Multiple POV means writing separate scenes from the viewpoints of different characters, staying in one character’s POV for an entire scene and not switching to another character’s POV until a new scene.
Stories with multiple POVs are difficult to write. I’ve read more books that attempted this technique and failed than books where multiple POVs not only worked but improved the story. But recently I began reading Neal Shusterman’s Unwind series and OH MY GOSH GUYS the first two books blew my mind with how well the multiple POVs were handled.
Here’s a basic list of what Shusterman did right:
– Each POV character has a distinct outlook on the situation (main plot problem and world of the story).
– Each POV character has a unique role to play that affects the main plot.
– Each POV character has a fascinating and fully flushed out character arc (they change).
– Each POV character has their own complete storyline (no one is a mere sidekick to the others).
These are all great things to have in your novel even if you’re not telling it from multiple points of view, but if you are, these things become absolutely essential. Now the big question: if you’re writing a novel with multiple POVs, how do you know if you’re pulling it off? Well, I’ve made a little test for that.
Test That POV – is it warranted or unnecessary?
1) Does this POV character disagree with the other POV characters? Even if they’re pals, they better not have the same outlook or their POVs are redundant. The foundation of great multiple POV stories are characters with wildly different opinions and perspectives on the same situation.
2) Does this POV character give the reader crucial information regarding the main plot that could not come from another character? If yes, then you have a legit reason for telling the story from their POV. If another character could give (or worse does give) the reader the same information or perform the same actions, then this POV character is unnecessary.
3) Does this POV character change by the end of the story? If no, then this person isn’t affected enough by the plot to warrant telling the story through their eyes. Stick to POV characters who are deeply affected and changed by the story because readers will care about them more, and caring is what keeps people reading!
4) Is this POV character the hero of their own story? In other words, if you took away the other POVs, would this character still tell a complete story? For example, in Unwind the three main POV characters are Connor, Risa and Lev. If we only had Connor’s POV, we’d still have a complete story with an inciting incident, rising action, crisis and resolution, we just wouldn’t know as much about the situation (i.e. everything that happens outside of Connor’s viewpoint). Same if we followed just Risa or Lev. All of these characters could have carried the whole novel from just their POV, but the story is richer because their individual plots weave together. If a POV character couldn’t be the hero and carry the story, then they’re unnecessary.
If you’ve done this test and concluded that your POV characters are all necessary or discovered POVs that weren’t and cut them, the last thing to do is write a few scenes that switch between the POVs. But before you give these pages to beta readers, take out identifying names and gender hints. Replace all names with “Character” and all gender identifying pronouns with “they”, and ask your beta readers this:
Test That POV – is it distinct?
5) How many POVs did you read?
If you had four POV characters but your beta readers only identified two, a couple of your characters’ voices are too similar. Find out which ones and work on making them distinct.
It’s a lot of work to write novels with multiple POVs, but if done right, you might just blow some lucky reader’s mind. (Thanks Neal Shusterman!)
Footnote: For those who’ve read UnWholly, you know there are DOZENS of POV characters, too many to be heroes most people would argue. After all, some of these POVs are only used once or twice! However, each POV character is majorly affected by the story, even if just for that scene, and each experiences a change and gives the reader information no other character could know. So, impossible as it sounds, this test actually works on that novel. Honestly, that book blows my mind!
22 thoughts on “5 Tests for Writing Multiple POVs”
What a wonderful post, Heather.
I love writing and reading multiple POV stories – I think it yields a richer story.
One point I’d take further is, with my Antagonists, who are usually villains, I don’t give them a traditional change by the end of the story. My baddies meet their demise and most are not interested in changing.
Having the hero and heroine acknowledge how the villain could have changed, but failed to do so, shows that impact for the Readers, I hope.
Thanks for sharing.
Very good point, Paula! Often villains don’t change their evil ways; that’s why they’re villains. I like you suggestion to have the hero/heroine muse on how the villain could have changed. Thanks for the comment!
