Tuesday, September 13, 2011

TTYU Retro: Multiple Points of View? (originally appeared at The Sharp Angle)

Multiple Points of View?

This article originally appeared at Lydia Sharp's wonderful blog, The Sharp Angle on November 12, 2010. I highly recommend Lydia's blog for writing folk - she's insightful, cool and fun.

I thought I'd take this opportunity to talk about point of view - specifically, about times when we might be tempted to use more than one viewpoint character.

I use multiple points of view all the time, and I love doing it, but not all of my stories require it. For example, my Analog 2008 story "Let the Word Take Me" uses two viewpoint characters, as does "At Cross Purposes" (Analog Jan/Feb 2011). "The Eminence's Match" used five viewpoint characters (Panverse, 2010) - but "Cold Words" only used one (Analog Oct. 2009). This is not just chance; it's choice. Thus, in this post, the issues I want to deal with are why a writer would choose to use more than one point of view, and how they might go about it.

Let's start with the most basic question. Why would you choose to use more than one point of view character?

The most obvious reason is that a single point of view is limiting. I've seen lots of stories (and story drafts) where authors departed from a single point of view in order to divulge information that the reader couldn't learn from the primary point of view character. To my mind, though, information isn't really the best reason to change points of view. Point of view does place limitations on how information is presented - that's true. But those limitations can actually help you by keeping the story focused, and allowing you to maintain a sense of mystery without appearing to withhold information deliberately from the reader. If information was all you were after, you could always drop clues in the environment of your viewpoint character - clues that the reader would understand, but that the character wouldn't necessarily draw conclusions from.

So, when might it be a good idea to use more than one point of view character?

It might be a good idea if:
1. ...you want to show how your protagonist appears to others.
2. ...your main viewpoint character is unreliable.
3. ...the contrast between your protagonist's viewpoint and another person's viewpoint is central to the story conflict.
4. ...you want to show precisely how dangerous your antagonist is.

I've seen each of these different reasons used to justify introducing an additional point of view. C.S. Friedman used what I'd call a throwaway point of view - one that appeared for a single scene only - in her novel, In Conquest Born. It turned out to be a very effective way to show just how powerful and attractive yet cold-blooded her male protagonist was. I suppose this could be categorized as a combination of 1 and 4 (he was a sort of anti-protagonist).

You don't have to restrict yourself to one reason to introduce a new point of view character. It's often good if you can use more than one, or all four! In The Eminence's Match, both of the two main points of view are unreliable (#2). Imbati Xinta is unreliable because he's got bad self-esteem, which makes it important to do a little bit of #1, showing what he looks like through other people's eyes. The Eminence, our antagonist, is unreliable because he's mentally ill, which makes him a good candidate for both #1 and #4. Furthermore, the contrast between the two of them is also very important to the resolution of the central conflict, which falls under #3.

There are some things to watch out for. Throwaway viewpoint characters can disorient readers, because they can confuse them as to who is most important, and where the main conflict of the story is. I don't tend to use them at all, and certainly they need to be clearly distinguished from major viewpoint characters.

For a major viewpoint character to work, the character has to be strong enough to handle the attention. Most importantly to my mind, the character has to have goals and stakes independent of those belonging to another viewpoint character.

When I first imagined writing "Cold Words," I imagined there would be both human and non-human points of view - but not for any particularly good reason. I figured the contrast between them might be helpful for driving the story. However, my lovely friend Janice Hardy pointed out that humans had very little to gain in the story. Nothing that readers would really care about. The one who had everything to gain, and everything to lose, was the alien character. I therefore changed my mind and stuck with the single point of view. Then when I started designing "At Cross Purposes" I spent a lot of time trying to understand what each of the characters had to gain and lose in the story scenario - because I knew that both had to have independent goals and stakes for the story to work well. I managed to find these independent motivations, and therefore I kept both points of view in the story.

So what does a point of view switch allow you to do?

The list is longer than I can go into here, but I'll tell you what it does that I particularly like. It allows me to show the same situation from two different viewpoints, and show readers precisely how one character fails to understand the way the other one conceptualizes the situation. In fact, similar situations of misunderstanding underlie each of my Analog stories. Here's an example (not from an Analog story!):

Person A walks into a guarded room where Person B is reading, and Person A gets grabbed by the guard. Person B sees a potential friend being abused, takes a risk to get the guard to release Person A, and then starts up a friendly conversation with her. Person A happens to be in disguise, looking for something particular in this guarded room, and Person B is not a potential friend at all, but very dangerous. In fact, as readers know from visiting Person B's head, he isn't just dangerous, but could have her killed with a word.

Perhaps you can see the kind of tension set up by the contrast between the way the two people misunderstand this situation, as readers wonder if and when each person is going to find out the truth.

The last thing I need to mention here is "head-hopping." The term is actually a criticism of out-of-control switches in point of view. I often see people recommend that writers stick with a single point of view for the duration of a scene, or of a chapter, rather than jumping from one viewpoint to another without warning. While this is good advice, it's not for everyone. Some authors are able to control their viewpoint switches well enough to give sufficient warning - that way no one gets confused, and the switch occurs without any trouble. For example, Frank Herbert's Dune switches around point of view quite a bit, but I never found it disorienting (as I explain here in a Ridiculously Close Look).

What I'd like to add to the discussion is that, as a writer, you can send a message not only by setting up contrasting points of view, but picking when you switch between them. You can break off one viewpoint and switch to another at a moment when the second person is secretly doing something that will really hurt - or help - the first one. You can break off when one character is wondering about the other, and show a contrast between character A's expectations and what character B is actually doing. Or you can even switch when both characters are in the middle of an interaction with each other, such as switching from one to the other just when character A becomes suspicious of, or falls for, or attacks, character B. This creates a situation where you can treat the reader to witnessing both the motive for the action of A on B, and the reaction of B to that. If you happen to be switching chapters at the same time, that can make for a fabulous cliffhanger!

Those are my thoughts for today - I'd love to hear yours.


  1. Courtney Schafer's The Whitefire Crossing alternates two characters POV, one using first person, and the other using third person limited.