Multiple Narrators? How to Choose the Right POV

Multiple Narrators? How to Choose the Right POVIf you’re writing a multiple point of view novel—whether you’ve got two POV characters or an ensemble cast of POVs—it’s critical you know how to choose the right POV character’s perspective for each scene in your story.

This may seem like a no-brainer, something that happens instinctively as you write, but I often see stories in which the wrong perspective is used in a scene. The results can be ugly, ranging from decreased tension to reduced reader engagement. If you just gasped and placed your hand over your mouth, you understand how serious a matter using the right POV is for every scene.

The Pitfalls of Multiple POVs

The problem with pits is that they’re easy to fall into and hard to climb out of.

Story Works Guide to Writing Point of View Alida WinnterhiemerThere are several mistakes writers make with multiple-POV stories. The more POV characters you have, the easier it is to make these mistakes. I’ll list them here, but if you’d like more detail, they’re thoroughly covered in my book The Story Works Guide to Writing Point of View.

The simplest solution is to write in a single point of view. Barring that, limit the number of POV characters in your story to two or three. Less really is more.

When Your Story Demands Multiple POVs

Some stories are best told with multiple POV characters. Even with a small head count, it’s easy to trip. Besides tying your shoelaces before you go out, how can you avoid falling?

Always remember your story should have a clear protagonist at the center of the action. Of course, if you are writing a romance with a dual point of view, you may have two protagonists. If you are writing an epic fantasy with multiple worlds, you may have a protagonist per world.

However, for the sake of our discussion, we’ll assume a single protagonist at the center of an ensemble of three or more primary supporting characters with POVs. Even in a dual point of view story, you’ll be faced with having to choose the best perspective on any scene they’re both in, so read on!

Assess every scene you write in which there is a choice between POV characters by asking yourself these questions.

  • Is this scene, in this character’s perspective, telling the reader something she already knows or can easily infer? If so, the scene may be redundant or explaining something better left to subtext.
  • Is the scene broadcasting something about to happen? If so, the scene may be creating a spoiler and reducing tension.
  • Is the scene emotionally flat, doing nothing much to enhance the reader’s experience of the action or character? If so, the POV character may not be the one with the most to gain or lose in this scene.
  • Would the story be tighter, better paced, and have more dramatic tension without this scene? If so, it’s creating drag in your story’s forward momentum.

If you answered any of these questions with a yes, you need to revise or cut the scene. Or cut the character’s perspective.

When Your Story Demands an Ensemble Cast of POV Characters

Some stories need an ensemble cast to create an epic narrative. Organizing your ensemble before you write can save multiple revision headaches later, keeping you out of the pits altogether.

1. Create a Casting Hierarchy

Even if you haven’t written a word of your book, you should have enough prewriting under your belt to know who your team players are and what roles they’ll fulfill in the story. Line them up in order of importance.

You might decide rank based on:

  • How long the character lasts in the story
  • How crucial a role he fulfills
  • How much readers like, or are expected to like, him
  • How necessary he is to the forward movement of the plot

This hierarchy is your first guideline for how to choose the right POV. Look at the characters in the scene and use the highest-ranking character’s perspective.

Sometimes choosing the right POV is that simple, but often it’s not. That’s where other guidelines come into play.

2. Narrow Down the Heirarchy

For any scene in which the hierarchy isn’t enough to choose the right POV, ask yourself these three questions.

1. What is the purpose of this scene? The readers’ takeaway?

2. For which character is the stakes highest right now?

3. Who will readers be most emotionally engaged with?

These guidelines take the guesswork out of how to choose the right POV. They help you base your decision on both how to best advance your story and how you want your scene to affect your reader.

Get Writing!

By applying these guidelines for how to choose the right POV, you can ensure every scene has the forward momentum to keep readers turning pages.

Get a Choose the Right POV PDF booklet, perfect for avoiding POV pitfalls. It will guide you through both character and scene assessment with an example and printable worksheets.

By choosing the right POV, you’ll be able to create the most compelling, dynamic, unforgettable scenes possible!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How do you choose the right POV for your story’s scenes? Tell me in the comments!

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About Alida Winternheimer | @alidawintern

Award-winning author, writing coach, and renowned editor Alida Winternheimer has a real passion for all things story. Author of the Story Works Guide to Writing Character and Story Works Guide to Writing Point of View,the Skoghall Mystery novels, and host of the Story Works Round Table podcast, she takes a hands-on approach to story craft at Word Essential. When she’s not writing, editing, or teaching, she can found outdoors on a bike, cliff, or lake.

Comments

  1. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Alida!

  2. I had four main characters in my first book and I think my biggest problem with that was that there were times you couldn’t tell the characters apart. I made them too similar in some ways.

    • That’s really common. Creating a truly distinctive character and voice is tough, and tougher in multiple POV stories, because they don’t stand alone before the reader.

      Sounds like you figured that out and have improved your craft because of it. That’s awesome!

