Friday, June 19, 2015

Lost in the Crowd: Working With Multiple Point of View Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Multiple points of view offer advantages that a single point of view can't provide (be it first or third person). They allow you to follow multiple characters, show events happening in multiple locations, show comparisons, and tell the parts of the story a single POV isn't privy to.

However, they also have pitfalls the single POV doesn't face. Multiple POVs mean multiple storylines, and it's easy for each POV character to suddenly feel as if they have their own book if their goals differ from the core conflict goal. Several storylines can become a mish-mash of unrelated plots that don't connect well, or don't do any of the storylines justice because there's not enough time to flesh out all those plots.

Some things to remember if you're writing multiple third person point of view:

Your Characters Aren't in This Alone

Keeping an eye out for whose story affects the protagonists' story will make it a lot easier to see how various storylines (and subplots) fit together. It's not about a few characters having separate adventures in a similar location, it's about how those adventures create people and situations that are going to collide at some point and resolve your core conflict. Maybe it'll be for the good, maybe it won't, but it'll be interesting.
  • What does this character need from the other POV characters?
  • How do these POV storylines affect each other?
  • Where are the conflicts between the POVs? Where do they overlap or interact?
  • Are the POVs aware of each other? 
  • What is the purpose of the other POVs? What do they bring to the main storyline or conflict?

They Can Help Each Other, Even if They're Not Close

Call it the butterfly effect, but if one character does something in one place, that can affect a POV character in another location. And watching all those separate strands slowly braid themselves together is a great way to hook the reader. Even if readers can't see what the connections mean yet, they'll see the effects happening and will eagerly anticipate how they'll all come together in the end.
  • What happens in this POV that will affect the other POVs?
  • What happens in the other POVs that affects this POV?
  • What actions hinder or help another POV?

The Bigger Picture Affects More Than Just One Character

Events have far-reaching consequences that can help and hinder your POVs. One character's action can force everyone to change their plans, which is an effective way to nudge them all toward a similar goal or story arc. It can also reinforce that this isn't several stories in one, it's several characters working toward one larger goal.
  • What actions are critical to the core conflict and plot?
  • What pieces are resolved in each POV?
  • Who is responsible for resolving the core conflict? How do the other POVs help? (or hinder)
Multiple POVs can tell rich stories, but they can also try to do too much in one novel. Make sure your cast of characters are all working toward the same goal (even if one of them is working to stop that goal). They can all have different ways of getting there, and desires of their own, but the core conflict should affect them all.

Do you write in multiple POVs? What snags have you run into? What benefits have you found?
Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Interesting. I tried writing multiple third person POVs and just couldn't figure out whose POV the climax of the story should be in so I ended up rewriting it from scratch in a single POV :/ This post has given me a lot to think about...

  2. I'm writing three povs at the moment. The hero, a minor character who has a small amount of book time, and the villain. I kinda like the multiple povs as they help you tell the story more linear.

  3. Multiple POVs means multiple storylines

    This really isn't always the case. I'm writing a shorter novella, approximately 25K, and I have three POVs. Hero, heroine, and the antagonist. There's only one plot. Each POV offers something towards that single plot line. There are two minor, minor subplots, but both support the main plot.

    That's not to say the antagonist has many scenes told from her POV, there's two, maybe three, but they still support the main plot.

    I think the biggest benefit is being able to impart information to the reader that main character/s can't or shouldn't know.

    (I recently found your blog and really enjoy all your topics. Thanks for payinh it forward.)

  4. Love your way of laying it out, Janice.

    I am writing a YA adventure/romance from the hero's and heroine's POV. The first four chapters alternate as they are moving towards their "collision". They don't actually meet and speak until the fifth chapter. But in both POV, they are dreading a particular occasion and have already formed prejudices against the other participants that will be there.

    In fact, I use a secondary character (who actually never has any "screen time") in both. This secondary character deeply wounded the heroine, making her suspicious and reactive. The hero has just come from that character's home and where that trouble maker spoke about the heroine in double edged compliments. This makes it easy for him to believe the worst of the heroine, making what could have been a meeting of like minds to a public verbal altercation. This sends the characters off on a winding plot road.

    In that particular scene, I started it from the hero's POV, so the reader "gets" why he picks a fight. We can watch how her reactions just stirs up his anger more and convince him that his original assumptions were correct. But just when you think the argument is over and he's delivered his "last word", she laughs at him, the chapter ends and she picks up the story.

    She gives her fake laugh to hide her hurt and anger and frustration at being falsely accused. Even though he knows there are people listening on the other room, she thinks they are alone. And with her feelings rushing onto the page, she changes tactics from defense to offense. This pushes her across the lines of protocol and manners.

    This is an important turning point in the story, turning what should be allies into enemies. They now must work towards their goal separately making the journey more difficult (and interesting).

    I really enjoy using multiple POV. There are always more perspectives and perceptions than your own. And that is what brings in so much of the conflict and plot into a story, I've found.

  5. Thanks for the article. I'm really interested in multiple POV right now... it's tricky. Here's my question. If you're telling a mostly linear story from 4 different POVs should you always keep the order the same? Like character A's POV chapter/scene then B, C, D, then A, B C, D or is it okay to have character A and then skip to C after the pattern has been establish?

  6. Xan, that could indicate a goal problem (though not always). There's a premise that needs to be resolved, but there's not a clear person with that goal driving the story. You might try looking to see who has the most to win/lose in the climax, and tweaking their goal or the core conflict to reflect that.

    Traci, they are advantages to it :)

    Jenna, storyline doesn't mean plot. It's just a storyline that follows that character. Those subplots are stories of their own in a way. If they're all connected and tied together that's great, but it's not uncommon for a multiple POV novel to have multiple plots as well.

