Writers in the Storm

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January 29, 2016

10 Tips to Writing from Multiple POVs

Aimie K. Runyan

AimieThree years ago when I sat down to begin plotting my novel, Promised to the Crown, I knew I had a huge task in front of me. I was dealing with an era most readers would only have a cursory knowledge of, and a series of events they would probably not be familiar with at all. The settling of early Quebec isn’t something most history teachers spend much time on… if any.

So how to convey the reality of 770 women who were sent over as “mail-order brides” by the king in order to marry the settlers and make little Canadians? You can’t. But what you can do is try to give a larger picture of what the women experienced by selecting a sampling of characters that can provide a wider lens to the reader on the world you’re trying to show.

With only the historical premise of Louis XIV’s “King’s Daughters” (so named because he paid for their dowry and crossing to Canada), I set about crafting three completely fictitious characters who came from different situations, but who would have to face the same challenges and realities in the New World. I didn’t want the limitations of using real historical figures because my goal wasn’t to tell the story of one or two women—I wanted to convey a larger truth. These are some of the methods I used to weave three separate narratives into one cohesive story:

  • Start with archetypes. “The mastermind” “the mother” “the artist” are all concepts you can use to formulate how your characters take on the world. The person obsessed with solving problems is going to address issues differently than the person combing the world for inspiration for their next poem. You want to make sure your POV characters have a different enough world view to make it worth the hassle of writing from more than one POV. I began my characters with three very basic concept characters: the mother, the teacher, and the sheltered farm girl.
  • Diverge from those archetypes. There is no person so simplistic that you can simply write them off as a two word personality type. Your character has likes, dislikes, needs, wants, and a past that shapes how they deal with reality. Making a rich character will make it easier for your reader to parse who is speaking. What if my maternal character was barren? What if my teacher character loved children, but was petrified to have her own? Dig deep into their psyche.
  • Make sure each chapter or section advances the plot. Telling the same scene over again simply to get another character’s take is tedious. In small doses, it can be brilliant, but forward motion is key. This was a challenge in my early drafts because I wanted to tell each of my main characters’ in the moment they decided to leave for Canada. This made for 50+ pages where the characters got no closer to the new world. Choosing one character to focus on and begin the story in France, then giving the other characters’ ‘pivotal moments’ in bite-sized chunks of back story propelled the reader through the action faster and made for a much more compelling read.
  • Make sure each main POV character gets enough “screen time” to make us care. You don’t need to make sure that the number of words you spend with each character is the same, but it shouldn’t feel lopsided. We also shouldn’t go so long away from any one main POV character that we’ve lost track of where they are and what they’re doing. I made several passes through my manuscript to ensure each main character was at least mentioned if they were ‘offscreen’ for a whole chapter, and tallied up their word counts to make sure there wasn’t a huge disparity. I didn’t have a perfect rotation of POV, but I made sure it was fairly close.
  • In addition to strong characters, your voice for each must be on point. Pet expressions, gestures, vocabulary limitations, and more are key in keeping your POV characters distinct. The illiterate character, no matter how smart, will not have the vocabulary to match an educated counterpart. This is important, even when not dealing with multiple POV, but absolutely essential when you are. I made sure my Parisian characters were more worldly than my rural ones, and the literate ones more eloquent than those who had been denied an education.
  • In most cases, it’s great to show one main POV character from the eyes of another. Is your detective as witty as he thinks? Is your ninja as cunning as she would have you believe? Let the other characters show us another angle on the truth. I loved showing my insecure character through the eyes of her friends. She was much more capable than she ever recognized.
  • If you are travelling between different time periods in a dual narrative, make sure the language, setting, props, and more all fit the eras so as to keep the narratives separate. It’s easy to slip in an inappropriate word that will take the reader out of the appropriate context.
  • Make sure that if you have a large number of main POV characters that you achieve a satisfying story arc for all of them in addition to an overreaching story arc. Each main character deserves a fully fleshed-out storyline, and for this reason, multiple POV books tend to be longer than single narratives. If you take on this structure, invest the time to do it thoroughly.
  • Make sure you make transitions from POV character to POV character smoothly. Titling a chapter heading with the POV character’s name is very common. You can also shift from scene to scene in a chapter if you are very distinct with your voice, but this does not mean “head-hopping” willy-nilly within a scene. Stick with one character for a logical chunk of the story.
  • The golden rule: Do not use multiple POVs for the sake of using multiple POVs. If you can tell your story without the shifts, you don’t need them. Use of multiple POVs is a really compelling tool if used well and is a necessary part of your narrative structure. If it’s not vital to the story, you’re just making your novel more complicated for no real reason, and complicated is not the same as complex and/or interesting.

