Why Use Multiple POVs?

Photo credit: --Tico-- on Flickr
So not too long ago I wrote a post on how to choose a POV character and once again, one of you fantabulous commenters asked a question that inspired a post—this time, on using multiple POVs. 

Adding a second or third POV into your story isn’t a decision to be taken lightly—it’s much more challenging to write two or three (or more) distinctive voices than it is to write one, and creating effective transitions between the POV shifts is tricky. On top of the technical challenges behind crafting multiple POVs into a novel, there’s the added obstacle that some readers just don’t like multiple POVs because they find the head-hopping jarring and difficult to follow. When you write multiple POVs, you run the risk that a reader may put your book down simply because they didn’t like the way you handled having more than one POV character.

However, when done correctly, multiple POVs can add an interesting dimension to your story.

Multiple POVs allow your reader to see your story from many angles—they don’t necessarily have to take one character’s word for granted, and the ability to hop between many characters’ heads can be especially interesting when the characters don’t necessarily see eye to eye. As an added bonus, it also allows you to give the reader more information than either one character has—not only do they know what Character A knows, but they have access to Character B’s mind as well.

In Across the Universe (Beth Revis), for example, the readers have access to both Amy and Elder’s thoughts, who see the events that unfold in the story from completely different perspectives as Amy is a passenger on the spaceship Godspeed who was cryogenically frozen and accidentally awakened many decades before she was supposed to be woken up, while Elder is a ship-born teenager who is being raised to become the next leader of Godspeed. Readers very quickly learn the customs, beliefs and shifts in language (i.e.: “frex” instead of another four-letter word) from Elder’s thoughts, while we sympathize with Amy who is, in essence, one of us—an Earth born girl trying to understand the new world she was thrust into.

Unlike Across the Universe, however, The Iron Fey series (Julie Kagawa) used multiple POVs in an entirely different way—while the first three books were told from Meghan Chase’s POV, the final book of the series, The Iron Knight gave readers a glimpse into winter fey Ash’s mind. Without spoiling anything, this shift in POV was necessary due to events that happened in the third book that led to Meghan and Ash’s separation, and The Iron Knight is largely about Ash trying to return to her. While the POV shift was a little more jarring as readers were already accustomed to hearing from Meghan (not Ash), I personally found the extra insight into Ash’s mind to be a fascinating experience.

There are many different ways of handling multiple POVs, but the key to writing it is to make sure that both POVs are absolutely necessary to the story. If so, it can be a great way to add an extra layer of complexity to your plot, but if not, you run the risk of losing readers who will wonder why the extra POV was necessary to begin with.

What do you think of multiple POVs in books? Do you enjoy reading or writing them? Why or why not?

23 comments:

Emily said...

I also think Jodi Picoult uses this quite well in a few of her books. I've never done it myself but I don't mind reading it. Mostly I like to stick with one character, though, otherwise I don't feel as much a part of the story. Sometimes one character's thoughts are confusing enough as it is!

amy gh said...

I have come to really enjoy multiple POVs, especially in Diana Gabaldon's work. It may be a challenge to write at times and not of interest to some readers but it is a skill that when well honed makes for a great novel.

Lee Scarlet said...

I experimented with changing POV in lieu of section breaks in the my story, "A Tale of Two Love Affairs" in the anthology, "Sex Obligatory, Love Optional" (available for free on Smashwords). The POV rotates between four characters in sequence. No one who has written to me about the story has complained about that. Contrary to what they teach in writing classes, you can change POV without starting a new section if you do it reasonably and consistently.

Ava Jae said...

I haven't read any Jodi Picoult, but I've also found that I (usually) don't mind reading it as well, as long as both of the voices are interesting. It can be difficult to write, however--as you said, even getting one character right isn't an easy task.

Ava Jae said...

Hmm, maybe I'm just picky, but I think changing POVs without starting a new section would be very confusing. I suppose if done with enough skill it might work, but I imagine it'd be very difficult to pull off.

Margaret Alexander said...

I love characters, so focusing on more than one is always win for me. It can get overwhelming to the reader if there are too many POVs, like you said, so you have to be careful. I'm a third person girl so I like to skip heads. Otherwise, it's easy to get tired of hearing from one character and neglect the development of secondary characters.

Sally said...

I've recently published my debut that was written between two POV's, it was a challenge but added more to the story I felt. Sometimes it can be difficult to keep track of if there's a lot, but if it's two POV's or three then it seems to work :)

Ava Jae said...

Seeing more than one character's perspective can be a really interesting experience. I can't say I've ever gotten tired of hearing from one character (except in cases where I didn't particularly like said character, in which case I probably wasn't enjoying the book to begin with), but getting a glimpse into the lives of various characters can do a lot to add to world building and intrigue (i.e.: Harry Potter).

Ava Jae said...

