9 Tips for Nailing Multi POV
An author must choose through which lens – and how many – a story will be told. Each has its benefits and its pitfalls. Some naturally lend themselves more to a certain type of story or genre, and while a story can be solely told from one character’s perspective, there are various aspects better explored through multiple lenses. (Plus, it’s really fun!)
Using dual or multi POV is an excellent way to create and build tension, as one character might reveal something to the readers that another character has no way of knowing, something that might lead to their downfall if they’re unable to read the warning signs in time.
Multi POV also allows readers (and the author, while writing) to take breaks from being stuck inside one character’s head the entire time. Some of my favourite parts of books or television episodes are the ones where we get to look at the main characters from an outside perspective, which in turn reveals even more about the characters, the world they live in, and the overall story than we knew before.
In books, in particular, authors can create cliffhangers that pull the reader along by ending a chapter with one character in peril, and then jumping to a different character for a little bit, heightening our desire to find out what has happened.
But dual or multi POV can also go wrong and end up becoming jarring and off-putting to readers when done incorrectly. With that in mind, here are 9 tips I’ve picked up both as a reader and a writer to help you write multi POV with confidence to create an irresistible reading experience.
- Limit POV Characters
My first tip – especially for newbie writers – is to limit the amount of characters telling the story.
Instead of giving everyone and their grandmother a chance to narrate the story, limit the perspectives to the protagonist, antagonist, and possibly a side character or two. Keeping track of a huge cast of named characters is difficult enough in single POV, but when you’re adding multiple voices into the mix, reducing the perspective to 2-5 main characters makes the story much easier for readers to follow and helps to reduce plot holes.
- Keep POVs Centered Around the Main Characters/Plot
As a reader, multiple perspectives lose me entirely when the POVs veer into side-quest territory. I do enjoy side quests when undertaken by the main character, but if secondary character no. 3 is off having their own adventures with secondary character no. 4, and nothing of their plot lines effect, or even in any way relate to the main character or overarching story being told, I greatly struggle to maintain interest in the book. I didn’t sign up to read about these random characters, and so I feel a bit cheated and like I’ve wasted my time on a plot line that went nowhere.
To combat this, make sure other perspectives connect to the protagonists, antagonists, or narrative at large.
For example, my scifi novel, ⚡Thorunn⚡ , is told mostly from Laine, Kenton, and Bo’s perspectives. However, when I do dip into the minds of other characters (there are at least six other POVs we get to experience) it’s always to reveal something about the two main characters, Kenton and Laine. Yes, we get to learn about these minor characters in a way that we couldn’t have from outside their perspective, but their narratives in the story are specifically related to the main plot and characters.
- Don’t Give Equal Weight to Everyone
Related to the previous idea, when using multiple that expands beyond the main characters, not everybody needs to tell the story for the same amount of time. Spending too much time with minor characters can lead to the problem mentioned above, where readers feel like their time is wasted by meaningless filler.
Now, some authors can get away with this. A notable example would be Kishimoto Masashi. Especially in the latter half the Naruto manga, whenever a new character is introduced, Kishimoto dives extensively into their backstory. But because these characters’ histories are so interesting, and are tied into the world-building so well, the fact that Kishimoto was essentially using these POVs as a way to stretch out the manga as long as possible can be forgiven, overlooked even, because they are so compelling.
This however, is the exception, not the norm. George R.R. Martin spent a lot of time on POVs that fundamentally went nowhere in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, and even though his books are critically acclaimed, many readers were left frustrated at the amount of unnecessary plot. Martin himself has admitted that he wrote himself into a corner with the almost excessive storylines that resulted from so many different perspectives. Unless you’re interested in spending years untangling story threads, it’s best to keep outside POVs simple, focused, and short.
Be careful, however, not to make your POVs too short. If pages which are spent following one character are randomly intercut with single paragraphs featuring another character’s perspective, or if you have constantly have short section after short section jumping between POVs, it’s liable to give the reader whiplash. (Long-running soap operas are particular offenders in this area.)
