On Writing Multiple POVs

 

by Lizard is Writing

 

Anonymous asked: “Hi Lizard! I have an idea for a writing piece I want to do. I have characters, a majority of the plot, and a brief outline of the ending. The only thing is, I don’t know how to begin in a way that isn’t overwhelming to the reader. I have a bunch of different characters who all need to be in the same place at the same time. I don’t know how to write in multiple perspectives in a way that doesn’t drag on or go too quickly. Any advice?”

I can think of more than a few examples of books with multiple points of view. For instance, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, and most recently, See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt. There are countless other examples, I know, but there are a few reasons I bring these up. Examples like As I Lay Dying, All the Light We Cannot See, and A Visit from the Goon Squad are all fairly experimental.

Multiple points of view tends to complicate a story. Giving a character a point of view in a story elevates their role in the story. It’s a way for the writer to point at them and say, Watch this character. Their perspective matters. If that is not true for the story, you may need to ask yourself, Why include this perspective at all?

It’s experimental.

As I Lay Dying by Faulkner, though published in 1930, is still relatively radical. After the death of their mother Addie Bundren in rural Mississippi, her surviving husband and children are left to carry her coffin through the county, to honor her dying wish, to be buried in her hometown, Jefferson. Faulkner jumps from character to character. He shows the family in mourning and each of their interior conflicts. He additionally writes perspectives of characters outside of the family and even a chapter from Addie’s point of view, though she is already dead. See? Definitely radical.

So what do all these points of view do for the novel? Good question. Faulkner manages to cover a lot of ground in a fairly short book. He shows the family’s grief, their financial struggles, the drama of Addie’s past affair, Cash’s broken leg, Dewey Dell’s pregnancy, among so many other things. Every member of the Bundren family is struggling with something. Every perspective is also so incredibly subjective. Perspectives outside of the family shed light on how the family is perceived by the community and also, enable the reader to see this story again as the dark comedy that it is. It’s about a family carrying the rotting corpse of their matriarch through the countryside. It’s a little funny.

Anyway, with this example, no storyline feels neglected. Every character is the protagonist of their own drama and there is so much drama. The many points of view is the central vehicle that makes telling this story possible. Had it been told any other way, it undoubtedly would have been a very different book.

More contemporary examples, All the Light We Cannot See and A Visit from the Goon Squad, similarly also skip around. As as a result, they are complicated novels with multiple protagonists. Like As I Lay Dying, there’s a lot to unpack.

It’s not actually that experimental.

Now let’s look at some examples that have more than one point of view that are less wild. I’m starting with See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt. This recent novel shares a possible version of the pinnacle days surrounding the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, father and stepmother to the infamous Lizzie Borden. While it is largely believed that Lizzie murdered her father and stepmother, she was never convicted of the crime. This novel delves into the mystery and accounts of persons involved.

In this story, the many points of view all seem to strive to claim their innocence as each person walks the reader through their account of what happened. While there are multiple points of view, the perspectives are straightforward. The style of story telling feels relatively traditional and why each character is privileged with a voice seems automatically clear.

How about another example? Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. In this novel, we’ve got two points of view. Two main characters, as suggested by the title, Eleanor and Park. It’s a love story. It’s adorable. And right from the start, we don’t question why we’re reading both points of view. Outside of just the love story, there’s a broader conflict that deeply effects both characters. They are both protagonists and the story feels relatively straightforward.

Why these points of view?

It can be fun following multiple characters through the world of a story, but it’s not always useful. Always be asking yourself, why is this character telling the story? It’s fine if there’s a reason, but there’s always the risk that you’re writing two different novels set in the same world instead of just one cohesive story.

 

 

 

Guest post contributed by Lizard is Writing. LiW is a semi-anonymous grad student working on an MFA in Fiction. Her stories have appeared in various literary magazines – some previously mentioned in posts, with some still forth-coming. She is a short story writer currently working on a novel. 

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15 thoughts on “On Writing Multiple POVs”

  1. Hmmm, this is a very good point. The information here is also very useful for anyone who wants to write a story using the point of view of multiple characters. Definitely something for me to consider, if I need to.

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  2. I’d recommend “New York 2140” by Kim Stanley Robinson. A number of characters all move around the central problem in different ways, and interact with each other differently. Robinson manages to make each of them engaging in a different way. There is one who may come out slightly ahead in terms of main character status, but really the main character of the story is the building they live in, as a microcosm of the city.
    Worth a read anyway, and may help address this particular problem.

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  3. Some very nice points here. Sometimes writing in different POVs can get overwhelming. Some characters often get weighted over others which leaves massive plot holes one could drive a bus through. I’ve only seen a handful of authors besides Faulkner (who is one of my faves) who have managed to master it. George Lucas did a decent job with the plot-sub-plot flow but still it isn’t something just anyone can do.
    Really good points here!

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  4. This is really helpful. My friends and I are writing a sequel to a story we wrote last year, and it is from a different character’s perspective. I know that it has been difficult for me. Thanks!

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  5. Interesting…I’m doing this right now. I figured I’d just write three books—each one tells the story of a character and there comes a moment when the stories will overlap—something like that. There is the complexity of “history”—the backdrop—and how each character either deals with it in their present or how it affects the past they learned from the character before. Who are the people around each character and does it change over time? How does what one character does affect the other? I think the best book I’ve read dealing with this is “The Other Side of Midnight by Sidney Sheldon influenced how my current trilogy will work—only he managed to do all this into one book, yet somehow didn’t express “I” rather he maintained a rather omnipotent 1st person POV. For me, it’s “I”. NOTE: I read Sheldon when I was seven; my mom had me read books constantly: I think this was punishment for falling asleep trying to read War and Peace.

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