I love reading books with multiple person narrative, and am writing my own book that way, too (write what you love!) This is a great check list, thank you! (you’ve also made me want to read the Unwind series, so I’ll add it to my long, ever-growing list of books) 🙂
Good luck on your book, and hope you love the Unwind series as much as I did!
That’s a great checklist, especially #4. I’ve been struggling with a third perspective in my current WIP because she needs more “oomph” to get her on par with the other two POVs (she’s the one that is going to have shoulder the consequences of a lot of what they’re doing). The problem with how I’ve structured the story is her POV isn’t that crucial (but crucial enough to fight for it) in the first book…. second book and on, though, and her POV will easily rival theirs.
Back to the drawing board…. Gotta get this right!
Hi Alex! Glad this checklist helped and good look on your WIP!
This is a great post! I learned a lot. I did not like Girl on a Train because of the multiple POVs but for some books, it works magnificently, such as Gone Girl.
And a strike against Girl on a Train. Now I’m really curious to see how that novel handles it. 😉
Confession: I’m scared to death of writing in multiple POVs. I know a few writers who are working on novels with two or three lead characters, and I admire them all for their bravery. That being said, I”m planning to work on a dual POV novella next year when my WIP is with beta-readers… So I’m going to have to muster up the courage soon, and I’m bookmarking this article to help with the process. Thanks, Heather!
Your fear is not unwarranted! Multiple POVs are difficult. Good luck with your novella; I’m sure it will turn out great because you are aware of how hard multiple POVs are to write. It’s the writers who think it’s easy who usually miss the mark.
Hi – I just finished The Girl on the Train a few days ago. I think the three POV’s were done pretty well in that story.
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Interesting. I’ll check it out! Thanks, Diane!
Thank you for this. It validates much of what I’ve been saying on my own blog about using multiple (2) POV characters in my first book, Relic. I had two law enforcement officers, one a Sheriff and one a federal agent, pursuing separate cases that eventually intertwined with each other in the Sheriff’s county. I was taken to task by one reader for writing in 1st person (?) and by a couple of others for having multiple points of view.
I ask you, how can you have two different things going on and two different people pursuing them with completely different goals and not tell the story from both viewpoints? Some readers would have preferred to have me pick one voice and follow it and just be the eye in the sky when talking about the other character despite the fact that I worked hard to make sure my reader always knew whose head they were in. Other readers felt seeing both sides really enhanced the story.
You’re welcome! It just goes to show that readers have varying tastes and preferences. Not everyone enjoys multiple POVs, but for those who do, it’s a rewarding read.
I enjoy building a plot with multiple points of view and even different time periods, like present day and Victorian. It’s a challenge to pull all the threads together, but hopefully creates a more compelling whole. Some good advice here though which I will think about for my current WIP.
Thanks, Margarita! My current WIP is from one POV, but my next looks like it may require multiple, so I’ve been studying up on the form. Good luck on your current WIP!
I always use multiple POVs. In crime fiction it adds so much to the storyline. For instance, in my new release I have the protagonist, a writer who’s living through a nightmare story. Her husband, the Sheriff, who’s investigating a serial murder case. And his deputy, who views the serial case in a different light, and is so fun and cocky that she adds a bit of humor to a dark plot. In other books, I’ve written POVs from the protagonist and antagonist, and that works really well too, giving the reader a behind-the-scenes look at what’s happening. Personally, I could never go back to writing in only one POV. A good rule of thumb is to limit POVs to three so you don’t confuse the reader and to firmly place them in the scene POV in the first sentence.
Great tip! Crime novels often use multiple POVs so the reader is in the head of the antagonist as well. I HUNT KILLERS did that while managing to keep the serial killer’s identity a mystery, and I thought it was really well done. Looking forward to reading your novel, Sue!
Yes! The Unwind Series is a great example. Make sure you read Skinjacker series, too! Truly, truly, love how he writes from multiple POVs. Testing my writings chops in 3rd for the first time and hoping to harness his greatness. 🙂
Thanks, Jessica! I will for sure check out the Skinjacker series.