Multiple POVs – When Everyone Has An Opinion

If, like me, you’re going to start out writing epic fantasy, create a whole new world from scratch,  and attempt a trilogy to boot – why not go all out and write in multiple POV’s too?  I mean why not tell two stories – or five while you’re at it?  Sure I question my sanity every time I look at the big picture.  But there are benefits from writing in multiple points of view if you keep a tight grip on your cast of characters.

The Benefits

Depth, Breadth and Perspective.

Telling a story from different points of view adds a sense of dimensionality, and – if done well – can make the story feel more complete.  In my WIP, Josiah’s  view of Marcus is quite different from that of Marcus’s wife Celeste.  If the story was told entirely from Josiah’s POV, Marcus might be seen as cold as calculating, with little to redeem him to the reader.  However through Celeste’s eyes we have an opportunity to see the man behind the General; a husband and father with a good reason for choosing the path he does.  All of a sudden the conflict isn’t so cut and dry.

A Bigger Canvas.

Epic fantasy by definition needs to be played out on a grand scale.  Carefully chosen POVs can increase the scope of the story by pulling together action happening simultaneously at different locations.  In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo needs the backdrop of Middle Earth cracking up around him to lend weight to his task. Using multiple POVs gives the reader a fuller picture of the extent of the crisis unfolding across Middle Earth – Elves leaving, Ents reluctant to get involved, armies being raised, leaders refusing to see the truth, strongholds breached – I could go on.  This raises the stakes considerably – will there be anything left even if Frodo can destroy the ring?

Controlling Story Pace.

A story should always be moving towards the final climax, but the pace needs to be one the reader will enjoy.  Light and shade, urgency and discovery.  Multiple POVs can be a valuable tool allowing the writer to build tension, or relieve it when necessary.

In my story two of my main characters are struggling.  Things are tense and somewhat uncomfortable.  A number of bad things happen in succession, building to a key plot point. Read alone it could feel heavy and a bit depressing, but woven together with a lighter more positive subplot occurring well away from the main action – the story feels more balanced.  The reader gets a rest from the emotional pummelling, and is given a thread of hope that the protagonist might come through in the end.

Reader Reveal.

As a reader I love knowing things the character doesn’t.  Every nuance becomes more important, I see foreshadowing everywhere (even if sometimes it isn’t) and I tend to become more involved in the story.  A different POV character is a great way to deliver additional information – if done well.

In my WIP, neither the protagonist nor the antagonist are aware that someone is working behind the scenes manipulating events to his own end. But the reader is.  For most of the story the mystery person is known only as the Elder.  I’ve only written a few chapters from his POV, but his short snippets frame the story for the reader and hopefully raise the stakes and increase the tension.

While epic fantasy lends itself to multiple POVs, they aren’t always easy to pull off.  You run the risk of jarring the reader if your transitions aren’t good, confusing the reader, or even losing them if they don’t connect with one of your POV characters.  Not to mention the risk of losing control of your plot if you can’t weave everything back into the main storyline.

So How to Keep Everyone in Line?

Choose Carefully.

We don’t need to see every side of a story, nor does every aspect need to be explained in detail (there’s something to be said for letting your reader draw their own conclusions).  Ask yourself what benefit will this POV bring to the story?  Could you achieve the same thing a different way?

Keep Tabs.

I tend to outline each character arc and note crucial points that impact the main plot.  On a practical level I put these on (colour coded) note cards and display them on a corkboard.  This enables me at a glance to see where the character should be headed and where he / she fits in to the main story. It also helps me rein them in when they head off on a tangent.

Reserve the Right to Change Your Mind.

If when you read over the finished novel you have trouble keeping everyone in line – consider culling some of the POVs.  I’m still writing a first draft and at this point I have good reasons for using each POV.  However when I’m finished I’ll want to look back and see if it works as a whole.

Working with different character viewpoints can be equally rewarding and frustrating, but as a writer I find there is rarely ever a dull moment.

How about you?  Do you enjoy reading stories told through multiple POVs?  How about writing them?  How many characters are too many?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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16 thoughts on “Multiple POVs – When Everyone Has An Opinion

  1. I love reading multiple POV books… especially when, as you’ve done, it makes the “enemy” more human. If you’ve ever read anything by Mercedes Lackey, she does this really well, in one case writing from an “enemy” POV so sympathetically that I began to root for the character, which worked out well when eventually he became an ally of sorts!