We have seen some really wonderful multiple POV books in every genre recent years: The Poisonwood Bible, the Song of Ice and Fire series, The Girl on the Train and more. Is this structure to your liking, or do you prefer the author to stick to a singular narrative?

FB_IMG_1453480390685About Aimie

Aimie K. Runyan writes historical fiction that highlights previously uncelebrated contributions of women in key moments in history. Her first novel, Promised to the Crown, comes out in April of this year. She loves travel, music, and books above almost all things. She lives in Colorado with her husband and two children.

Find Aimie online at www.aimiekrunyan.com, her author Facebook page, on Goodreads, and on Twitter at @aimiekrunyan

53 comments on “10 Tips to Writing from Multiple POVs”

  1. Aimee, I can't even imagine how you did this. Well, maybe I can, now that I've read your post...there are some great tips here, and as someone who just finished a novel with four points of view, I wish I'd had this handy guide BEFORE starting my book! The main thing I struggle with when reading books with multiple points of view is the emotional impact: it sometimes feels diluted if there are too many voices telling the story. So your best point here, I think, is to make sure each character not only has enough time on the page, but also has a complete story arc of his or her own so the reader can feel invested in that and satisfied by its conclusion. Nice post.

    1. Holly, it was a lot of trial and error considering it was my first novel. And yes, I think giving every POV character an equal voice is crucial. Now sometimes we can have a POV character for a very short duration, but I think it's rarely done well unless there is a solid reason for the brief shift. Different rules for different books, I suppose!au

  2. I agree with what Holly says, above! Helpful post. In the book I'm writing now, I'm using two characters' point of view. But am I stretching it too much by changing it up? One character's point of view (the female's) is 3rd person past, and the other character's POV (the male's) is 1st person present. They are on the same time arc, and each chapter moves the story along as you suggest. As the author, it all seems to move smoothly, but am I asking too much of the reader?

    1. If you manage to keep the pacing going and delve deeply enough into each POV character's head, it's *probably* ok. So tough to say without reading, but I believe in trusting the reader to handle a challenge.

  3. Your wonderful tips are very helpful. Your book sounds very interesting to me. I do like to do multiple pov. But this gives me a new insight of how to do it better.

  4. Timely post, Aimie! I'm jumping into multiple POVs for the first time with my WIP. Love these tips. 🙂

  5. This may be a stupid question, but after starting on another book in first person, I'm considering rewriting my first. I like how 'in her head' I feel when reading my protagonist's POV. There are two other POV's but only a few chapters for each. Do I need to have their POV in first person too? I'm just about to start on this 879th rewrite and don't want to screw it up.

  6. I'd add (not necessary, but cool if you can manage it) It's awesome when some questions raised in one POV's chapter are answered in the next--sometimes without the characters all realizing. When I started doing that in my first book the whole thing started to come together.

  7. What a terrific post, Aimie! And your book sounds challenging and intriguing. My hat is so off to all you historical writers. I don't think I could ever do the prior eras. Congratulations!

  8. Thank you for your post Aimie. I am currently on my "lost count" rewrite of my first attempt at fiction. I have two POV's, actually 3 when you add the antagonist's who pops in with his short dialogue only four times within the story. My main character is an obviously complicated woman. Her love interest, a seemingly uncomplicated man until he tangles up with her. Only twice within my manuscript do I repeat a scene from the other POV. I think it works. Kudos to you, I struggled with voice while flipping from one to the other, I can't imagine multiples. Look forward toreading your book.

  9. My first novel, The Naked Room, has eight POV, the second has first POV, the rest if 3rd and the third novel in the series has 2 first POVs and one 3rd. All have the name of the person speaking under the chapter heading and the day. Each character brings the story forward along with details. It works! I think with multi POVS the author has to make sure the story is very clear and the "speaker" named.

