Mastering Multiple POV in 6 Steps

Eddard Stark
Eddard Stark

Multiple POV storytelling has a bad rap.

Sure, the practice of splitting a single narrative across multiple characters’ perspectives has a long history. And its popularity continues to expand as our society grows ever more distrustful of singular truth, in favor of individual realities.

But multiple POV writing is not without its critics—and some of them are quite loud. Many writers and readers complain about poor or confusing execution. Others cite their traditional literary tastes. Why hop between multiple character’s minds, they argue, when you could tell a story more simply through one pair of eyes?

Points taken.

But let’s say you’re a fantasy writer who is (like me) hopelessly attracted to this kind of complexity. Maybe you admire Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, or Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, or maybe Larke’s Stormlords. Each series (and many others!) uses multiple POV differently. Each has merits and foibles. And each inspires a sharp audience reaction—either adoration or dislike—in part for its perspective choices.

Multiple POV writing, then, is not for the faint of heart.

Personally, I’ve been fascinated with this approach my entire career. I also struggle to write it well. But after years of study and experimentation, I recently experienced breakthroughs that helped me start to tame this unpredictable but powerful beast.

Here’s how I craft a multiple POV novel, from start to finish:

Step 1. Determine why you need multiple POVs.

Like any other writing decision, multiple POV is a choice with consequences. I think some writers choose it just because it’s harder, or because their favorite author uses multiple POV. These are fantastic inspirations, but inspiration and intent are two different things. Some stories might be better served with a single viewpoint. So make sure your story really warrants multiple POVs before you start writing.

I’d list all the possible reasons to choose multiple POV, but this thorough blog post has done it already. (For my part, I choose multiple POV because I’m a cinematic writer with a strong alignment to the intertwined structure of TV drama. I’m also fascinated by the unreliability of individual perspectives. These are two great and common reasons to choose multiple POV.)

Step 2. Design your plot for multiple “drivers.”

Once you’ve settled your own reason for writing multiple POV, it’s time to examine your story. Here, you’ve got two choices. Either you cover a single set of events from different perspectives, or you create a multiple sets of events that deliberately move from place to place and character to character, without much “overlap coverage” of any one incident.

Personally, I choose the latter because I’m writing adventure with lots of action and mystery. Writers interested more in drama, romance, or fantasy of manners might choose the former approach.

Step 3. Assemble the appropriate cast.

Once you know what kind of plot you’re working with, it’s time to determine how many (and which) POV characters you need. Will three suffice, or do you need four? Why is each POV truly necessary? Will each POV character have a complete arc of transformation, a mini “hero’s journey” of his/her own? (I advocate this approach, personally.) Or will they simply appear as needed to move the plot along?

Most writing coaches recommend no more than three to five POV characters for writers who are just “getting the hang” of multiple POV storytelling. But honestly, there’s no hard and fast rule. Just don’t take on a casting burden you’ll later regret!

Step 4. Decide whose POV best carries each scene.

Personally I find the previous steps easy, but determining specifics is a bit more challenging. My own multiple POV novels were a mess at the scenic level until I did an analysis of scenes in A Game of Thrones (the novel). That’s when I realized the true key to scenic decision-making: Not every POV character’s scenes should be IN their POV. 

For example, the first time we meet Eddard Stark, we see him through the eyes of his son Bran. This is an ideal POV to establish our concept of Eddard as wise, just, and serious about his lordly duties. Eddard’s own first POV chapter comes not long after. But if we had met Eddard in his POV first, instead of Bran’s, how might our first (and most important) impressions of him have been different?

Sometimes, it’s a toss-up about whose POV a scene should be in. In these instances I ask myself, “Who has the most to lose in this situation?” This question usually makes the best POV character obvious.

Step 5. Make each POV character unique.

Each POV character should be a living, breathing person. They should talk, behave, react, and think like themselves. After all, the magic of well-done multiple POV is its ability to shatter our comfort with one perspective. So make sure we really feel like we’re getting more than one!

Can you make us weep for the humanity within your villain? Can you grip us with a naïve child’s downward spiral into a street-hardened thief? What about the creature shunned by its human counterparts, or the political refugee struggling to “pass” as a citizen?

If all four are in the same book, there shouldn’t be any question as to whose chapter the reader is in, based purely on how the prose is written.

Step 6. Reduce to the minimum viable story.

Revising a multiple POV novel adds a few complications to an already-complex process. For one thing, you’ve got to ensure all those ornery POVs are working in harmony, and I guarantee you, they won’t “heel” after just a draft or two.

So add a POV pass (or two!) as a check on your revision list. Do you have all the POVs you need? Are any missing? Does each POV character’s story open in the right place (their own POV or someone else’s)? How unique are their psychologies, styles, and voices? Revise all the POVs together, and also revise each of them separately. You should strive to finish with no story gaps but no excess baggage, either.

Multiple POV writing sounds like a lot of work. And it is. Not everyone will agree with your choice, either, if you adopt this approach for your next project.

