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?
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 A 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.