Have you ever started a novel with a huge cast of characters and felt like you needed to see all of their points of view? Were you quickly overwhelmed? There are ways to manage multiple POV characters! Let’s go over some basics, then look at specific tips for writing a story with multiple POVs.
We’re going to cover:
- the different types of POV
- how many you should use
- which POV to use for which scenes
- how to swap between them effectively
- tips for writing multiple POVs
- and some common mistakes with writing multiple POVs
What is a POV?
POV stands for Point of View. POV and perspective are often used interchangeably when referring to writing, but Point of View specifically means the view the reader has of the story, while perspective refers to a character’s interpretation of the world through the lens of their own experiences and personality.
There are four common types of POV:
- First person (I, me, myself) – first person puts the reader closest to the character, because they are seeing the story directly through the character’s eyes–they essentially become the character and live the story through them.
- Second person (you) – second person is not often used in creative literature. It often puts the reader on edge, making them feel observed or judged. This can be used intentionally, so don’t rule it out if you’re wanting to try something stylistic.
- Third limited (he, she, they) – third person limited is a bit further from the character than first person, but we are still limited to the POV character’s perspective. We can’t hop into other character’s heads or know anything about the world that our character cannot observe.
- Third omniscient (he, she, they) – third omniscient POV knows everything. The story is told by an outside, omniscient narrator who knows everything about the world and characters, the past and future, with no limits to a character’s knowledge or observation.
Your POV character is the character the reader sees the story through.
How many POVs is too many?
There aren’t any rules about how many perspective characters you can have in a novel, but it’s important to realize that there are drawbacks to having too many.
As a general fact, the more perspective characters your story has, the harder it will be to write. Each character needs their own unique voice, not only in dialogue, but in the entirety of your prose. If your characters are all exactly the same, what’s the point of having more than one perspective? Crafting main characters includes developing their backstory, motivation, personality, and several other things–if you make that main character a POV character, you have to craft a strong narrative voice for them as well.
With every POV character you add, you add a giant workload.
When you’re deciding how many POVs you can handle, consider your experience level–are you proficient enough to handle many different perspectives?
How much will it challenge you?
How much time are you willing to spend on this project?
If you’re a relatively new writer, if you want to finish your novel in under a year, or if you’re just not looking to beat your head against a desk, I wouldn’t reach for a huge character cast.
Which POV character should you use for which scenes?
If you establish a pattern for switching between characters (a pattern could be with the length of the scenes or chapters in a certain POV, the order in which we see the characters, etc.), it’s important to plot your story so that the most interesting parts are happening to the character we’re seeing through.
If you haven’t established a pattern, show scenes through the character who has the most at stake in that scene.
Particularly if you have multiple POV characters in one scene, ask yourself which character stands to lose the most. Who is the most emotionally invested in what happens in that scene? That is almost always who we should see the scene through.
How do you switch between POVs?
A perspective switch (POV switch) is when you swap from one character’s POV to the other. This is done intentionally and well if you do the 3 following things:
- Switch scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter. Do not switch perspective within a single scene (that’s a move for omniscient POV).
- When you begin a scene with a new character’s perspective, establish whose head we are in as soon as possible. One or two sentences establishing the scene is fine, then name whose perspective we’re in so the reader is grounded as quickly as possible.
- For that entire scene, you are in this character’s perspective. That means we don’t get internal thoughts from other characters, we don’t get information our character doesn’t have, we don’t observe things they would not be observing. If you hop around character heads in a single scene, that’s an unintentional perspective switch, and you don’t want that. Some people call it head-hopping. Head-hopping is a common mark of an amateur, and it detracts from your narrative authority.
Those three guidelines will keep your POVs neat and easy to follow.
Tips for writing multiple POV characters
Once you’ve decided how many POV characters you want to use, and you know how to switch between them, apply these tips to write them well.
- Give a healthy chunk of story in that character’s perspective. If you have very short scenes and jump back and forth a lot, it can be jarring. It does take a while for a reader to settle into a new perspective, so don’t jump around too frequently. Using quick and abrupt swaps occasionally might lead to more tension, so if you want the reader to be a little confused and uncomfortable, it can be stylistic. But in general, give a good amount of story before switching to another character.
- Each perspective must be unique from the others. Put time into developing each character and each narrative voice. This is very important. You shouldn’t have multiple main perspectives if some are significantly more developed or more important. If you have three strong characters and one just isn’t there, consider cutting the perspective. You can keep the character, but their voice might not be strong enough to hold its own. This is referring to third limited POV main characters–you might have brief glimpses into less developed characters for plot reasons, especially in third omniscient, but make sure you use them intentionally and they aren’t covering up lazy storytelling.
- And going off of that, each perspective character is your main character, so each one needs their own story. If you have multiple perspectives JUST for ease of storytelling, that’s lazy writing. Your main characters each need their own struggles, their own voice, and their own personality. If you only want one main character, but you absolutely need multiple perspectives to tell the story, some writers will swap between first person and third person POV–their main character is in first person POV, then we duck into some other perspectives with third person POV. It can be tricky, but it’s a little loophole if you need it.
- If you establish a pattern, keep it. A POV pattern is when you switch between POV characters in a specific order, either by scene or by chapter.
In Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, one of the books has two POV characters. It swaps between them every other chapter until it becomes one character’s POV for several chapters because the other character has died.
In George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, there are a ton characters and no pattern–the POV hops around wherever the story is. There are different ways to layer multiple perspectives, just know what you’re doing and why.
- Don’t be redundant. If you’re rehashing the same scene from multiple perspectives just to keep up a pattern, that isn’t fun to read.
If you have a lot of action happening with one character while the other character isn’t really doing anything, but you’re still peeking in on them to keep up your pattern, that won’t work either. Outlining can help you can make sure interesting things are happening and the action is spread out properly.
- Don’t be afraid to drop a POV character. Sometimes you’ll have an idea for the perspective characters you want, but then once you start outlining or once you start writing, one or more of them seem more like they’re side characters or they just won’t work as a POV character. If that happens, maybe you don’t need that perspective.
- Just to emphasize, when you’re editing, check for unintentional perspective switches. If your first person or third limited POV character doesn’t know something, the reader doesn’t know it either. You can’t have them look at another character and tell us how that character is feeling or what they’re thinking unless there’s a way for the perspective character to observe it.
Common mistakes with writing multiple POVs
Here are a few things you should always avoid when you’re writing multiple POV characters.
- Having way too many characters to reasonably keep track of. If your reader can’t keep track of who’s who, or if they go so long without seeing a character that they forget about them, it will be hard to have them engage with the story.
- Unintentional perspective switches. If you’re in a limited POV and swap to another without a scene break, you’ll look like an amateur–because that’s a common writing mistake you should learn to avoid early on.
- Characters not having distinct voices. The same way having too many characters will confuse and disinterest your reader, having separate characters who all sound the same will confuse and disinterest. If you go to the trouble of having more than one POV character, you should give special attention to make sure they sound distinct.
- Re-telling the same scenes. Obviously this is boring to read, and your reader will start skimming pages. Plan your book to avoid this.
Now you know the different types of POV, how many you should use, when you should use them, how to hop between, and some general dos and don’ts!
Most writing rules can be broken, as long as you break them intentionally. If you’re giving careful consideration to your characters and the way you tell your story, you can get away with almost anything!