Writing a novel using multiple points of view (POVs) requires juggling different narrators’ voices. Here are 8 tips for using multiple viewpoint characters in your book:
1. What is point of view? Understand different types of POV
2. Use changes in POV to make characters real and more complex
3. Use other POVs to broaden your novel’s voices and ideas
4. Make each viewpoint character reveal key story details
5. Give each viewpoint character their own narrating voice
6. Keep a list of each viewpoint character’s beliefs, goals, desires and fears
7. Rewrite scenes from different characters’ points of view for insights
8. Use multiple viewpoint characters to drive your plot
Let’s examine each of these suggestions in detail:
1: What is point of view? Understand different types of POV
The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘point of view’ in literature as ‘the narrator’s position in relation to a story being told’. A secondary definition is ‘The position from which something or someone is observed.’
In other words, a narrator, whether they’re a character directly involved in the action (or they’re an observing, omniscient narrator) has a viewpoint, a perspective, in relation to the story.
Point of view (or POV for short) requires making choices, such as whether to use ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘he’, ‘she’, or ‘we’ as the main narrator(s) of the story. To clarify (with examples):
1. First person points of view: ‘I’ and ‘We’
First person POV is when the narrator tells the story as they themselves experience or observe it:
Example: ‘I was startled by the telephone’s ring.’
Or a plural first person narrator, speaking for a group:
Example: ‘We went into that summer without a single care, having no idea of the trials that awaited us.’
The advantage of this POV is that the reader can identify immediately with the character because the reader is given access to their immediate thoughts, feelings and observations.
The downside of telling an entire story from a fixed, first person perspective is that we only have access, as readers, to what the narrator observes, believes and feels.
This is why using multiple viewpoint characters is useful. You can have multiple ‘I’s’ who each give their own unique understanding of events.
2. Second person point of view: ‘You’
This is a far less common POV. Here, the reader is (or rather, becomes) the narrator. The effect is something like a ‘Choose your Own Adventure’ novel:
Example: ‘You hear the telephone ring with a start. Hesitant, you lift the receiver.’
The strength of this point of view is that it actively involves the reader as a participant not only in reading the story but as an actor within it.
Italo Calvino uses this to great effect in his famous novel If on a winter’s night a traveller. In this story, you (the second person narrator) sit down to read Italo Calvino’s latest novel, only to discover there are missing pages. Hunting for the correct book sends you on a wild goose chase.
This differs from second person in a section or chapter written as a letter. Here, even if the narrator is addressing a ‘you’, there is still an implied ‘I’ who is the character sending the letter. For example:
[I thought] Your last letter was a hoot…
In other words, the reader doesn’t ‘become’ Gary, the way the reader becomes the flummoxed protagonist of Calvino’s book.
3. Third person: ‘He’, ‘She’, ‘They’
Third person POV is perhaps the most common type. There are sub-categories of third person:
Third person omniscient: This is where the narrator is God-like in that they know what individual characters are thinking and feeling and can switch between their private thoughts.
Example: ‘He thought she looked beautiful as she glided across the room in her embroidered gown. But to her he looked ridiculous standing there agog.
Third person limited: Here, the grammar used is still ‘he’, ‘she’, a gender neutral or non-binary pronoun or ‘they’. But the viewpoint is limited (hence the name) to what a single character knows and experiences.
Rewriting the above example as limited third person:
Example: ‘He thought she looked beautiful as she glided across the room in her embroidered gown. A fleeting frown crossed her face.’
Here we can see the physical indicators of her judging him (the frown). Yet we only can know what he thinks and interprets based on this. The viewpoint is limited to his perspective.
The drawbacks of third person POV are:
- We don’t get quite as much immediacy. With first person, we know exactly what a character’s private thoughts are, in their voice
- The reader has to gain character motivations from interpreting actions and reactions or through narration. This is a minefield for telling instead of showing.
Now that we’ve covered different types of POV, let’s explore tips for using multiple points of view:
2: Use changes in POV to make characters real and more complex
Changing the viewpoint character, whether within a scene or between chapters, can make each character more vivid. This is because:
- Characters can contradict each other’s versions of events. One character might say ‘The party was a great success.’ Another might say ‘The party was a total disaster.’
- Characters can voice their own hidden feelings, motivations, fears and goals. This way, your reader sees both how characters interpret each other’s deeds and motives, and what they see from their own limited viewpoints.
Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible uses POV shifts this way. Her characters are complex and clearly defined. Each chapter is told by a different woman in a family of missionaries living in Central Africa. One daughter, Rachel, focuses initially on how different everything is back home. Another, Adah, is more cynical about her family and their mission. By showing us these different viewpoints, Kingsolver creates a world that is complex and full of contrasting voices. [Get help making your characters feel real in our character workbook, How to Write Real Characters: Creating your story’s cast.]
3: Use other POVs to broaden your novel’s voices and ideas
Why would we want to tell a story using multiple points of view in the first place? As Donald Maass says:
‘Multiple viewpoints provide diversion from, and contrast to, the protagonist’s perspective. They can deepen conflict, enlarge a story’s scope and add to a novel the rich texture of real life… Our lives intersect, collide and overlap. Subplots lend the same sense of connectivity to a novel. They remind us of our mutual need, our inescapable conflicts and our intertwined destinies.’
The modernist writer Virginia Woolf does exactly this, recording the impressions of multiple characters as they interact.
In Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, for example, she shows the complex relationships between a group of people sitting down to dinner, shifting viewpoints during the course of the scene.
This technique allows Woolf to show the private opinions characters hold alongside the ones they voice out loud. It creates a strong sense of the diversity of characters sharing the Ramseys’ vacation home.
Woolf contrasts a simple question Mrs Ramsey asks Charles Tansley with how Tansley and another guest, Lily, interpret it:
‘Do you write many letters, Mr. Tansley?’ asked Mrs. Ramsay, pitying him too, Lily supposed; for that was true of Mrs. Ramsey – she pitied men always as if they lacked something – women never, as if they had something’.
Woolf, in the next paragraph shifts from Lily’s POV to Tansley’s:
‘…he wrote one letter a month, said Mr. Tansley, shortly… He was not going to be condescended to by these silly women. He had been reading in his room, and now he came down and it all seemed to him silly, superficial, flimsy.’
The smooth switches between viewpoints enable us to see how different characters view each other’s behaviour. We get a sense of Lily’s observant nature and Tansley’s misogynistic, pompous personality. Thus we also get a sense of their personal biases and world views.
There are crucial lessons in how Woolf uses multiple points of view in a scene like this:
- The change in POV should be clear to the reader. (Woolf uses reported speech ‘…he did not suppose he wrote one letter a month, said Mr. Tansley, shortly’.)
- There should be a reason for changing points of view. (Woolf’s use underscores running themes of expectations and judgments between the sexes.)
- The change in view should serve the story and its key events. (Here we see important differences between characters thoughts and respect for one another.)
4: Make each viewpoint character reveal key story details
Author Tara Harper offers good advice on writing novels that use multiple points of view. Says Harper:
‘If you feel you must write from more than one POV, you should ask yourself these two questions: Are you writing a single story that has elements which really must be presented through different eyes/views? How many stories are you trying to tell?’
Know your reasons for including each viewpoint character in the story. Does each character’s perspective explain something crucial to characterization or plot in your story?
For example, in To the Lighthouse, the male chauvinist Tansley’s viewpoint adds to Woolf’s characterization of Mrs Ramsey. It gives fullness to her portrait as a woman who is kind to and indulges (but is also stifled in some ways by) the men in her life.
5: Give each viewpoint character their own narrating voice
To give your multiple POV novel complexity, make sure each viewpoint character has a distinctive voice. In real life, builders and academics tend not to sound the same (although a builder who looks like or sounds like an academic, or vice versa, could be interesting). To give each viewpoint character a distinctive voice, make sure that:
- Each viewpoint character uses language reflective of their background, social position or personality. A character who grew up reading everything they could at their local library would naturally have a larger vocabulary, for example
- Each character has words or themes they return to more frequently than others. (For example an economist might talk about business or money while an artist might talk about colours, shapes, visual sense impressions.)
- You vary the descriptive details of characters’ voices. (For example, whether they tend to speak in a monotone or an animated, musical way
6: Keep a list of each viewpoint character’s beliefs, goals, desires and fears
Keep your viewpoint characters’ beliefs, goals, desires and fears distinctive. As you write, keep a document containing a list for each character. For characters whose points of view feature, list:
- The character’s backstory (who they are, where they are from and what happened before the time frame of the story to make them who they are becoming)
- The character’s primary objectives within the story (what do they want?)
- Desires and fears (these might only emerge as you go, but note them down whenever they occur in your story)
- Descriptive details (how characters talk, walk; their likes and dislikes)
7: Rewrite scenes from different characters’ points of view for insights
Using multiple points of view lets you rework scenes from different perspectives. Different characters in your novel could interpret the same scene (for example, a dinner party) in very contrasting ways.
David Swinford describes the value of rewriting scenes from multiple characters’ perspectives:
‘When writing from multiple points of view (POV), the writer must decide which POV works best for each scene…Might the scene work better from a different character’s POV? Might it create more tension to shift POV within a scene?’
If, for example, you are describing your detective and the forensics team arriving on the scene of a murder, consider your options. What would the lead detective notice versus a recently-qualified, apprehensive forensics specialist? How can you use these different points of view to make the situation more suspenseful or mysterious? Perhaps the latter’s perspective would bring home the horror or uneasiness of the scene stronger?
Just make sure that whichever POV you choose, it serves the purpose of your scene (e.g. to show the ruthlessness of the killer) first.
8: Use multiple viewpoint characters to drive your plot
Make sure each character’s arc adds to an approaching end-point in a meaningful way.
To make the individual points of view in your novel all drive the plot, remember to:
- Leave off each character’s section at a place of high interest: There could be an impending discovery or confrontation, an important date or meeting, or some other momentous event that the reader wants to see unfold
- Keep subplots relevant: Don’t weaken narrative drive with irrelevant subplots that ‘stall the story’ (as Sarah Cradit advises here). Plan what consequences each subplot will have for other viewpoint characters and their goals before you spend time drafting the meat of the scene
- Plan how viewpoint characters’ paths cross: As Janice Hardy says, ask yourself ‘What is the purpose of the other POVs? What do they bring to the main storyline or conflict?…Who is responsible for resolving the core conflict? How do the other POVs help? (or hinder)?’
Writing a novel using multiple points of view is complex. Using the tips above should help you to create characters who add richness and extra perspectives to your fictional world.
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Cover source image by Rob Bye