I haven't read any novels with more than two POVs recently, but I imagine it's certainly easier to keep track of (and become adjusted to) two or three POVs. Any more than that can start to get tricky--and while it's certainly not impossible to do it effectively, it does become more difficult.

kathryn magendie said...

I like it as long as the POV's are distinctive and separate -- I don't write "head-hopping" and can't read it either. It's too distracting. I have to adjust my brain as it blips across the changing character thoughts and that bumps me from the story. If the POV's are separated by chapters, that's the way I prefer it, and really prefer it not to be "every other chapter" so I have time to immerse myself in one character before I move to the next. My last novel has multiple POV's even though they are all written by my main character. And the novel I'm working on now has two POV's, a man and a woman, -- separated by distinct chapters.


:)

Andrew A said...

What’s the point of writing third-person omniscient and not
taking advantage of multiple POVs? As a first-time
novelist, I’m a bit confused by the industry’s standards that multiple POVs are
frowned upon. If I’m not mistaking, this
means that the writer can’t say things like ‘he felt…’ or ‘she thought…’ outside of the
main character. Am I wrong in assuming
this, or is there some obvious workaround that I’m overlooking?

Grace Robinson said...

Great follow-up to your previous post about POV. :) While I enjoy reading most any sort of POV, I usually write in third person with multiple viewpoint characters. It can be challenging, to keep the voices separate, and make sure that one character doesn't comment about something that she/he doesn't know about but the reader does. I always start a new scene, though, for each POV shift. For the sort of stories that I usually write, I find this POV method works best because I have a large-ish cast of characters and they are often in different places doing different things simultaneously.

Beverly Diehl said...

My most recent finished work is told from seven POV's. I had to outline very, very carefully to make sure I got all the different voices in, in a reasonable order, and one character is still very much the lead. But I found it lots of fun (if challenging) as a storyteller to write a scene from one character's POV, where she absolutely LOATHES another character, and then, in the next chapter, we're inside the loathee's head and find her quite sympathetic. Romances do this a lot, but there's usually only the hero and heroine's POV.

A wonderful short story is Ursula LeGuin's "Sleepwalkers" in her Searoad anthology, told from five POV's. Another great novel in three POV's is Margaret Attwood's The Robber Bride.

Ava Jae said...

I've found that I enjoy multiple POVs most when they are separated by chapters--not only does it limit the confusion by clearly stating whose POV the chapter is written in at the beginning, but it allows you to get a nice chunk of perspective from a character rather than quick hopping.

Ava Jae said...

This is a little difficult for me to answer because I don't have any experience writing in third-person omniscient. I can tell you that in limited third person, you'll want to stick to one character's thoughts, but I'd recommend doing some research on writing in third-person omniscient. My guess is that using multiple POVs is certainly allowed in omniscient POV (after all, that's the idea of third person omniscient--that you know everyone's thoughts) but I imagine there's a right and wrong way to go about it.

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Grace! I think the greatest challenge in writing in more than one POV, as you said, is to keep the voices separate. Every voice should be distinct and fit each character, or else you run the risk of each character sounding the same, which would flatten your characters and be unrealistic.


Just out of curiosity, how many POVs do you usually write in?

Ava Jae said...

Seven POVs! Wow, that's quite a bit of juggling, but I imagine it must be pretty entertaining. :)


I've never read "Sleepwalkers" or The Robber Bride, but I've seen a few examples in YA lit that effectively use multiple POVs.

Robin Red said...

I'm a bit late but if done correctly, multiple POVs should be fine. If you've ever read Inkheart, you'll see Cornelia Funke does a great job. She creates dramatic irony and builds suspense because the reader knows things about other characters while the protagonist does not. Personally, I write mostly in third-person omniscient, while maintaining focus on my protagonist. I've even done a POV from a stable-girl in one of my stories (though her passage was only half a page and she was murdered in the end). If you've ever read Eragon and it's sequel Eldest, notice that Eldest is written in multiple perspectives, while Eragon is not. Whoever your POV is at the present, you should only reveal
his/her/its thoughts and feelings, but you can hint at other character’s thoughts and feelings through physical
expressions. Then, when you switch POV, you can share that character’s thoughts. A note from experience, I try to not to use another POV when my protagonist is present unless he/she is in the distance and I want a different perspective on the protagonist’s progress. Sorry if this was long ^

Ava Jae said...

Thanks for sharing your experience, Robin! Very helpful to have someone who has written in third person omniscient share their thoughts. :)

Robin Red said...

Ms. Jae, have you ever read the Pendragon series? It is the only one I've read where the POV switches between first-person past to third-person limited throughout each book.

Ava Jae said...

Funny you should ask. I have read the first six books, however it was many years ago and unfortunately I don't remember very much from the series...

Robin Red said...

I read the first seven. The series just finished about a year ago with ten books total, and I'm considering rereading them. And the reading list grows...

Ava Jae said...

Those TBR lists have a tendency of doing that...

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