This summer, I started reading the wildly popular Game of Thrones in the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin yet again. I’ve started it two other times but never could get into the story. This time, I stuck with it and am finally enjoying it, but it took until past page 100 to get there.
Why? Because the story is told from the point of view of eight characters, and their stories didn’t begin to overlap (at least enough to draw me into the entire plot) until past the 100th page mark. While I like all of the characters, the first chapters are like reading unrelated short stories that end without a resolution. I found it distracting and frustrating. Using seven or eight POV’s is definitely not a strategy for every story.
Now that I’m past the point where the stories are intertwined and each character’s chapter keeps the overall plot moving forward (since I now understand what the plot is all about), I’ve been enjoying the POV switches, but it took awhile.
I’ve always enjoyed novels like Marie Lu’s Legend that handles two or three points of view quite effectively as I had no problem getting pulled into either any of the novels in the series.
I’ve also used multiple POV’s in my own novels (but only two or three), and I enjoy writing from different character’s viewpoints.
If you’d like to write a story with multiple points of view (POV’s), go for it, but follow some of the guidelines below to help organize and plan your story.
Guidelines for Handling Multiple POV’s in Your Story
1) Use two or three POV characters and no more, unless you’re writing epic fantasy and are an advanced writer.
A few years ago, I was at a writer’s conference in Portland, Oregon. A group of people were all pitching their novels to an agent. I vividly remember one gentleman who pitched his story about a circus, and he said it had nine or ten POV characters. The agent flat out told him it wouldn’t work. He got quite defensive and angry. Her argument was that too many POV characters are difficult to fully develop and keep the story moving forward. After struggling with Game of Thrones, I have to agree. You’ve got to be an incredibly advanced writer and plotter to pull it off successfully.
2) Make sure your POV characters are major enough that they’ll be present at all of the major action/plot points.
When you’re choosing your POV characters, make sure they’re main characters. I’m halfway through Game of Thrones, and I’m still not sure why some of these characters have their own POV. I like them and I can assume they’ll play a role in the major plot line, but at this point their role is unclear which is a little bit annoying.
Possible characters you might choose would be the hero/protagonist, the villain/antagonist, sidekick, love interest, or mentor.
If you’re not sure how to pick the POV characters, this post might help you decide.
3) Make sure the hero or protagonist is clear.
In Legend, the heroes are very clear from the first few pages, and because there are two characters who somewhat share the main character/hero role and the chapters are divided almost evenly. Readers instantly know who the novel is about and as a result, readers get pulled into the story.
In Game of Thrones, an 800 page novel, the main hero becomes clear around page 300. This is another reason I’ve struggled to get into the story. Who is it focusing on? Who’s story is most important? Now that I figured it out, I’m really enjoying it, but it took too long to get there. Make it really clear from the first few pages whose story you’re telling.
4) Focus each chapter on one POV character.
Every novel that successfully switches POV characters switches at chapter breaks. It can get really confusing if you change POV’s mid-chapter. This is called “head hopping” and is something you want to avoid.
Some multiple POV novels switch every chapter, like Legend and Game of Thrones. Each chapter will be titled with the POV character’s name to ground the reader before they even begin reading. Other novels switch to another character such as the villain when it makes sense in the story.
You can also switch locations at chapter breaks along with POV characters. This makes the switch clear and less confusing.
5) Tie the POV characters’ story lines together clearly and quickly.
The main POV characters don’t need to meet or interact immediately, but get their plot lines intersecting within the first couple of chapters. Otherwise, your novel will read like a confusing series of unrelated short stories until you do get them tied together.
6) Don’t rehash the same action/plot events from multiple characters.
This can get boring for the reader. For each of your major plot points, choose the best character to focus on and write it from their POV. There’s no need to re-write one scene from each character’s POV.
7) Keep the timeline/action moving forward with each chapter.
This goes with guideline #6. Make sure that each chapter and POV switch adds to the story and keeps it moving forward with new conflicts, problems, and action.
Writing a novel in multiple points of view can be fun and super challenging. You get to delve into multiple characters’ heads and develop their voices a little more deeply, but you’ve also got to consider how to tie the story and plot lines together in a cohesive way through a variety of voices.
One way to begin to play with it is to take a scene you’ve already written and try re-writing it from another character’s POV. You might find you like it better, or you might find you would rather stick with your original pov character.