  3. Ms. Albina says:

    I am writing two stories one a novel and the other a novella. I am doing third person pov in the stories. In my novel that I am writing I have 21 characters total. The two main characters are merpeople as in a mermaid and a merman.

    Great article

  4. Great advice, Alida! Enjoy your podcast as well:)

  5. Oooh, good post. Thank you for sharing. Very helpful checklist.

    I’ve found that one other thing that’s really crucial is choosing the character whose thematic place in the story most enhances whatever thematic point you’re trying to make with the scene.
    For instance, showing the protagonist sacrificing his life for his ungrateful brother through the eyes of the merciless judge who condemned him, instead of through the brother’s, or some random guy in the audience.
    Contrasts especially are fun and have the potential to be very powerful.

  6. I needed this–entering revision of a novel with 4 MCs. Already I had begrudgingly assigned them a hierarchy on the advice of writers wiser than I am, so at least I was prepared that much for this lovely, specific post. I hope not to confuse the reader nor to deflate the tension and excitement. Thank you!

    PS commenter Kate F. above is quite helpful, as well!

  7. Great post in general. I don’t feel like I usually have too much trouble with this, but it’s still always good to read something like this that analyzes how many perspectives and who to pick.

    Generally I cap it at 3 or 4 perspective characters, and they’re all major characters who go through some sort of individual arc. They also all interact with each of the others at one point or another. I only go more than 4 if it’s a longer and more complex book that requires it … and it’s rare that all 5 or 6 of them will survive the entire book.

  8. Thanks but to be honest, at the time, I came to the conclusion that I was better off with one main character. The logic was that in that first book, I do give one character 120 pages of just being about him and readers said that was the best part of the book. However, your advice does give me the courage to try it again.

    • Smart conclusion. I’m all for single POV books. I’m not suggesting people write multiple POV stories, but I am trying to help people write those stories that demand multiple POV characters *better!* When you have one of those stories demanding your creative energy, go for it!

  9. Sam Steidel says:

    Wonderful post, got me to thinking about PoV. If I may an added bonus for using multiple Viewpoints. See the same event in time from differing angles. From inside the sinking ship, from the helicopter above, from the desperate radio traffic, using all these to build on the tension of the moment. None of which may be the main character or all may be.

    • Hi Sam, that’s true. Thanks for mentioning it. One of my favorite books is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. There are certain events in the story that we get to experience more than once because of the multiple POVs. She only does that with the most dramatic moments and the effect is powerful.

  10. I have a story about a family of 4 adults living under the same roof (its a legal mystery as well as a family drama). I write from all of their POVs. What I find works for me is to write the scene from one POV – get the facts out, write the cliffhanger, etc. Then I write it again from the POV of the other people in the scene. Yes, it is time consuming, but I often find someone else’s POV is better. For example, one male character (A) is discussing what happened at work – someone has been embezzling and everyone seems to be looking at him. The facts are necessary for the story. When I changed POV to the other character (B) I was able to show more of their personal relationship. Since he is not the one ‘going through’ the situation I was able to focus more on how rare it is for A to open up to him, how he has never seen A vulnerable, how he knows A to be self-centered, but unethical is out of the question. It gave me the opportunity to let the reader see more of their interpersonal dynamic. This could not be accomplished through A who is too upset about work to be considering anything else.

  11. Thanks for the post, Alida, it’s definitely something to think about when sketching out a story.

    I know there are pitfalls to having multiple narrators, and I believe K.M. had a post not long ago about the difficulties associated with the first-person PoV, but I really like to play with unreliable narrators. I feel like if I write in the third person, keeping information from the reader is artificial and gimmicky, but you have to keep information from the reader in a story with a big mystery at its heart.

    There’s also the problem of pulling readers out of the narrative by reminding them that the author is pulling all the strings…and one unfortunate way to do that is to keep information that a character knows from the reader, or keep information the reader knows from a character. Both are frustrating as a reader.

    I also feel like with unreliable narrators, each PoV serves a purpose, and I’m compelled to make each voice different. But maybe I’m fooling myself haha.

  12. I’ve just finished the second draft of my WIP and this article came at just the right time. I realize the story feels stagnant in some places because I’m actually not utilizing enough POVs. I’m really surprised at myself to realize that I have only used the POV of my primary supporting character twice. I am thinking this is why especially the scenes between her and the protagonist, which are supposed to be the heart of the story, have felt so dragging and difficult to write. I have only been using the protagonist’s POV during them, to the point of redundancy, and the story lacks attachment to her character or how her independent story line weaves into the protags at the end. It’s hard to say she even has a strong role in this story at all when I’ve so thoroughly neglected her POV. Even in the scenes where she is present but the protag isn’t, that are meant to serve to give the reader key information *about her* that the protagonist will only find out later, I have been giving the POV to the secondary supporting character, rather than her. Ridiculous! I do not think I am choosing the strongest POV for each scene and this article was immensely helpful. Thank you.

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  1. […] by point of view? Alida Winterheimer clarifies how to choose the right POV with multiple narrators, and James Scott Bell addresses the challenges of first-person […]

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