But if multiple POV is right for you, then wow, is it ever worth the effort! Crafting a compelling, complex story that celebrates the many, instead of the one, is an experience like no other.

I hope you find these tips helpful, but don’t forget to share your own! Have you tried multiple POV? How did it go? Which writers do you think have mastered multiple POV?

PS – If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this month, I’d be honored if you add me as a writing buddy under JourneyCraft.

Lisa Walker England writes a weekly illustrated fantasy serial, blogs about the art of storytelling, and develops sequential multimedia properties with two artist friends.

Lisa Walker England is a serial fiction writer, film writer and graphic novelist from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She loves mixing high fantasy with elements of clock- or steampunk, as well as designing transmedia experiences that allow an audience to enter her worlds as characters of their own. Connect with her at http://lisawalkerengland.com.

32 Responses to Mastering Multiple POV in 6 Steps

  1. I’m trying my hand at my first multiple viewpoint short story, The Chronicles of Aleria. I’m also interested in the idea that my characters can each go on their own mini journeys. I’m sticking to five or six points of view.

    For me, the two things that I find most difficult are finding an individual voice for each character and balancing my flashbacks with action while I attempt to both develop the characters and move things forward.

    Hoping to get to know some you you fellow mvp writers. If you have a DA account, follow me (WishesAreChildren) and shoot me a message. I’ll follow back and get back to you in the near future.

     
  2. Mobewan – The Clockwork Scarab is a brand-new fantasy-laced steampunk novel that pairs Sherlock Holmes’s niece with Bram Stoker’s daughter to solve cases. I haven’t read it yet, but the reviews are really glowing about it — particularly the use of dual POV. You might want to check it out! Also, a lot of modern romance novels use dual between the romantic leads.

     
  3. @Matt White – I’m like you; I like being in different locations at once. My current work in progress has to put is in the every major social strata (which also means we’re in all the major parts of the city — wealthy, poor, university district, etc.). It’s tough to do that without multiple POV!

     
  4. Great and useful article Lisa. Interestingly my current WIP has only 2 POV’s…and it doesn’t feel right – I’m alternating POV between chapters and it’s feeling like I’m forcing the story to fit the format. I think I need to look at maybe one or two more POV characters and see what that does to the feel of the story.
    Anybody got any (good hopefully) examples of two POV stories??

     
  5. In my books, I have to do it, due to the story being stretched over many different locations all at once. Plus, I like digging around in the characters’ heads more than through just dialogue.

     
  6. Morgyn – That’s awesome! If you ever find yourself in or near Milwaukee, hit me up via my website. It’s always super fun to merge the digital and real worlds over coffee. 🙂

     
  7. Morgyn – You are most welcome. And I agree about the dyslexic part. LOL. I sympathize!!!! Also Babel is a great analogy. Hah!

     
  8. Super succinct and wildly helpful.  Like writers need more stuff to be dyslexic about, LOL.  My first multiple POV ms had me seeking guidance just like this.  As a hide bound First Personer, my head sounded like the tower of Babel with all the voices and mind you, that was just three POV’s.  
    Thank you for this!

     
  9. Lyndi Alexander – Great point about how new characters can change our POV on old characters. Hadn’t thought about that!

     
  10. Mike Cairns – Thanks for your thoughtful post! I agree with a lot of what you say … but I think I’d have to disagree with about the issue of how much characters should be different from each other. Most of the people I know, even those who are related to each other or spend significant amounts of time together, have unique, individual personalities and very distinctive characteristics.
    For my part, I’d pose that allowing them to be like each other is more dangerous than the contrivance that may occur whilst trying to separate them. Sure, language might be the same. But is personality? Mannerisms? Reaction to challenging situations? The spectrum of possible difference is vast, even within one village or family.
    The best writers, fo course, can highlight the similarities while also defining the differences. (Isn’t that why we love their characters?)
    An old trick I learned in film writing: If they’re too much alike, collapse them. Story space is precious.
    Just a few thoughts. Glad you found the article helpful!

     
  11. Hi Lisa
    Great post, thanks
    My first trilogy were written in multiple POV, not through any conscious choice, but simply because I’ve grown up reading large scale fantasy like the examples you give above, and can’t imagine doing it any other way!
    Like you, the area i struggle in is deciding who gets to be POV in which scenes. Obviously there are many where only one Protagonist, and then it’s easy, but during the group scenes, it can be tricky. I also have a bad habit of choosing the most observant of my characters, better for catching everyone else’s reactions, but a bit laboured pace-wise sometimes. 
    The next step you describe is the other tricky one. There are always some characters that stand out, but often two of the main characters will be friends/companions, and it’s human nature to become more like the people you hang out with. Trying to write them as entirely different often comes across as a little contrived, particularly when they come from the same place and use the same sort of language. 
    Lots of work still to do, so thanks for the hints 🙂
    cheers
    Mike

     
  12. I like using multiple points of view, and I almost always do in my series–switching into a new set of POV narrators as I change books. It really tends to flesh out all the characters that way, giving new perspective on old characters, too.

