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Knowing how – and when – to use multiple POV characters in a manuscript

Authors share their best tips for juggling multiple points of view in a novel.

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“There is nothing insignificant in the world. It all depends on the point of view.”

– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

What is fiction but a story with a point of view?

On the one hand, point of view is the lens or perspective from which the story is told. On the other hand, it’s the person you use to tell the tale, whether first (“I” or “we”), second (“you”), or third (“they,” “he,” “she,” etc.) Writers seldom use the second person, so the first or the third is the usual choice.

But if it’s third person, what about the omniscient? The omniscient POV was certainly popular in 19th-century novels and, to some extent, in 20th-century ones, but it’s pretty much passé today. Instead, the contemporary choice for third person is either limited omniscient or, if more than one consciousness is needed, multiple points of view. But what are the advantages of the multiple POV? 

Let’s consider multiple POVs as an option to the omniscient as well as to the single POV, whether first or third. Why go multiple? 

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For answers, we turned to several well-published authors who regularly use multiple POVs.

An omniscient narrator can dip into different characters’ minds but also has the leeway to know things beyond what any given character knows – and can opt, at certain times, to provide authorial commentary. What can you gain by choosing multiple points of view over authorial omniscience? 

According to Jessica Goodman, a New York Times bestselling author of YA thrillers, there is a definite payoff in using multiple points of view. Multiple perspectives are not just different windows on the world but also different vessels of knowing. “Writing with multiple points of view allows readers to see one scene, story, or event from different characters’ perspectives, meaning the readers may end up knowing more than the characters themselves.”

The value of this? Plot-wise, she says, choosing multiple POVs can create suspense because you’re able to “propel the story forward since the reader wants to know when – or if! – the characters will find out what’s already been revealed through someone else’s POV.”

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The advantage of multiple points of view extends beyond elements of plot to the creation of voice, says Adrianne Finlay, YA author of speculative fiction. “The most critical advantage is that it can help shape an understanding of the story through voice-driven narrative.” Through multiple POVs, you’re able to “convey character and character perspective, as well as provide the kind of vivid storytelling that voice-driven POV narratives allow.” 

Also, she says, using multiple points of view can create the possibility of different story meanings or interpretations. “While authorial commentary can be useful and efficient, multiple points of view allow for complexities of narrative that leave the reader thinking – multiple POVs may offer contradictory interpretation of events and differing understandings, so the author can explore new and varied ways to investigate the nature of story.”

For Ellen Meeropol, author of four novels, there are three major advantages of multiple POVs: 

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  • “Multiple points of view can add nuance and complexity to a novel.” (She finds this especially helpful in a novel dealing with controversial issues: “Contrasting narrator perspectives allow the writer to delve deeply into charged material with less risk of becoming didactic or lecturing.”)
  • “Clashing accounts of the action, from different and diverging perspectives, can ramp up the conflict and increase the tension in a novel.”
  • “Writing different perspectives helps a writer develop the internal contradictions of their characters…This, in turn, can open up the ‘conversation’ of the novel, inviting the reader to join in, adding their own opinions and thoughts.” 

 

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