Friday, September 30, 2011

Multiple POV or not? Why does it matter?

I've written here before about using multiple points of view, and all the things it can be good for. I love using more than one point of view because I love the way it can drive the plot by exacerbating the sense of misunderstanding at the same time that it lets me have special confidentiality with my reader.

But it is not always the right thing to do.

In the story I'm working on right now, there used to be more than one point of view. Why? Several reasons:
  • I like doing it.
  • I like alien point of view! It's fun!
  • I like knowing how all my characters think, especially my aliens. It helps me characterize them more effectively.
  • It helps my readers identify with my major characters
Ok, great. So I was rather dismayed when my critique partners said the alien point of view wasn't working. It was difficult to read, that I already knew, but the worst part was that it was giving away too much to those who understood it, and leaving behind those who didn't.

Not a good sign.

It wasn't until I took it out that I realized there was yet another reason why I should never have had it in the story in the first place. This story is called "The Liars." The main alien character, Op, is a "Liar." So obviously one of the main questions of the story is whether Op is really a liar or not, and what that means.

Putting the point of view in her head seriously weakened the story, because it answered that very important question right up front, thus taking away one of the major story drivers.

The minute I took the point of view out, I knew it sounded better, but the further I went into the revision, the more sure I became that the story was stronger. Now my human protagonists can agonize about whether Op is trustworthy or not. Now they can pursue her, trying to determine whether she is being truthful. They can distrust her. She can switch between being perceived as protagonizing or antagonizing. That uncertainty is doing wonderful things for the entire story.

If you're considering writing with multiple points of view, think about it from more than one angle. Not just "what readers need to know" but also "what readers shouldn't know." Ask yourself, "Does including this point of view serve the themes of my story?" "Does adding this point of view drive the story and make it stronger, or divert and dilute the story and make it weaker?"

These aren't easy questions to answer, but they are certainly worth asking.


  1. This is such a great blog post!

    My current WiP is written from two PoVs -- and I've been wondering whether I should keep the second. This has definitely given me a lot to think about.

  2. Thanks, Emy! I hope it helps you think through your decision.

  3. I think it's better to stick with the POV of the character who is telling the story. This is how a split between the actual protagonist and the main character occurs.

    If we are talking about secondary characters, they shouldn't confuse the reader with their talking at all. Especially if the story is short.

    But sometimes you'll have to listen to them all before determining who is actually telling what is needed to be told.

  4. Jelly, what you say makes it sound so easy! The tricky part that I'm trying to address here is that sometimes it's not clear how "secondary" a character is (which I think may have been part of your point). I tend to go by how much a character has to lose or gain in the story, and whether he/she has distinct goals. However, in this case, though Op has a lot to lose/gain and does have distinct goals, she still doesn't belong as a POV character for reasons related to story structure and theme, rather than character.

  5. That is exactly why I said sometimes we need to listen to all character voices before determining who is actually telling what is needed to be told. And by no means this is easy.

    My point was if a major character is not at the focus of the action, he doesn't get a POV. He is what we are looking at through the protagonist's eyes.

  6. In my novel-length works there are multiple POVs, however, most are in separate chapters. This allows for subplots, and a plotting villain, etc. in a more vivid way.

    My shorter works are split between First and Third Person POV types, and the former automatically has just the one voice and viewpoint. (It's be too dizzying to head-hop.)

    Even in short stories, if I have characters in markedly different situations (in other places, etc.) then I'll jump around.
    With my Analog trucker-robot tales it's just the one POV, so the reader can discover things along with the main character, and see how he comes to his decisions.

  7. How cool, Paul! Thanks for sharing some insight into your process.