  10. Wow, and I was whining about researching law for courtroom scenes! I can't imagine the time, tears and love that went into this complex book.

    I'm also fascinated by the subject - going to check it out right now!

  11. Laura, believe me it was whine and wine 🙂 Punctuated by chocolate and coffee! It took three years to write and of course there are still things I would change if I could be bothered. I started the second one as a NANO project and worked on it while finishing the first.

    I'm in the position now where I can't help writing in first POV 🙁 The next one, also a Susan Prescott novel, is 1st POV and 3rd POV. Four chapters in and procrastinating like mad LOL

    I love courtroom scenes so I am going to look up your work!

  12. Thank you for this article! I was struggling whether to give one character a POV, but after reading this, I realize that he just doesn't have enough to say. So I'm going to whittle it down to two points of view. Congratulations on your book - looking forward to it!

  13. Thanks for this. I'm writing my first novek, a murder mystery, and it's got multiple povs. But it's not easy to do. But learning how to make it happen as I go, making mistakes along the way, like switch ing accidentally within a scene. Do u have any strategies for avoiding this? It can happen so easily by mistake...

  14. I'm also delving into multiple strong POV's and this article came at the perfect time. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Hi Aimie, great post! I love the POV discussion and your comment 'it's all in the execution' is right on. My first book was written entirely from one character's point of view, which worked for that story. I knew in my next book that I wanted to explore writing from multiple POVs and did so, but only from one character's POV in any given chapter. I love historical fiction (and am Canadian) so look forward to reading your book when it comes out!

  16. Thanks for tackling this subject. I have seen an large increase in multiple POVs in the last few years, and it wasn't handled well in many of these novels. It seemed unnecessary and was confusing to me as the reader. Between switching POVs and jumping forward and back in time (another recent trend), it was a real challenge to follow the story!

  17. Great post, Aimie! I write historical fiction for young people and my WIP has multiple POV's. I didn't plan it that way, but 2 other characters popped up on the page and insisted on attention, so I went with the flow. Your advice about archetypes, character voice, and character arc address many of the challenges I've bumped my head against so far. Writing a chapter-by-chapter outline was also immensely helpful.

    Look forward to reading your novel when it comes out! I love Canadian historical fiction.
    Joseph Boyden is my current hero when it comes to multiple POV tales.

  18. Aimee, my second novel, still in the planning stages, is also about a lesser-known story from Canadian history. I'd been thinking about multiple POV for the book, and your article gives me confidence to have a go at it. Thanks.

  19. Great post! I think one of the trickiest aspects of multiple POV is making the reader truly vested in multiple characters. I've read quite a few books where one character is so much more interesting that I'm less concerned with the other(s). Of course it's natural to perhaps feel more connected to one character but as you mention, they must all be used to move the plot along, and I think that's a mistake I've seen made. Looking forward to reading your debut!

  20. Excellent post! I edit fiction and find POV issues to be very common among novice authors. It takes time and practice to master the art of writing with multiple POVs and you've obviously done it. Your recommendations are spot-on and I will be sharing your article with others.

  21. My series is based on dual point of view characters and, from time to time, I write in other characters from their own point of view. In the first book, I labeled chapters to help the reader along but I missed labeling a few scene transitions even though they were clearly delineated otherwise. I was raked over the coals for head hopping.

    Lesson learned: only change point of view in new chapters if at all possible. If you must change within a chapter, break your scenes and, if it's not immediately apparent to the reader whose head they're in, label the scene. It will save you a lot of review grief.

  22. Hey anne, thanks for sharing this!
    My novel has multiple POV's too, and in my workshops everytone appreciated when I named my chapters, usually with the pov characters name, or at least something to indicate the shift.
    Yeah people will rake you hard for not doing that! Lesson learned here too!
    But also, break your scenes, for sure!
    write on!

  23. What a wonderful blog post!

    I often worry about writing multiple POVs and become nervous at the thought of managing more than one character's arc/story. However now that I have more understanding about this writing technique, and the ways in which it should be used, most of my fears have altogether vanished.

    Hopefully these helpful tips will serve me right and I can utilise them to create a brilliant foundation for my future novels. Thank you!

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