How do you write multiple points of view in a novel? More importantly why have multiple viewpoint narrators in your novel? Read on for 8 tips on writing books with multiple narrators, with practical POV examples from Barbara Kingsolver and others and a POV exercise by Ursula K. Le Guin:
How to write novels with multiple POVs:
- Decide why multiple points of view fit your story
- Make strong voice carry each POV
- Give each narrator key details to reveal
- Track the GMC of each viewpoint narrator
- Rewrite scenes from different POVs
- Avoid unecessary head-hopping
- Use place to signal POV switches
- Learn from multi-POV novels
Let’s explore each of these ideas about using multiple narrators in detail:
1: Decide how you want to use multiple points of view
The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘point of view’ in literature as ‘the narrator’s position in relation to a story being told’.
In other words, a narrator has a viewpoint, a perspective, a lens, in relation to the story.
What are well-known books that use multiple points of view to tell the story? To name a few:
- As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (the novella has fifteen involved narrators)
- The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
- Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham
- There There by Tommy Orange
The list could go on for pages, spanning many novels and types of narrator.
Some multiple POV novels use omniscient narration, whereby a single viewpoint narrator is able to dip into any character’s thoughts and emotions at any point in the story to share their most private experiences.
Other novels that use multiple points of view keep each viewpoint restricted to a specific character (‘limited POV’). Each narrator has their own section of the story presented in turn without any other character’s thoughts or feelings being accessible during their segment.
Choosing POV for your novel
There is a choice, then. Do you tell each chapter from a single character’s perspective, as Kingsolver does in The Poisonwood Bible or Faulkner does in As I Lay Dying? Or does an all-seeing narrator who has insight into the hearts and minds of every character recount it all? Or is there a mixture of POV types?
It may be that, like Kingsolver or Faulker, you want to explore the way individual members of a family express their feelings and desires. Family epics suit multiple limited narrators well because we see complex family dynamics at play. The way family members (mis)interpret each other and their shared experiences.
Otherwise, you might want multiple points of view while retaining the liberty to wax lyrical about political, historical or other events. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s narrators often move between historical passages that comment on background events in society and sections that give a more limited, restricted sense of a single character’s unfolding experience.
2. Make strong voice carry each POV
However you choose to use multiple viewpoint narrators in your story, make sure each narrator has their own, distinct persona.
If you were writing a story told from four brothers’ points of view, for example, the reader would find it strange if each spoke the same, or each responded exactly the same way to shared experiences.
Each narrator’s personality may stand out (and contrast from other viewpoints in your story) thanks to details of the way they narrate, such as:
- Idiom (for example, whether they use slang or more formal style)
- Temperament (is their outlook jovial, melancholic, easygoing, other?)
- Interest (what is each narrator interested in? What subject matter do they circle around?)
In short, voice is the key to making each of your multiple points of view read as a unique person with their own complex mix of expressions, views, prejudices, beliefs and more.
Example of multiple points of view creating voice
Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is a masterclass in making each point of view convey a precise sense of character.
Consider the first lines spoken by each of the Price sisters, missionaries whose family relocates to the Congo from Bethlehem, Georgia:
Orleanna Price (the matriarch of the family):
Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible, p. 5.
First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason.
Compare the watchful, evocative voice of Orleanna Price, observant about details of her environment, with the pragmatic ‘family chronicler’ voice of Leah Price, her daughter, who narrates the next chapter:
We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle. My sisters and I were all counting on having one birthday apiece during our twelve-month mission.Kingsolver, p. 15.
Then compare this narrative voice (more concerned with the difference between ‘here’ and ‘there’ than the ecology of their new environs) to the youngest narrator.
The child of the family, Ruth May, reflects the ‘innocent’ prejudice of children. Children repeat stories and lessons told, sometimes without nuance or the critical lens an older voice might have:
God says the Africans are the Tribes of Ham. Ham was the worst one of Noah’s three boys: Shem, Ham and Japeth. Everybody comes down on their family tree from just those three, because God made a big flood and drowneded out the sinners. But Shem, Ham, and Japeth got on the boat so they were A-okay.Kingsolver, p. 23.
