Monday, January 27, 2020

Things to Consider When Adding a Point of View Character

By Janice Hardy. @Janice_Hardy
Another pair of eyes can add richness to a story, but is it the right thing to do for your novel?

I was once about halfway through a first draft when I realized the story was a bit bigger than I'd first thought. There was a lot of tale to tell that my protagonist wasn't involved in, and seeing that side of the story through another character's eyes would benefit the novel as a whole.

Of course, this novel was written in first person, so adding another point of view character also added a myriad of problems to solve. Considering the work involved to add that second point of view, I wanted to make sure it was the right call for the novel before I started mucking around in it.

Having Second Thoughts

I'd originally plotted this novel as my protagonist’s story. I'd planned goals for her, conflicts for her, given her personal stakes and a character arc, etc. It was her story.

Until it wasn't. At least not completely.

Adding a new point of view character changed things. 

With the new point of view character, the story changed, and my outline was no longer accurate. It wasn't just my protagonist’s story anymore, but this other point of view character's story as well. He needed his own character arc, goals, and conflicts, and those needed to fit seamlessly in to the plot.

Plus, his arcs needed to work with her arcs, and together they needed to tell a solid story and not feel like two books shoved together. The two stories needed to work in tandem to tell that larger tale I'd spotted brewing in that first draft.

(Here's more on Lost in the Crowd: Working With Multiple Point of View Characters)

Things to Consider When Adding a Point of View Character

Is that character really necessary?
It's not uncommon--particularly for new writers--to want to add a point of view character to tell the parts of the story the protagonist isn't there to see. Sometimes this is a good instinct and it makes the novel better. Other times it's only there to add backstory or explain something and it hurts the novel.

General rule of thumb when considering another point of view character: Is the character there only so you can show scenes or events your protagonist doesn't know about?

If the answer is yes, odds are the new point of view character isn't going to help the story, because they're not a proactive character in the book. They're just a device to explain.

If the answer is no, odds are the new character will help the story, because the'll have their own goals and motivations for acting. They have agency in the story.

If you're unsure, then ask yourself:

What plot and story events belong to the new character? 

The new point of view character will have his or her own plot and story arc, but it still has to connect back to the core conflict of the novel. So they'll need an end goal that will be resolved by the ending of the novel, and major turning points of their plotline all throughout the book. Since the protagonist probably already has those events scheduled for their point of view, some shifting will likely be needed. You might consider:
  • Is there one set of major events, or does each point of view character have their own turning points?
  • Does one point of view character drive the plot forward at these moments or do the point of view characters share them?
  • If one set of major events occur to both characters, do they mean different things to each point of view character?
(Here's more on Create More Story Depth With Mini Arcs)

What are this character's goals?

These goals will be connected to the core conflict, and shouldn't just be about showing the same problems the protagonist has from a different angle (otherwise why add that second point of view character?). With alternating point of view characters, a lot of the tension of the novel will come from these two sides having different information and thinking different things. Dramatic irony is a great way to keep the story moving forward. So the goals should:
  • Move the other point of view character toward the end resolution, but in a different way from the protagonist.
  • Conflict with the protagonist in some way, but not necessarily in an antagonistic way.
(Here's more on Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

Where do this character's conflicts come from?

Unless the other point of view character is the antagonist, it can be hard to make POV-A directly oppose POV-B without making one "the bad guy." You want them causing trouble for each other, but since these two point of view characters are likely working toward the same end goal, their conflicts should probably come from other areas, or have different ideas on how to resolve those goals (and thus create conflict between them). So consider:
  • What is important to each point of view character?
  • Is this also important to the other point of view character?
  • How might you make each point of view character feel strongly about something the other doesn’t care about?
  • What is each point of view character willing to sacrifice to get their goal?
  • How might those sacrifices conflict with the other point of view character's goals?
The trick is to butt heads without fighting. It’s not about being against the other point of view character, but for something else and trying to work around the other person.

(Here's more on Where Does Your Novel's Conflict Come From?)

How will the stakes work? 

Each point of view character will have different stakes. At the core, these will likely be similar since both are working toward the same end resolution, but there will be subtle differences that can cause friction between them. Consider:
  • How might each point of view character's stakes cause trouble for the other?
  • How might risking one side cause the other problems?
  • How might avoiding one consequence cause the other’s to occur?
  • How might you play one side against the other to escalate the stakes?
(Here's more on What's at Stake? How to Make Readers Care About Your Story)

How will the pacing work? 