    1. That’s always the aim – to do it well. I feel a bit like I’m holding holding the reins of five different horses pulling in different directions and praying I’m up to pulling them all into line for the finish. But I agree about multiple POVs. Sara Douglass is another fantasy writer who does it well – and was the first I’d seen to mix first and third person POVs.

  2. I also enjoy multiple POV books for most of the reasons you’ve mentioned, especially adding depth to characters and knowing more than they do.

    I wrote Lives Interrupted from multiple viewpoints to help with the light and darkness of various sections when it could all have got too tense.

    As long as it’s not head-hopping, multiple POVs add enormously to a book, as evidenced by books such as Lord of the Rings.

    Happy (and successful) writing Raewyn.

    1. Thanks Shauna. I agree about the head-hopping, but am also aware of not staying in one POV for too long either. It’s a fine line to walk. I’m glad to hear multiple POVs worked out well for you though!

      1. Yes it is a fine line to walk – enough time to settle but not so long it feels uncomfortable changing to a different POV.

        I had each POV as a separate section, but they were shorter than traditional chapters.

        Have a great weekend.

  3. I like multiple POV stories as long as they are done right. Head hopping is annoying, so each POV has to have their own scene. Some books however have the multiple POVs and would have been better with a clueless character who is curious enough to look for the answers everyone is keeping from them.

    1. You make some good points Stephannie. Head hopping is my biggest worry with the WIP, and I’m hoping it will come off well. That’s where transitions and trusting your instincts become so important. I also prefer a POV to be within a discrete scene. I have seen it done otherwise, but don’t think I have the ability to pull it off. Oh and a clueless character is always fun to read!

  4. My WIP is an epic fantasy novel with 3 POV. I have chosen to tell my story with multiple points of view for the exact reasons that you mention in your post. If it had just one POV, the story wouldn’t be complete and some characters would appear like simple villains.

    1. Epic fantasy does lend very well to multiple POVs – and possibly my favourite reason for using them is to give a better insight into the villans of the piece. As an author I love figuring out what’s brought them to the place where they’re acting a certain way. As I reader it makes it more challenging (in a good way) to straight out hate them.

  5. I love multi-POV, but I find when writing they either come, or they don’t. I only use them when (like you!) I can get a great “Reader Reveal” out of it. That’s my favorite part of reading multi-POV too, so I love it when I can take a shot at delivering it.

    Great post!

    1. Thanks Aimee! I love me a reader reveal too – although I’m shocking I will often leap on a small fact and build it up in my mind to mean something – when often it was just what it was. Saying that I’m just as bad when I’m writing – like at writing group when I’m chuckling away over some secret little tell and everyone’s looking at me like I’m a bit mad. But hey, you have to do what works.

  6. My current series, Blood And Guitars, uses the pov of 2 main characters. My readers have really enjoyed the alternating male and female pov’s. It’s been great for the writing process. As you mentioned, it lets your switch up the tension without losing pace. Also, I think it’s good to be able to get into more than one head while a story unfolds. I’m going to have a hard time ever writing something that isn’t this way now after being so spoiled by the benefits of it. @theedgeofwords

    1. Hi Heather – I just had a quick look at your website – and the books look great! I’m glad you’ve had such positive reader feedback, I enjoy seeing both sides of the story myself.

      As a writer I find writing in multiple POVs also helps me flesh out the story. If I’m stuck a change of POV can help me look at a scene in a different way, and it certainly helps me to understand my characters and what motivates them better.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  7. The ms I’m currently shopping around is an epic fantasy with three POVs. LIke everyone else, I have to agree with all your points, especially the one about multiple POVs adding depth to the story. The three character’s lives are so intertwined that to not be able to see each of their POVs would leave so much out. Also, writing in multiple POVs often helps in the “show, don’t tell” department — something that would be an info dump or telling in one POV, can be shown by anothe quite effectively.

    1. Oh yes – you’re definitely able to show more, even if just in short snippets. The few short scenes with my villain show so much more than the little ‘off things’ that happen to my protagonist. And there’s nothing worse than the dreaded info dump.

      Wishing you all the best with the query – the world needs more epic fantasy. (In my opinion anyway!)

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