- Build Up to and Away From Multiple Characters
If the story absolutely demands to be told through a large cast, it can be extremely helpful to ease your way into it. Start with just a few characters and slowly add more perspectives as the story or series progresses. That way, readers have time to get to know and become attached to these characters (being introduced to them through already established POVs first), making them far more invested in following their individual stories.
Conversely, when the plot is on the edge of getting too bloated, it’s helpful to begin narrowing the story down, bringing characters back together – or killing them off – and thereby reducing the amount of POVs needed to tell the story, as happens in The Lord of the Rings.
- Give Your POV a Purpose
As I mentioned in the intro, dual or multi POVs are fantastic tools to offer insight beyond what the main character thinks and experiences. But additional POVs shouldn’t be there simply to reach a wordcount or extend a screenplay to the desired running time.
Rather, each perspective should offer a unique view of the story that helps to expand and enrich it. If you can skip certain POVs and not miss anything, it either shouldn’t be in the story, or it should be reworked to be more meaningful to the plot.
- Don’t Just Switch the Characters’ Names
This is a particularly irritating type of POV unfortunately common among romance stories. A story that features dual POV but the only difference between the perspectives is that the names have been switched is extremely boring. It’s also rather lazy writing. I’m not interested in reading the exact same story twice. Even if there are more substantial changes to the actual text, if the dialogue is carbon copy the same, as a reader, I’ll quickly lose interest.
The best stories I’ve read that retread the same ground in dual POV vary enough from each other that while it’s obviously an identical set of events from the other character’s perspective, the differences have me going back over the previous bits over and over again, comparing where they line up, and digging into the internal thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the characters. Done well, this can be some of the most fascinating storytelling. My favourite example of this in television is the Rashamon trope, where multiple characters, all starting from the same point, recount their version of a shared experience, with each character’s version wildly diverging from the others’.
- Avoid 1st Person
Tip no. 6 is to avoid first person when writing dual or multi POV. Some writers can make multi POV work fantastically in first person, but unless the characters have extremely distinct or strong inner voices, reading first person multi POV can often feel as if you’re experiencing the story through the same character, which completely defeats the purpose of including more than one perspective.
It’s not good if readers can’t tell the characters apart and have to constantly flip back to the chapter headings to remember who is speaking – especially if it’s a romance novel. Men and women think differently, so their POVs should read differently as well.
By writing in third person instead, the constant use of the characters’ names will easily remind the reader from whose perspective each section or chapter is being told.
- Give Each POV a Unique Voice
Related to number six, if your story demands to be written in first person, while labeling the chapters or sections does help, your characters must be distinct enough that readers can tell who is speaking regardless. Perhaps one character stutters a lot or is very snarky. One character could be extremely steam-of-consciousness, while another is guarded and spare with their thoughts.
This applies when writing third-person deep or limited as well. Again, this is something I utilised in ⚡Thorunn⚡ . Laine, Kenton, and Bo are all different people, with different life experiences. The prose I employed for Kenton is not the same as the words and sentence structures I used for Laine. During revisions I was constantly having to change sentences to better express how each character would articulate their thoughts.
- Experiment with Format
Last but not least, play around with how you incorporate dual or multi POV. There’s the tried and true method of devoting chapters to differing perspectives (which is nice for labeling purposes), but POV can certainly switch within chapters as well.
Try using different mediums to communicate an outside perspective. Diary entries, newspaper clippings and broadcasts, emails and letters, and historical writings are all great ways to include information that the main character might not have access to. Some novels (such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula) are written entirely in this epistolary manner – similar to the “found footage” horror films that have become popular in recent years.
Stylistically, many novels include this information in the form of an epigraph at the beginning or ending of each chapter.
There you have it, my 9 tips on nailing dual or multi POV from a reading writer. Feel free to share your favourite POV tips in the comments!