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Handling Multiple Points of View

When you first start learning about the different styles of point of view, it can feel like you have to choose one character and stick with them for the whole story. But many authors prefer to use multiple POV characters. Here are a few tips for writing multi-POV stories well.

Choose the Right POV style

While you can write multiple POV stories in first person, it can be hard for readers to keep track of changing characters when the pronouns stay the same. I recommend using first person for no more than two POV characters, and they need to have dramatically different voices. Usually having them be different genders can be helpful as well, so readers have extra cues to remember who "I" is.

For more than two characters, limited third person POV can be great. Because third person POV uses names and pronouns, it is much easier for readers to keep track of changing POV characters over the course of the book.

Clean Transitions

When writing multiple POVs in the same book, the transitions are very important. Current industry expectations require changes in POV to happen at a chapter break or scene break.

In a multi-POV story, you need to carefully orient readers at the beginning of every scene. Ideally, the opening sentence should directly state or strongly hint at the POV character for this scene.

Avoid mentioning other POV characters until readers know who they are currently following. Even if you don't go inside the other character's heads, throwing their names out there while readers are looking for clues will be confusing. Try to wait until readers have seen a thought or perspective distinctive to the current POV character before mentioning another POV character.

Make Each POV Matter

In a single POV story, the entire narrative can be driven by the protagonist's goals. In a multi-POV book, each POV character should have a goal during their POV scenes. Like any scene, the POV character's goal should have some conflict or obstacle involved in achieving it.

Occasionally a scene may be focused on a POV that reveals new information rather than the characters taking action, but this should not be the norm. Only plot changing reveals can support a whole scene by themselves. Smaller details can be worked into scenes that are focused on other goals.

Start with the Protagonist

Your protagonist's POV should almost always be the first POV readers see. This helps readers know what to expect from the book.

One exception to this rule is a prologue, which is separate enough from the main story that readers won't be bothered if that POV never returns.

Another exception would be a story with a narrator character that isn't the protagonist of the plot, such as Doctor Watson and Sherlock Holmes. In that case, the main narrator of the story should be the first POV readers see.

Introducing New POVs

After your readers have seen your protagonist's POV, you can introduce other POV characters as soon as they have something useful to add to the story. As you introduce a new POV, you not only have to transition cleanly, but you also have to help readers connect emotionally to this new POV.

This emotional connection could be because of the events in the scene. The POV character may be present at events that effect the main plotline. They may be taking actions that help or hurt the protagonist. This will help readers care about the events of the scene while they get used to the new POV.

Readers also get invested in POV character's who have interesting perspectives. Does this POV character see events differently than the other POV characters? Do they approach problems in a different way? Their appeal may be in their knowledge, skills, perspectives, relationships, or their motivations.

A strong POV character should have their own reasons for participating in the plot. For example, in The Princess Bride Inigo Montoya wants to kill the six-fingered man and Wesley wants to save Buttercup. They both are storming the castle, but they have different purposes and priorities once they get inside.

Your differences may not be as dramatic as that. A smaller distinction might be in the differences a sibling and a significant other feel about the damsel-in-distress. Both love them and want to save them, but their interest comes from different roles that the kidnapped character fills in their lives. As POV characters, readers should see these distinctive differences in their POVs.

What are the characters hoping for as their happy ending? What do they personally risk losing if they fail?

Creating Balance

It's usually best to use each POV multiple times throughout the book. If you introduce too many characters without returning to them, readers may start to wonder whether their POV chapters are actually relevant to the story.

Your protagonist's POV should generally cover the most ground in your story. The number of scenes and chapters don't necessarily matter, but the total word count of each POV will tell readers subconsciously what they should be focused on.

In general, if a side character is in the same place as the protagonist, their POV should only be used if they have important knowledge, perspective, or insight that the protagonist lacks. Otherwise, it's best to show those events from the protagonist's POV.

Additionally, you don't want to spend too much time away from the protagonist all at once. Otherwise it can feel like the main plotline is moving slowly or is unimportant to the book.

When you change POVs, you'll want to sit with a POV for a full-sized chapter or a scene. Switching too often can be jarring and disorienting. Of course, the pacing of the story at that point will affect what "too often" means. Often POVs and scenes get shorter and faster during the climax of the book, after readers know where everyone is and what they're trying to accomplish.

If you follow these tips, you should be able to write a multi-POV story that still feels cohesive and connected, as well as one where readers feel interested and involved with each of the POV characters.

Happy writing!

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