Ruth May, as the youngest narrator, is full of the wide-eyed observation of a child, yet through a distinctly ‘outsider’ gaze.
Kingsolver subtly reveals the ignorance of a western and privileged gaze throughout the story through Ruth May, such as when Ruth wonders why the children she sees have big bellies if they are hungry.
Each voice thus contributes a unique perspective to this multi-voiced story.
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3. Give each narrrator key details to reveal
Learning how to write a novel using multiple points of view requires understanding how each narrator contributes significantly to the story.
If a narrator does not contribute significant information, after all, why include them?
In the example from The Poisonwood Bible above, each narrator offers us a different lens on the experience of a missionary family from the US moving to Central Africa. One viewpoint tells about the incredible jungle ecology, giving us a clear sense of setting (as well as estrangement from the family’s familiar environment).
Another tells us about the problematic (and often misguided) ways people from one country may see others whose physical appearances or cultural habits they don’t have the necessary context to read, to understand.
Broadly, in this way, each narrator offers the reader a different angle on story events and themes or experiences characters share.
Yet each narrator can offer specific details of plot information too. One narrator may pretend the family’s relocation goes fine. Another may reveal a situation back home that prompted their departure. Still another may share troubling information about how their family is adapting (or failing to adapt) to life abroad.
Key differences of experience (and also interpretation) thus can make your story’s multiple points of view truly fascinating.
Example of using multiple POVs for key details
Virginia Woolf’s modernist classic Mrs Dalloway provides brilliant insight into the way multiple points of view in a story can bring out the contrasts and conflicts in a place and time.
We can compare two passages that use limited third person narration.
The first viewpoint is the titular Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa, who has decided to buy flowers for a party she will host.
The second is the military veteran Septimus Smith, who has been traumatized by what he has seen in World War I:
Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, p. 1
For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach.
Compared to the post-war world of easing anxieties (for the middle/upper class), we later see shell-shocked Septimus Smith sitting in the park and having visions of his fallen comrade Evans while his wife Rezia despairs at his strange behaviour:
There was his hand; there the dead. White things were assembling behind the railings opposite. But he dared not look. Evans was behind the railings!Woolf, p. 20
“What are you saying?” said Rezia suddenly, sitting down by him.
Interrupted again! She was always interrupting.
Through both points of view, Woolf expertly gives us two starkly different post-war experiences: The collective and individual sigh of relief and the experience of post-war trauma. Because we have these wildly different perspectives in the same place and time, we have poignant sense of a city (London) at a particular point in time (right after World War I).
4. Track the GMC of each viewpoint narrator
When writing stories using multiple points of view, it is useful to outline and keep track of three things about every narrator: Their goals, motivations, and conflicts (GMC).
For example, if we look at the narrators in the previous example from Mrs Dalloway (Clarissa and Septimus), you could write for each character:
- Goal: Host a party and buy flowers for it.
- Motivation: The war being over (p. 2), it being the right weather for celebration. (p. 1-2)
- Conflict: Battling the residual sadness and unease of the war’s horrors. (p. 6-7)
- Goal: Avoid losing power to doctors/insanity.
- Motivation: Freedom/autonomy.
- Conflict: Rezia his wife living in terror of his unusual behaviour and trying to help him/interfere.
Outlining the goals, motivations and conflict for each viewpoint narrator in your story in brief will help you to maintain a sense of focus for each narrator’s direction, purpose and arc.
5: Rewrite scenes from different POVs
A helpful exercise for getting used to creating multiple points of view involves rewriting a core scene from another character’s point of view.
Legend has it that Kingsolver wrote the entire story of The Poisonwood Bible in each character’s POV, then chose which of the Price family members would tell which part.
You don’t need to do anything as drastic as this! Yet try writing a short scene involving two or more characters from the limited perspective of each character. What does each notice, experience, interpret?
