I was chatting on a writers’ Facebook group and this question was asked: how many points of view have you used in a novel?
I used several in my most recent novel Ever Rest. Seven, actually. (Splutters in the group. And they were right; it was tricky to do.)
I didn’t plan that way at first. I imagined the novel would be one point of view. Then I wrote a scene where my viewpoint guy had an awkward meeting with another character, and the air was seething with unfinished business. I couldn’t do justice to it if I stayed only with him.
So I wrote her side.
I resisted at first. It seemed a waste of time because it wouldn’t be used. It couldn’t be; Ever Rest was not her book. I hadn’t inhabited her life in the way I had inhabited his. I knew his childhood. I didn’t know her life beyond this brief scene. It was a blank, and a blank is always worrying for a writer. A blank might be temporary, or it might not. But there she was, protesting about being forced to meet this guy.
She began to live on her own. I now had two narrators for the novel.
It happened again. As I worked on her, a person who belonged to her became more significant. He looked kind and mild, but inside, there were deep uncertainties. A third voice began to speak.
On it went, with more people revealing their complicated hearts. Until there were seven.
By this stage, you might be wondering if I should have written it as omniscient, but that didn’t appeal. For this book, I wanted deep third-person. I wanted the reader to know when one person was badly misreading another, or underestimating them. I wanted the reader to scream no you’re too naïve, or too suspicious, or simply mistaken. Each character was in their own private muddle, trying to find their way through, and none of them truly knew anybody else. The best way was multiple points of view.
But how many is too many? It’s too many if you can’t handle them properly. Otherwise, go for it. Here are some rules.
Some rules for multiple points of view
1 They don’t all have to be heard equally.
Like all characters, you’ll have a hierarchy. Some characters are secondary. Their situation is not as fraught and tormented, or they won’t go through very much change.
I used one character’s point of view to occasionally give an outsider perspective. He wasn’t seen as many times as the others, but we sometimes went to him for a grounding scene. Sometimes he was sympathetic to them, sometimes exasperated. It was a welcome relief from the characters who were facing the defining moments of their lives.
2 Take time to make them individuals.
I really made a rod for my own back here. I had seven viewpoint characters, which meant seven distinctive voices and outlooks. It meant a lot of revising. (This is one of the reasons the novel took six years to mature.)
3 When it’s their turn to speak, write them from the inside.
With two of the characters, I realised I was unsympathetic to them myself. I was writing them from the point of view of other characters in the book. X thought y was a tin-eared narcissist, and that was good, but I wrote y’s own sections like that too, which was a mistake. While x might think that of y, y would not think that of himself. So I gave my tin-eared narcissist a fair hearing. He became highly sensitive and often distressed.
4 Remember what they know, including their ideals.
You have to keep careful track of continuity. There are the obvious mechanics of who knows what. What x thinks of y, as we’ve seen.
And this knowledge also has a deeper level – characters’ attitudes. In Ever Rest, a key aspect was the characters’ attitudes to romantic love – what they thought love should be. X feels love is a shattering thunderbolt. Z feels love is educating the person about how to be in love, and watching them in case they get out of line and make themselves unhappy. I drew charts of these, so I could easily compare them.
5 Manage the reader carefully.
Make it clear when we’re in a new point of view – unless your purpose is to deliberately obscure this. (I can’t think of a good example right now, but for every general prohibition, there’s always a person who’s broken it to great effect.)
Otherwise, make sure we know whose POV we’re in. Establish a system that will let the reader know. I began a new chapter each time there was a new POV. Some chapters were very short – a mere few paragraphs – and that was fine.
Also, I made the viewpoint clear in the first sentence so the reader knows how to interpret what they’re seeing. Each character had very different views and feelings about the action, so it was important to know whose emotions we were sharing. Is it the character who is mortally offended by this action or the character who thinks it’s a storm in a teacup?
6 Ask if you need all those POVs.
Why make it so complicated? Most things are better if you strip away complication, especially when making an artwork. However, they are not necessarily better if you strip away complexity and richness. I found I needed each of my seven voices to give the story its most lifelike treatment.
BTW, this is Ever Rest.
And speaking of managing big projects, don’t forget I have a course this week at Jane Friedman’s – Standalone or Series: how to grow your novel concept to its full potential. You can watch it live or catch up later.
If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.