     
  13. Thanks to all of you who have added me as a writing buddy on NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) so far! I think I’ve added all of you back, too … And considering how far ahead some of you are on words, I’d better get busy. 😉

     
  14. @Jeanette OHagan – That’s awesome! I love your point about irony. That’s one of the brilliant aspects of multiple POV, I think. I love it when I get that “antsy” feeling, as a reader, and just want to shout at a character: “You think SHE’s stuck up? Well SHE thinks YOU’RE stuck up!” Or those sorts of things where there’s a total misunderstanding between perspectives that you know is going to cause a lot of conflict before it gets resolved. 🙂

     
  15. Hi Lisa
    Thanks for a great and informative post. The first novel I wrote had two points of view while my current WIPs have four. One of my beta-readers suggested in had a “Game of Thrones” feel (though I confess to having read the books or watched the TV series as yet, definitely on my to-do list). I love writing in multiple POV. Each character is distinct with his or her own goals and narrative arc (especially within the series) and I generally start a new chapter when changing POV. It does allow me to give different perspective to different events and characters, add an element of suspense or irony that would be harder to do from a single POV. I like your point about choosing the POV character that has most at stake (when more than one POV character is in the scene). 
    As for who does multiple POV well – I’d agree with Tolkien Lord of the Rings

     
  16. @Mythic Scribes – For sure! And on that note, I’ve always wondered what Tolkien would think if he could see/hear these conversations we have about him, and how much we love his work? In his own time, so many people thought his stories were strange, yet now we recognize how incredible they really are. Goes to show that being ahead of your time isn’t always easy! Also, he put in the necessary time to become a master. *Sighs and heads back to writing desk.*

     
  17. @Kuok Minghui – There are some great manga and Western graphic novels also that use this approach. The visual aspect lends a whole other set of fascinating possibilities for how to handle the POV. Hmmmmm. That gives me an idea …. 🙂

     
  18. Philip_Overby – You bring up a great point. I think it’s a solid exercise to finish a single POV novel before tackling multiple POV. I had written a lot of single POV fiction before trying multiple POV and I still struggled with it for several years before feeling like I made headway. POV in general is tough, like so many other aspects of writing. 🙂 Why make it MORE complicated than it has to be, until you feel ready for the added challenge! Thanks again for this good reminder.

     
  19. Great article! I’m very interested in multiple POV writing being that many of my favorite authors utilize this style. I’d say my favorites are GRRM, Joe Abercrombie, and Steven Erikson. Erikson does his multiple POVs often in the same chapter, but for me it’s easy to jump to the different characters and not get lost.
    Personally, I’ve tried writing multiple POV novels several times. Each time, I failed. The reason, I believe, is because I just wasn’t ready to tackle those kind of stories then. I still feel like I need to finish one solid, one POV novel before even attempting this again. My ultimate goal as a writer is to write a multiple POV series, but for now I’m happy with doing standalone novels with one POV character. That method just works best for me at the moment.
    Thanks again!

     
  20. Can’t say when/how I got into multiple POV, but I remembered being inspired by the GetBackers manga where the plot was covered across multiple arcs. Henceforth, I developed an inclination to do multiple POV because I enjoy exploring the same event via different viewpoints. Ironically, that was long before I came into contact with GRRM.
    For me, the way I go about doing this is quite straightforward.
    Step 1: Know what is the event I’ll be covering.
    Step 2: Know which characters’ POV are needed.
    Step 3: 90% of the time, I tend to do multiple POV in a linear format timeline wise. However, I’ll break this rule every now and then due to exceptional circumstances.
    On the polarising views on multiple POV, it’s understandable because many readers prefer a more simplistic way of seeing the individual events panning out. Maybe 2-3 characters’ POV.
    However, my current work actually involves 2-3 POV characters per chapter, all of them considered major players in their own rights.
    From my own experience, people will always have problem trying to catch up due to a somewhat constant lurching. This is why all the while, giving my characters distinctive personalities has always been my greatest challenge, something which I actually relish.

     
  21. @Tony Dragani – Yes, cutting each POV at just the right moment is so important! That’s part of what keeps us engaged. We should always be worrying and wondering. 🙂

     
  22. @Jordan Southerton – I’m not as familiar with his works as I should be. I’ll have to check them out more closely!

     
  23. @Ashley Shelden – Great point! I agree with you about GRRM; I prefer a smaller number of POV characters whom I can really get to know. Overall, I’ve enjoyed the TV show a lot but the books (for me) can get to be a real chore when new POV character after new POV character appears with abandon. 🙂

     
  24. I totally agree with Ashley Shelden about Tolkien. His use of multiple POVs is flawless. Conversely, using too may POVs can make it difficult for readers to follow the narrative.

     
  25. GRRM is great at capturing different perspectives and personalities, but for me he has too many POVs to keep track of. My favorite fantasy POV author is Tolkien. Following Sam’s experience of Mordor is one of the best written passages in the entire series.

     

Leave a reply

CommentLuv badge