Multiple point of view characters are always a pacing challenge because traditionally you end a chapter or scene at a high point in the tension. But when you switch point of view characters,  you usually start that scene at a lower point and raise the tension again. Trouble is, this kills your overall tension because you effectively waste your forward momentum every time you switch point of view characters.

You want to raise the tension on both sides at an equal pace so the entire story is moving forward as one. So pay close attention to:
  • How you end each scene or chapter.
  • How you hand off the scene or chapter to the next point of view character.
  • What types of endings you have: cliffhangers, reveals, foreshadows, fears, etc.
(Here's more on And the Pace is On: Understanding and Controlling Your Pacing)

Adding a new point of view character brings a lot of extra work, but it can also deepen your story and add richness to the tale. If you pay attention to how that new point of view character will advance your story and work with your plot, you’ll help make their addition go a lot more smoothly.

Do you write with a single character or multiple point of view characters? Do you have a preference?

*Originally published March 2011. Last updated January 2020.

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 ShifterBlue 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.
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  1. I haven't written a story with alternating POVs for a long time, and trust me, I could have used this advice at the time.

    Switching POVs can be really tricky. As a reader, I'm pretty picky about it, but I've definitely seen it done effectively.

  2. This came at the right time for me, Janice. My current WIP has multiple viewpoints, and the way you've broken it down will help me make sure I keep the tension and intrigue going amongst my ensemble cast.

    I've experimented with multi-POVs before and I a trick that helps me is to change tenses between characters.

    I think this would only work if you had at most 2-3 viewpoints without your pacing getting confusing or contrived.

    With two narrators you can do-

    1 third person, 1 first person
    1 third person past, 1 first person present tense
    1 first present past tense, 1 first person present tense.

    I wonder if though if there are any books be they YA or not that have one narrator in third person omniscient and the second in first person, past or present tense?

    This also could double as an aid in helping you streamline your query letter, and even if you don't mention other POV characters to avoid wordiness and confusion, you can better see where your MC's arc laid out more clearly, so hopefully you can snap the bullet points of the core story without being as frantic about what to say and what let the manuscript say for you if you get beyond the query stage.

    Something that's only happened to me once in two years, and this year I'm working hard to get my work after my last WIP into submission shape, and get two full requests if only to know that despite the trauma queries put me through, they don't speak ill of everything I am and strive for as a writer.

  3. Hi Janice.
    You've written some really helpful posts on POV, and 'telling not showing'. Thank you. Linked to the 2 POVs you mention, I am really interested to know how you might balance the overall 'voice' of the book, with the fact that you are looking out through two different sets of eyes if they are both in a close 3rd, for example. (I am clearer how this would work in 1st, because I would expect two radically different 'voices' linked directly to the character.) Does that make sense? I'd love to hear any thoughts you have on this. Thank you so much.

  4. Christine: It's great when used well, and can be a very effective way to tell a story. I'm looking forward to doing it again.

    Taurean: Oh good. I've read books that change tenses and I always find it jarring ad a reader (nothing wrong with it, that's just my tastes) Different tenses make it hard for me to stay grounded since I'm always jumping back and forth in time. But if you were writing a story in different time periods, it could work well.

    Skin Hunger does a first/third style, though both are past tense. I don't know of any YA that do a present/past.

    Anon: Oo, voice in different POV is a great topic, thanks. You would certainly approach those differently in a tight third. I'll do that on Thursday.

  5. Thanks for a very helpful post -- with lots to think about. It came at a great time, just when I'm grappling with it in one of my WIPs. Thank you again.

  6. Janice: I can understand that. But do you mean novels that do it within a chapter as opposed to only switching POVS in a chapter? Or just in general.

    If in general, again I understand, but I find books that do it well really reviting. Two of my favorite series have alternating POVs both within a chapter or from chapter to chapter, and they're excellent. I wasn't the least bit confused as to who was doing what and when. I certainly didn't struggle with reading them like I did the few times I've tried to read either Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn unabridged, and they only had one viewpoint, right?

    A lot of Dickens novels were single POV and I still can understand half the prose. Even with books I don't like, it's usually not because I can't understand what's on the page.

    Has that ever happened to you with books you've read, Janice?

    I love books that have a clearly defined MC, but it's also fun to see the world and it's conflicts through another pair of eyes of someone just as integral to the plot and of significance to the MC.

