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Solo vs. several points of view

The other day someone asked me how many characters in their story should have a point of view. Ever wrestle with this one? Most writers do.

We want our fascinating characters to lend their perspective to the narrative. We want to try out different voices. We want our novel to follow several interesting story lines. And show that we can do it.

These are the wrong reasons.

But there are some better reasons, discussed below. (I just read a blog by a published writer who is very conservative with her choice of POV characters. She likes a single point of view and warns against a story otherwise losing focus. This is a real concern, but I don’t think we should let it rule our story choices.)

Some good reasons for multiple points of view:

The story demands it

We should let the story guide us. Theories are all very well, and structural and writerly guidelines can be so helpful. But sometimes the story just demands a departure from the usual. Take the Temeraire novels of Naomi Novik. These are the stories of Captain Lawrence, so his is the major point of view. But they are also the story of the dragon, and this creature’s POV adds immeasurably to the story. Are the stories fractured as a result of two such important POVs? I doubt Novik’s legions of readers think so.

The plot demands it

This is perhaps the weakest reason for more than one or two points of view. It is often a signal that the author’s convenience is taking precedence. The writer has contrived a plot that can’t be unfolded unless several POVs weigh in. Nevertheless, if your plot is truly compelling, then the story may indeed need it.

The major character is tamped down

It goes against writing class advice, but sometimes a marvelous lead character is tightly sewn up emotionally. Like Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. We need to be in her POV, but wisely the author include Michael Blomkvist, the amateur sleuth who helps her. Michael has real emotions, Lisbeth, not so much. We need that secondary POV for balance against a strongly negative viewpoint.

The milieu or subject matter is too complex for one voice

Sometimes the setting is compelling enough that readers want to see it from different angles: high and low, warring factions, young and old. George R.R. Martin’s series, Song of Ice and Fire, is an example where one point of view would never do justice to the story’s depth. Another example is Paul Scott’s Jewel in the Crown. The Raj in India should be seen from British and Indian POVs, and male and female, at that.

But is your story milieu really that deep? The trade off is losing focus, remember. So multiplying points of view has to outweigh that loss.

You need to show the antagonist

If the story demands that the antagonist have a POV, then your course is set. One further issue then is how many scenes to give him or her. Is it just a light touch, or in-depth? Be sure your story justifies your answer.

It’s an epic. Readers expect it.

Reader expectation is not a trivial concern. But still, the story will have a pulse of its own, and we don’t want to force our preconceived notions upon it. If your story has the scale and scope of an epic, it would in fact be difficult to carry it off with just one or two viewpoints. Be aware that when you decide to write with such scope, it takes more than beginner craft.

Whatever your choices, don’t undertake POV decisions lightly. Those choices will color the entire story: character arc, emotional depth, pacing, focus, reading experience, and complexity.

All this begs the question of how to work with multiple points of view. A subject for a future post.


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