Writing With Multiple Point of View Characters

Writing with multiple character viewpoints. Should we?  Shouldn’t we? Why? Why Not? If we decide to create a cast of viewpoint characters, what’s the best way to do it?

Look around at the world of writing advice, and there’s so many teachers urging new writers to stick with a single POV for the sake of clarity. In his book, The First Five Pages, Noah Lukeman says:

“I would strongly recommend beginning writers not employ multiple viewpoints; developing one good viewpoint character can be hard enough, even for the most advanced writer.”

While Lukeman does acknowledge that multiple viewpoints can work, I just don’t agree with his advice on this point (for the record, The First Five Pages is actually an excellent how to write guide, and I’ve listed it as one of my all-time Top 5 Books on Writing).

Personally, I love reading books told from multiple points of view. It keeps the story fresh and often helps the pace along. I find it particularly satisfying when the different points of view conflict or diverge in some way. Multiple viewpoints let us see stuff the protagonist doesn’t know about. This works particularly well in thrillers and other high tension genres.

Think your story would benefit from multiple viewpoints? Go nuts and write them all!

But before you get to work, let’s take a look at a few different strategies we can use to help write multiple character viewpoints.

Head Hopping

Head hopping is switching between characters quickly without a section break. For most writers, head hopping is a nasty word. It’s confusing, it’s messy and usually the mark of an amateur.

That said, a certain type of head hopping can have its place. We see mild head hopping in a lot of romance stories, though it’s less common in modern romance. Romance is a prime genre for quick point of view shifts because we get to see an intimate situation from both parties without repetition. I intentionally used a slight head hopping sense to reference the old school romance genre in my tongue-in-cheek sci-fi tale, ‘A Paranormal Romance’.

Use with caution.

Character POV Headings

Section headings that show the point of view character are probably the most straightforward way to tell a reader whose mind you’re about to get into. George RR Martin in Song of Ice and Fire series does this.

Different Narrative POV Style

Margaret Atwood wrote a split POV in her book, The Year of the Flood. The narrative viewpoint switched between two characters, one told in third person limited and the other told in first person.

 

Ways to Help Each Character Viewpoint Stand Out

Words Choices for Strong Character Voice

Atwood also used a split POV in her novel, The Heart Goes Last with a split between a husband and wife more or less chapter for chapter. Both viewpoints are written in third person limited.

It’s easy to work out which character perspective each chapter comes from – the POV character’s name is used usually within the first few sentences.

But it’s the use of character voice throughout the chapters that makes The Heart Goes Last such a brilliant example of split perspective POV.

And that all comes down to the specific words used within the narrative. I’m not talking about the words the characters’ dialogue, though that’s obviously part of it.

Look at this example:

For context, the story takes place as modern society is collapsing, a kind of economic apocalypse. The novel opens with a couple living in their small car; Charmaine and Stan.

Charmaine:

“Sleeping in the car is cramped. Being a third-hand Honda, it’s no palace to begin with. If it was a van they’d have more room, but fat chance of affording one of those even back when they thought they had money. Stand says they’re lucky to have any kind of car at all, which is true, but their luckiness doesn’t make the car any bigger.”

Stan:

“Stan twists in the front seat, trying to get comfortable. Not much fucking chance of that. So what can he do? Where can they turn? There’s no safe place, there are no instructions. It’s like he’s being blown by a vicious but mindless wind, aimlessly round and round in circles. No way out.”

Throughout the book, Stan’s POV is expressed through much harsher, harder words – more masculine words – whereas Charmaine, even when she’s exploring harsher ideas, tends to softer – more feminine – words. Stan is also more likely to swear and tends toward violent imagery.

The story, especially in the opening chapters is too dark to consider one POV optimistic and the other pessimistic, but Charmaine does tend to force herself into more “bright side” perspectives, while Stan focusses more heavily on the struggle of their day to day life.

Such strong viewpoint voices remove any trace of authorial voice, makes it abundantly clear who we’re reading at any giving point and goes a long way in creating deep dimensional characters.

Divided Focus on Different Plot Elements

If the various characters in a story are in separate locations and or doing separate things, the focus split can be fairly straightforward.

But how do we split that focus clearly when two or more characters are living closely, doing similar things, without repeating any plot elements?

Looking again at The Heart Goes Last:

In the second act, Stan and Charmaine have moved into their new life. It’s a weird situation that needs to be explained to the reader both in terms of what it all actually means and the more immediate descriptions of what it all looks like, what it feels like etc. Both characters cover both types of explanations however there is a difference.

We tend to get more of an idea of what the world looks like through Charmaine, where Stan’s POV covers more of the explanation of what it all means, the logistics of their weird new life.

How Many Characters Can Have A Point of View?

It’s fairly standard writing advice to limit the number of characters you’re allowing to tell the story. In most cases, it’s all true. Lots of characters can be disorienting for the reader if not done well, and fewer characters allows for a deeper introspection into character and event.

BUT…

Look at George RR Martin – he writes with dozens of characters. Can it only be done with epic tomes like the Song of Ice and Fire series?

Take a look at Rant by Chuck Palahniuk – an “oral biography” story told through the viewpoints of a huge cast, each giving their various perspectives on an already deceased character and the events of his life and demise.

Like Martin, Palahniuk names each viewpoint character with a heading, although unlike Martin’s chapter for chapter POVs, the viewpoints in Rant are only a paragraph long.

It works to excellent effect.

There are dozens of ways to switch between narrative points of view without upsetting the flow of the story or confusing your readers. Like most narrative techniques the decisions of which strategy to employ really comes down to what works best for the story you’re trying to tell. This also goes for whether or not to write a multiple character viewpoint in the first place.

If a split viewpoint works for you, run with it. If you’re unsure if it will work, run with it anyway and see what happens.

Kate Krake
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Kate Krake

Kate Krake writes speculative fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of the urban fantasy series Guessing Tales. Kate blogs about popular culture, health, wellness and creative writing. She lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband, daughter and two beagles. Find out more on www.katekrake.com.
Kate Krake
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