    It can also be a way to convey key info through showing, not telling, when you need the reader to know something the MC can't yet, but mentioning too late will leave the reader in the dark too long.

    When it's done well, it can give you a fresh look on the conflict that you can use to both engage your reader, and challenge them to figure it out before the antagonist and protagonists and their respective allies/followers.

    This works really well in mystery novels when you see the crime from both the detective and/or police officer's viewpoint, and sometimes even the antagonist's viewpoint, who may be the killer or robber, or know who is.

    You just have to be careful you don't make the hints too obvious, and like you said above, the other POV must bring new insight to the story and world and our MC, and connect to the core conflict, without being picture in picture mirrored plot which would be overly predictable.

    Some of my favorite books do this really well and I just knew in my gut that's the way I needed to go with my WIP.

    Because it is hard to well I did question it when the idea first hit me. But now I feel it'll be the best way for the reader to feel part of the adventure.

    That may change in draft two, but hey, even if this approach doesn't work, I'm learning to take risks in my writing again, and hopefully some of them will work out, even if it requires more time to do it right.

    I want my name to be associated with quality, not sloppiness, both personally and professionally.

    I hope my week-long feature of the F.U.N. factor method helps others as it's helped me as I start to live it. I hope you'll follow my posts on that this week, maybe I'll give you an idea since you've inspired many future blog topics for me.

    Ciao for now.

  7. This comes at a perfect time for me. Thanks for the advice!

  8. Just what I needed this morning. I'm editing a novel that is using multiple POVs. Great point about the pacing.

  9. Correction: A lot of Dickens' novels were single POV and as good a reader I know I am, I still can't understand half the prose. Even with books I don't like, it's usually not because I can't understand what's on the page.

    I know those books are a breeze to read but give me a more contemporary novel of comparable complexity and I can at least get beyond the first page without feeling like it's too esoteric to get beyond page 1 and know what you're reading.

  10. Interesting post and comments. My first published novel had a main POV with just a couple of sections from another POV.

    My present WIP has an ensemble cast with six POV characters. Initially I was counselled against writing it this way, so I did what you do with advice and feedback, thought about it and made my own decision, to go on with it in this way.

    I have kept the change in POV to clearly defined sections, and they are all in past tense. The feedback from my critique group, and my beta readers is good, and no one has had any problems with knowing which character they are with.

    I agree that writing in this way can give a much richer story, and there is a big difference in knowingly writing different POV characters, and head-hopping, which is confusing. A lot depends on the story and whether it lends itself to multiple POVs. The first draft of my next work is firmly in the hands of one character.

    I've only just come across this blog from another link, but I'm looking forward to exploring, and am in awe of the amount of work it must take.

  11. Julia: Most welcome :) I love when I post something someone is struggling with. Makes me feel extra helpful, hehe.

    Taurean: Switching tenses within a chapter (as in different scenes within that chapter) would be even more jarring to me. At least a chapter break is a clear delineation that things have changed. But just because it bugs me doesn't mean others don't love it.

    I'm fine with multiple POVS overall. It's just one of those areas that's not very forgiving if you don't do it well.

    Anna: Most welcome!

    The Writer's Salon: Awesome. I guess a lot of folks are in the same spot right now. Go us!

    Shauna: Six is a lot to juggle, but I can see it work if handled well. Good luck on that :) And welcome to the blog! Good to have you here.

  12. I had that issue when I crafted my first full narrative. I wrote the entire piece from a third-person perspective and in spite of a dark tone there was no real emotional connection to the characters. I switch to a first person and it was like someone turned on the light. The story made more of an impact and just made sense.
    The biggest obstacle for switching perspectives in a narrative is it means pretty much a rewrite. That task in itself seems daunting but a story has it's own life and it is meant to be a certain way. our challenge is finding it.

  13. This seems to be good timing for a lot of people.

    I am also struggling with POV right now. I finished a first draft of my first novel attempt and it's all in the first person POV of my main character. But, now that I'm in the revision stage, I'm wondering if it might be better in third person POV of my main character, or if I should do third person multiple POV's...

    I know going back and changing it is going to be a lot of work, but first I have to decide how I want to do this. It's probably why I've been procrastinating so much!

  14. P.W.: I felt the same way when I first tried first person. It was like I was home.

    Sharonholly: I knew folks struggled with it but i had no idea how many. It's an important choice, so I guess it makes sense that you'd have a lot of deliberation.