology, @mabut

1 Comment

  1. Angela Brackeen (@angela_brackeen)

    I was just thinking over multiple pov as I was working on my latest ms this a.m.–your follow on Twitter was serendipitous, as I followed you here to your blog. It seems I hear a good bit of advice NOT to use multiple povs, but that goes against my instincts. I believe readers are intelligent enough to be able to follow multiple voices within limits, and if done carefully. Thanks for backing up my … point of view! 🙂


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