Since reading my very first Jodi Picoult novel, I have loved books written in multiple points of view.
Everyone has a different opinion of the world and the people in it. Everyone has a different past that has led them to those opinions. And everyone believes they are right about the world from their own perspective. It’s easy to forget that through the fog of our own prejudices. Multi-POV novels have the ability to show all the sides and, if they are done well, make even the most stubborn folks see things in a new way. I’ve changed my feelings toward a particular subject on more than one occasion, simply because I was shown the world through someone else’s eyes.
That is a power unlike any other.
But a multi-POV novel can be tricky to write, and, if you’re not careful, quickly confuse or irritate your reader. So, how do you avoid these pitfalls and write an amazing multi-perspective novel? Here are some tips to consider along the way.
- Give each of your POV characters a piece to the puzzle that can only be placed by them.
My debut novel, The Rules of Half, is told from four points of view for a very specific reason – to capture my main character’s mental illness through the eyes of many people. Each one has a different take on it and something to offer the reader that the others can’t. My protagonist, Will, shows firsthand how his mental illness affects his life. His sister, Janey, shows the illness through the eyes of a caretaker who’s given up her life. Regan offers the view of a teenage offspring trying to cope with the consequences of her father’s illness. And through the eyes of the newcomer Lindsay, the reader sees an outsider’s view of Will, still untainted by the stigma of mental illness and the prejudices of a small town. Each POV offers a view of the story unlike the others, and has a reason to be there.
- Give each of your POV characters their own goals, motivations, and conflicts (GMC’s).
Of course they won’t be as earth shattering as the protagonist’s (and if they are, perhaps the book needs to be about them), but their GMC’s should be clearly defined. Developing 4 or 5 different sets of GMC’s can be daunting and devours a lot of page space, so it helps if everything can relate back to the main character and story goal. In The Rules of Half, Janey, Regan, and Lindsay cannot fully achieve their goals until Will achieves his, and it is his illness that ultimately stands in the way of all of it. In the same breath, Will’s motivation for achieving his goal relies heavily on the other three. This intertwining will also help your story stay on track, as it’s easy to head off on unnecessary tangents when you have so many characters to build. Ask yourself – what is this person’s goals and how can I tie it in with what I’m trying to accomplish.
- Ground your reader right at the switch for a seamless transition.
The reader should know whose head they are in within the first sentence or two of a scene, otherwise you risk confusion. One sure way to achieve this is to switch POV’s at chapter breaks where it’s expected. You can also use the POV character’s name as a heading at each change. I did neither of these, which meant I had to be diligent about grounding my reader right from the start with dialogue, context clues, and voice. Be sure that each of your POV characters has an unmistakable voice and this will also help your reader stay in their head. Be it snarky, bossy, proper, or otherwise, each should be distinct and fit the character’s age, gender, and traits.
- Pick the scene narrator wisely.
For me, the biggest benefit of multiple viewpoints is the ability to play them off one another. If I want to create suspense, I pick the narrator that knows less about what’s going on in a scene. If I need the reader to feel the full gravity of a situation, I pick the narrator that has more to lose from it. And if I don’t know which POV to pick, I go with the one I haven’t heard from in the most pages and see what happens. Usually, I know right away that it’s the wrong choice because I have trouble writing the scene.
- Learn to write tight and efficiently.
Perhaps the hardest part of writing a multiple perspective novel is fitting all of these things into a word length appropriate for your genre. As I mentioned before, fully developing a character takes time and page space, so you may need to forgo some of those lengthy descriptive paragraphs, pointless coffee conversations, and minute by minute time logs. Give enough information for your readers to get a picture and a sense of time, but trust them to connect the dots and build the rest in their mind. Save the page space for the important stuff.
Hopefully these tips will help you tackle the pitfalls when writing a multiple perspective novel. If you haven’t written one, why not give it a try! You may be delightfully surprised by all the doors that open in your creative mind.
Raised in northern Ohio, Jenna Patrick moved in 1998 to attend the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she received her Bachelor of Science in civil engineering. After 10 years of devoting her brain to science and math, she returned to her true passion: writing. Jenna’s debut novel, The Rules of Half, has been praised by Redbook, Working Mother, SheKnows, Buzzfeed, and more. Her essays, featured by Harper’s Bazaar, First for Women, and Women’s World, have received over 30,000 views. She and her family currently reside in the Lake Norman area.
ABOUT THE RULES OF HALF
Will Fletcher once had it all – a beautiful family, a successful career, the envy of all his friends. Then tragedy struck, leaving him with nothing but guilt and remorse. Now he lives with his sister, thrives as the small-town crazy of Half Moon Hollow, and has vowed that his bipolar disorder will never hurt another soul.
But when fifteen-year-old Regan Whitmer arrives, claiming Will’s her biological father, his comfortably chaotic life is thrown into more upheaval. Orphaned and haunted by her mother’s recent suicide, Regan needs a stable home and a normal family―two things Will can’t offer, and a bitter town is determined to keep it that way.
Category: How To and Tips