One of the hardest feats to pull off in literature is writing from multiple points of view. You’ve got to juggle different personalities and motivations-- and somehow use them to tell a coherent, cohesive and compelling story.
I won’t lie to you:
Some readers hate it.
Some writers hate it.
But, if you want to explore a story from multiple viewpoints and believe that your reader will also benefit from this literary device, go for it. Besides, you’ll be in good company, such as:
Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper
Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood
William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying
Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible
Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club
Kathryn Stockett’s The Help
George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series
And, that’s just to name a few.
So, if you’re ready for the challenge, here’s how to write your novel from multiple points of view:
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Before we get too deep into the discussion, here’s a good primer to help you understand the different points of view and how they can be used to tell a story:
Also, check out this post for a definition of perspective, and how it differs from point of view:
Both are short reads, but they are good foundations for the rest of this guide.
Understand the Story You’re Trying to Tell and How
Does it make sense to tell your story from multiple points of view?
On one hand, multiple points of view allow you to create a broader understanding of your world. You can use this device to introduce the reader into a complicated idea, world, or system.
On the other hand, multiple points of view can cause the reader to feel detached from the characters, especially if there isn’t one main character to care about. The reader no longer roots for one character because now he has a more global awareness of all of the characters, and their needs and wants.
This could be an effective way to tell your story, especially if you want to provide objectivity. Just know that you’ll be sacrificing a certain character intimacy with the reader.
Stay True to the Point of View
One of the hardest parts of writing in a limited point of view is that you must be limited.
You can’t interrupt the point of view by suddenly becoming an all knowing narrator. You can’t know what another character is feeling or thinking while you’re in the head of someone else. You are tied to the direct experiences and knowledge of the person who is narrating, whether that’s first person or third.
Use Distinct Characters
Your characters should each have a unique point of view in your novel. Otherwise, there’s little reason to use a multiple point-of-view device.
Choose distinct characters that have a purpose for being in the story and are used to narrate the story. Consolidate similar characters, or at the very least, don’t give them each a point of view because it can (and will) confuse your reader. Clarity must be a nagging companion for all writers, but especially for those who write in multiple view points.
Everyone’s a Hero
Remember that everyone is the hero in their own story. For that reason, each character whom you’ve given a point of view must have his or her own arc. This means the character should have a conflict, whether external, internal or both, and a resolution.
First Person Vs. Third Person
You have three main options when writing a novel from multiple points of view.
Option #1 is to use first-person point of view for each character. Each character receives its own narrative. This point of view is definitely has one major challenge: you must create a distinctive voice for your character. As a reader, I should be able to know who’s speaking without indelicate clues from the narrative (i.e., this is Tom speaking).
This option will test your chops as a writer. People speak in different ways-- some speak in long, flowing sentences with plenty of adjectives and adverbs. Others speak with a decisive and succinct tone, more matter-of-fact than poetic. You’ll need to channel each character when writing in first person, and each character must sound completely unlike the other.
Option #2 is to use third-person point of view for each character. This option is the most subtle of the three. As a third-person narrator, you can easily glide from following one character to the other. While you’re still limited to only what that character knows and experiences, your narrator voice doesn’t need to shift as it does in first person.
I still recommend using character breaks to switch between characters, to avoid a jarring transition.
Option #3 is to use a mix of first and third-person point of view. For example, have one main character in first person and shift to third person for supporting characters.
Keep in mind, it's not always easy to transition from first to third and back again throughout your novel. It can feel a lot like whiplash for your reader, especially if you do it mid-scene (don’t do that, please). Instead, switch to a different point of view at the end of each chapter.
Use Chapters to Help with Point of View
Instead of breaking point of view mid chapter and confusing your reader, consider devoting one chapter to each point of view.
This allows the reader to “reset” between chapters, understanding that each chapter brings a different perspective to the story from a new point of view.
One easy way to switch between characters while not confusing the reader is to give the chapter the name of the narrating character.
Don’t Rehash the Same Scene
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but as a general guideline, don’t tell the same scene from each character’s point of view.
It slows down your story to a grinding halt. And we’re trying to move the story forward with each scene and every word.
If you have two point-of-view characters in one scene, choose to narrate from the character who has the most compelling perspective.
Develop a Unique Voice for Each Character
This is where you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and get to work. If you intend to write in third person, you’ll need to create an individual voice for each character. Each character should have a different outlook on his or her circumstances, and a different way of self-expression. His or her motivation in each scene will be unique, and you need to honor that, or else there’s no reason to tell the story from a different point of view.
Honing a character's voice for each point of view is not as important if you’re writing in third person; however, it is still necessary to develop it for the purposes of dialogue and interaction between characters.
Have a Strategy
Earlier, we discussed why it’s not a good idea to rehash a scene from multiple characters. Following up on that thought, choose one character to reveal a certain truth. Choose a character who has a different experience that’s not common to the others. Always ask yourself:
- Why am I using this particular character to tell this part of the story?
- What insight or awareness does the character bring?
- Is this experience best told through this character’s point of view?
Writing from multiple points of view is not easy, but it can be a clever and satisfying method of storytelling. Keep the reader in mind as you plot out the characters and reintroduce them throughout your story. Avoid confusion of narrator identity, have a solid reason for choosing each character and use these points of view to push your story forward.
What’s your favorite multiple point-of-view novel and why?
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