Have you ever considered telling a story in multiple points of view? As a writer of many a lit study guide, and as a book lover, I offer these thoughts on how your story could benefit from multiple POVs in general. For a more in-depth look at the different types of POV, check out Reedsy’s guide.
Conveying a story through multiple points of view offers an in-depth look into characters’ motivations, mannerisms, behaviors, and traits. With more than one POV, you can establish distinct narrative voices that set your main characters apart, particularly by describing their thoughts and reflections. For instance, if your story features two perspectives, one can be emphasized as an unreliable narrator. This in turn could highlight the emotional stability, logic, or level-headedness of the other narrator.
Novels with multiple perspectives tend to specify which character is being featured by including their name before each chapter. This is not always the case, but it certainly aids clarity during narrative transitions. Consider the massively popular novel Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, told in multiple female POVs. The domestic drama and secrets unique to each of the women and their families would not be as compelling without their individual perspectives.
There are some formidable books out there written in both the first and third person, though this comes with its own challenges. The character who is featured in the first person generally functions as the central figure around which the other perspectives revolve. Notable examples of this style include the narration present in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, and Andy Weir’s The Martian.
Stories with an elaborate plot and/or multiple sub-plots can benefit from more than one narrative perspective. Think of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. The number of character perspectives in each book ranges from 9-18(!), which includes major and minor characters, as well as brief prologue and epilogue POVs. All these perspectives contribute to a bird’s eye view of the ASOIAF world.
Through multiple POVs, readers keep an eye on events occurring throughout the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and across the Narrow Sea in Essos. The lead up to central conflicts, all the nuanced plot elements constituting the game of thrones, would be lost without multiple POVs. I cannot even imagine the chaotic megalomania that is The War of Five Kings without chapters dedicated to each king (wannabee kings, mostly) or their confidantes. Or, in the case of Robb Stark, aka the King in the North, his mother Catelyn Stark.
Multiple perspectives can also be useful if complex relationship dynamics are integral to the plot of your novel. If you want to explore the psyche of your main characters, alternating their points of view can add depth to their relationship. Consider The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, which alternates between the first-person perspectives of Claire and Henry de Tamble. The plot revolves around Henry’s uncontrollable tendency to time travel due to a disorder referred to as Chrono Impairment. This puts a huge strain on their relationship, as Claire waits in lonely anticipation of his return, worrying about the inherently dangerous circumstances of time travel. They experience multiple devastating miscarriages due to their unborn children time travelling in the womb. These plot details provoke an emotional response in the reader and leads to a greater investment in the main characters. The novel conveys the two extremes of profound love and devastation, that which is enhanced by a two-sided narrative.
Distinction Between Settings and Time Periods
A story that takes place in multiple locations and time periods also benefits from multiple POVs. Consider Barbara Shapiro’s historical fiction The Muralist. The novel alternates between the perspective of American art appraiser Danielle Abrams in the present day, with that of her great-aunt Alizée Benoit, a French-American Jewish artist in the late 1930s. Danielle’s narrative, the only perspective in the first person, emphasizes her as the women sleuth responsible for solving the mystery of her long-lost great aunt. As she uncovers the devastating losses experienced by Alizée during the Holocaust, Danielle embarks on a journey of self discovery, tied to illuminating the shadows of her ancestral past.
Alizée’s narrative begins in New York City in the final years of the Great Depression, which, among other factors, was associated with aggressive anti-Immigrant sentiment. In the context of xenophobia and anti-Semitism in pre-war America, Alizée becomes increasingly desperate to rescue her Jewish family from France. Her attempts to rouse public sympathy toward refugees through politically-inspired art prove futile and she eventually returns to France. Readers shift from the setting of an indifferent America, cut off from the atrocities of the Holocaust, to being placed right in the middle of the Nazi regime.
Had Shapiro’s novel only been told in Danielle’s perspective, readers would not have gained such an intimate knowledge on the injustices surrounding anti-Immigrant sentiment in pre-war America. The historical elements of the novel would not have been as vivid and devastating, had the loss of Alizée’s family during the Nazi regime been recounted solely by her descendant in the present.
A Larger World View
When authors employ multiple narratives, they are inherently giving readers more information to work with. More than one POV allows writers to extend the world outside their main character’s own circumstances and viewpoints. I read a WWI-era historical fiction recently that illustrates this perfectly. Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly includes several perspectives, including that of Varinka, a Russian peasant, and Sofya Streshnayva, an aristocrat and relative of the Imperial Romanov family.
The dichotomy between rich and poor in the context of the Russian Revolution is a prevalent theme throughout the novel. The Streshnayvas live a life of privilege and excess, while Varinka, one of their many employees, is living in poverty on the brink of starvation. While the upper class turns a blind eye to growing unrest amongst Russia’s lower class, Varinka experiences the growing unrest firsthand and participates in the revolt against the Streshnayvas. True to history, the perspectives of Varinka and Sofya demonstrate vast gaps in knowledge on the experiences outside of their own social class. Had the story been told in only one of their perspectives, it would rely on inadequate firsthand knowledge of the other class, reducing the effectiveness of the central theme. From a historical viewpoint, readers would only experienced one side of the Russian Revolution — as history teaches us, especially when it comes to revolts and crumbled monarchies — there are two sides to every story.
Suspenseful Chapter Endings
This is one of my favorite elements associated with multiple POVs. Well-written chapters that alternate between narratives have the added advantage that I think of as mini cliffhangers. Regardless of genre and whether or not you want to establish suspense, ending the chapter at just the right moment will have readers going nooooo what happened to Bob? Why would you end a chapter that way?! With this type of strategic chapter ending, readers will be left wishing the narrative had not switched to another perspective. Then you get the readers into the next narrative, and the process repeats. I find some of the best multi-perspective novels trigger this perfectly crafted frustration while reading.
Do you have any tips on writing in multiple perspectives? Any advantages to add? Leave a comment for the KWL community!
Amy is the Author Engagement Intern for KWL. She comes up with creative blog content related to the craft and business of self-publishing, book news, and more. Amy studied Social Sciences at the University of Ottawa and Publishing at Ryerson University. She has worked as a content author of literature study guides and as an online literature educator.