    And welcome to the blog! Good to have you.

    Amelia, sounds great! I love how you have that third character to tie it all in together. I'm currently doing the hero/heroine dual POVs myself, and picking where to switch has been a lot of fun. (and a hassle at times!)

    Liana, It's up to you. You can stay in a regular order, or you can switch as needed. One thing to watch out for though, is that you don't leave a POV out of the loop for too long. With so many POVs, it can be easy for the reader to forget about one if a lot of chapters pass without them.

  7. “Make sure your cast of characters are all working toward the same goal (even if one of them is working to stop that goal).”

    Does this mean each POV character must have the same story goal?

  8. Do people prefer to use first or third person for multiple viewpoints? I'm considering a mixture -- first person for my main character and third person for the others.

  9. Sam, not specifically, more like working toward the same core conflict. (I'll edit that so it's more clear). Take Lord of the Rings for example. The core conflict was the bad guy wanted to get the ring, the good guys wanted to destroy the ring. Every POV might have a different specific goal, but ultimately pretty much everything relates in some way to the ring conflict.

    So whatever your core conflict is, the goals of the POV characters will relate to it in some way. If the core conflict is to stop a bank robbery, odds are if a POV is working on getting a new job or saving their marriage, and that doesn't affect the bank robbery at all in any way, it's probably going to feel extraneous. But if that subplot goal affects the bank robbery conflict, then you're probably fine. Does that make more sense?

    Wendy, third is the most common, but you are seeing more and more multiple firsts these days. Mostly in YA though. Multiple firsts is a tough POV because you really have to get the voices different or the reader loses track of who is who. You do see first/third, but it's rare, and again, hard to do well. Kathleen Duey does it very well in her Resurrection of Magic series. I can't think of any others off the top of my head, but there are sure to be more out there.

  10. I'm currently working on a series with multiple main characters, so in several of the books I have had to switch to different POV's. My main issue, and what I'm needing help with, is separating the differences in each characters' personalities.

    1. By separating the differences in each characters' personalities, do you mean they are blending together? Hard to tell the difference between them?

  11. I tend to choose multiple POVs in my novels, but the plots tend to weave together most of the time... although not always. Always find your posts very useful, Janice, so many thanks. Comments are an added extra as well.

    1. Glad you like them, thanks. I used to write in multiple POV all the time, but lately I've been a first person POV all the way gal. Funny how styles can change.

  12. In my YA fantasy series, I keep the POV to a handful of central characters and when my main protagonist is in the scene, 95% of the time, it is from her POV. I've minimized the POV scenes for the antagonist because I want to reveal what is happening off scene as the character discovers things.

    One challenge I discovered in writing the series is that some of the central characters are royalty. This has added the challenge that even small actions they take can have a significant impact on the greater populous. This has meant that I have additional characters (the nebulous concept of different factions of the people) that I have to keep track of. To help with that, I keep a calendar where I track when things happen, how quickly the people of the world will become aware, and the cascading factors of how the reactions would spread.

    1. Sounds like a calendar is a great idea for that series. Glad you found something to keep you organized :)

  13. Thanks for this. After quickly writing my novel during NaNoWriMo a few years ago, I've had LOTS of editing to do. A big issue I had was with keeping two separate POV's clear and separate while allowing them to work together as compliments. So you're advice here is so helpful!

    1. Awesome! I love it when a refresher finds the right writer :)

  14. This is a fantasic follow-up, Janice! And I loved your post at WITS last week. :-)

    1. Thanks! Seemed like a fun pairing to do :) Thanks for letting me hang with you guys again. Always a blast.

  15. I'm having a bit of a POV problem. I've started over with this specific book several times, and each time I've changed the POV. First, I was writing from my main character, but found that I wasn't able to show how his two companions were feeling about things, as they're both very secretive when it comes to their true emotions. Then I tried switching between the three of them, but I felt that this would subtract from readers' interest in the main character, who really is the core of everything but who doesn't really seem it at the very start. So I started again due to that, but I'm now stuck with my original problem. I really need to get across the emotions and backstory of one companion in particular, as if they're not clear her actions may seem difficult to understand. I should add that all of this is in third person, but showing the thoughts and feelings of my POV character (I know there's a word for that, but at the moment I can't think of it). I would rather not switch to first person. Could you suggest any way I could show the opinions of other characters, without subtracting from my main's?

    1. An omniscient third person POV would let you do that. Your narrator would be someone outside the story (you basically), who knows everything and is telling the tale about these people. It's a trickier POV since it can easily feel told, but it would allow you to show any character you needed to and have someone make judgement and relay thoughts the characters in the scene would not be privy to.

  16. I've been working on this series dealing with bug people (Bug folk) since I was in 5th grade. I started off writing in 1st person and switching between two 1st person characters, but as I got to developing the series, I realized it was impossible to really grasp their whole world and what is going on driving not just the plot of the individual story, but the series as well. I ended up having to add a 3rd person narrator.

    It seems upon returning to the series and reworking/ rewriting I am defaulting more often to a 3rd person omni type narrator. I miss the 1st person closeness (it seems harder to convey the main character's thought processes) but at least I can POV shift to work out plot that affects the series but maybe not specifically the main character.

    I still hope that it might be okay for a few stories in the series to remain 1st person. There are one or two stories that I reread and still prefer from the 1st person viewpoint.

    1. Nothing says you can't mix it up. John Scalzi's Old Man's War series is told in both first and third person POV. It changes per book.

      You might also try a tight third person. That might give you the closeness you want, but still allow you to use multiple POVs.