Multiple Points of View: Benefits, Pitfalls, and Uses
Sometimes a story is bigger than a single character or is better conveyed through the perspective of more than one character. In order to show the reader more than what any one character knows and still maintain a closeness to the characters, authors might need to use multiple points of view.
Omniscient versus Multiple Points of View
Stories that switch points of view are not the same as those that use omniscient POV. Although both techniques allow the author to tell a larger story, dive into the heads of multiple characters, and show more of the world, they accomplish this in different ways.
In omniscient, the reader can see the inner thoughts and emotions of any character at any time. One sentence could reveal the heroine’s escape plan and the next could show what the villain is thinking. Stories with multiple POVs have sections told from the point of view of different characters, and within these sections, only show the perspective of the character through whose eyes the section is being told, even if another point of view character is present.
Paula Hawkins uses multiple points of view in The Girl on the Train, so the reader gets to know three very different women. At the end of the book, two point of view characters are in a dangerous, stressful situation. Because that chapter is told from Rachel’s (the protagonist’s) perspective, the reader does not know what the other character is thinking, planning, or feeling. Only Rachel’s perception of the other character is known. The lack of head hopping is a key difference between multiple and omniscient points of view.
Benefits of Multiple Points of View
Like in omniscient, one of the key benefits of multiple points of view is the ability to show the reader what multiple characters are thinking and feeling. The reader gains a greater sense of the relationship between the characters and the overall world because they have more perspectives and more data. The reader then knows more than any one character. This provides the opportunity for the author to create dramatic irony, where the reader thinks “No don’t open that door!” because they know what is behind the door while the character does not. Dramatic irony is a great technique to create tension, suspense, and faster pacing.
Stories told from multiple points of view are steeped in a specific character’s perspective in any given section. This pulls the reader closer to the characters and combats the distance many readers find off-putting in omniscient POV.
When the story is bigger than any one character, multiple points of view may be needed to get all of the plot points and information to the reader. Switching POV can allow the reader to see different classes in society, areas of the country, and consequences of a magic system among other things. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel tells the story of our world before, after, and during an apocalyptic epidemic. In order to show how the world has changed, she has sections from the point of view of a character who was a seven-year-old girl, a young man, and a man past his prime. Each of these characters reacts to and sees the new world in a completely different way and have different memories and opinions of the old world. Mandel would not be able to show this without multiple points of view.
Other novels with multiple points of view include Versailles by Kathryn Davis, Curio by Evangeline Demark, and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.
Pitfalls of Multiple Points of View
Stories told from multiple points of view can quickly become confusing and unfocused if the writer uses too many points of view or does not given each point of view character a distinct voice. Readers should be able to tell from which character’s perspective each section is told immediately and throughout the section. Curio by Evangeline Denmark has three point of view characters. In the first line of each section, Denmark makes sure her readers know which third person point of view they are in:
Blaise flew far enough back from the last marching soldier to remain hidden (202).
Whit’s cheek stung (164).
The fabric under Grey’s cheek was wet, but her eyes were puffy and dry (49).
These lines not only contain the POV characters’ names, they also remind the reader what happened the last time the characters were seen. Grey had gone to bed sad. Whit had been in a fight, and Blaise was attempting to sneak into the palace to meet Grey. Beginning a new section with reminders not only solidifies the point of view, it also creates continuity within the story.
Even if each character’s voice is distinct and clear, the story can still be confusing if there are too many POV characters. A reader might be unable to tell who the protagonist is or decide which character(s) they should care about. In addition, one character’s plotline and personality might be significantly more interesting than the others. Readers might become annoyed and frustrated when the story switches out of the interesting character’s point of view. Each character needs their own tricks and endearments to prevent this from happening.
An Editor’s Advice on Multiple Points of View
Before you begin writing a story with multiple points of view, make sure all the POVs are necessary. Use as few perspectives as possible, so your readers don’t get confused or bogged down with too many character voices. If your story doesn’t need multiple POVs, don’t use them. Fully developing the point of view of one character is already a challenge. However, if like me, you are writing speculative fiction, historical fiction, or need more perspectives to tell the story, then use multiples points of view.
I would also like to remind writers that all the points of view do not have to be the same. Meaning you can have one character in first person and two others in third person. Switching the types of POV might help signal which character’s perspective the section is in. In Versailles Kathryn Davis uses first person for Marie Antoinette, omniscient for the play sections, and a very distant third person in other chapters. Davis is telling both the story of Marie Antoinette and the palace of Versailles, so she needs different points of view characters and different distances. By providing multiple perspectives, creating dramatic irony, and telling a story larger than a single character, multiple points of view can help you Ignite Your Ink too.
What books have you read that used multiple points of view well? What aspects of switching point of view do you find challenging and useful? Let me know in the comments.
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Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.