This is a useful exercise for building a stronger sense of what matters to each of your narrators, and the main contours of each voice:
Multiple POV exercise by Ursula K. Le Guin
In Ursula K. Le Guin’s excellent writing manual Steering the Craft, the seventh exercise involves writing a multi-character sketch, then turning it around to write from one participant’s POV:
Think up a situation for a narrative sketch of 200-350 words. It can be anything you like, but should involve several people doing something. (Several means more than two. More than three will be useful.) It doesn’t have to be a big important event, though it can be; but something should happen, even if only a cart-tangle at the supermarket… Please use little or no dialogue in these POV exercises.Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft, p. 91
Then Le Guin instructs you to retell the sketch you’ve just written from different points of view for characters involved in the scene:
First: Tell your little story from a single POV – that of a participant in the event – an old man, a child, a cat, whatever you like. Use limited third person.Le Guin, p. 92
Second: Retell the same story from the POV of one of the other people involved in it. Again, use limited third person.
6. Avoid unnecessary head-hopping
There are many reasons to use multiple points of view. 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.
Having multiple points of view is not the same as ‘head-hopping’. This is when the POV changes in an unexpected and hard-to-decipher way, jolting us out of the story. As Louise Harnby says:
When a writer head-hops, the reader has to keep track of whose thoughts and emotions are being experienced. When a reader doesn’t know where they are in a novel for even a few seconds, that’s a literary misfire.Louise Harnby, ‘What is head-hopping, and is it spoiling your fiction writing?’ available here.
This is in part why authors tend to change viewpoints most often between scenes (after scene breaks or chapter breaks). Here, the switch is clear (and often signalled by a heading giving the active narrator’s name).
Sometimes authors switch point of view mid-scene. This is hard to do (and wise to avoid if a beginner). Virginia Woolf flits between multiple characters’ thoughts and impressions in a single scene (yet still signals the active viewpoint clearly in narration).
Example of multiple points of view in the same scene
In Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, the author shows the complex relationships between a group of people sitting down to dinner, switching viewpoints over 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 judgments between characters sharing the Ramseys’ vacation home.
Woolf contrasts a simple question Mrs Ramsey asks Charles Tansley with how Tansley and another guest, Lily (an aspiring painter) both 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 and conversation. We get a sense of Lily’s observant nature and Tansley’s chauvinistic, pompous personality, looking down on the women as ‘flimsy’.
There are crucial lessons in how Woolf uses multiple points of view:
- Changes 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 stark differences between how her characters interpret each other’s statements and the gendered ways people see things)
- The change in POV should serve the story and its key events. (Here we see important differences between characters thoughts and levels of respect for one another.)
7. Use place to signal POV switches
A clever way to signal precisely who is now narrating when POV switches is to stage your characters clearly, bringing in settings the reader associates with the character at the time of the switch.
For example, say you were writing a fantasy set in a fictional kingdom and had a narrator who was a king, and a narrator who was a commoner.
You might have a scene break with a POV change like this:
He paced the corridor from the throne room to the council chambers, his crown grown heavy. They would need every able body to win on the front. Yet the public had grown spiteful and full of contempt for the royal family of late… would it require force?
Thomas looked up at the castle’s buttresses as he slunk by beneath, yet was careful not to look too long. A guard might notice. It was not a good time for suspicion to fall.
In this off the cuff example, a clear setting distinction – a castle ‘inside’ reserved for the royal family, versus an ‘outside’ or ‘down below’ for the common folk, makes the switch of narrator even clearer.
Think of how you can give each narrator a locus or range of places they inhabit so that from details of place we can intuit already who is narrating before they even start to think or speak.
8. Learn from multi-POV novels
Reading many examples where authors alternate between viewpoints is the best way to gain a natural feeling for POV.
Find a book you love that has multiple narrators. As you read, ask yourself:
- What does each viewpoint contribute to the story? (thematically, in insights, tone and mood, or plot revelation)
- How does the author signal when the viewpoint has changed (is each narrator’s section titled a specific way?)
- Do the narrators use different tenses or types of POV? (e.g. first person, second person or third)
Are you writing a novel with multiple points of view? What are your challenges? What do you enjoy about having more than one narrator? Share your thoughts or questions in the comments.
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