The joys and challenges of Multi-POV


After reading a few books which, in my opinion, suffered from too many POV, I started really thinking about the use of perspectives in books. I usually love reading multi-POV books, and how it can show different sides of a story, but these books didn’t click.

In my free time, I also write stories, and I tend to write from multiple perspectives. I wanted to know what lessons I could learn from these books, to help improve my own writing – and to satisfy my natural curiosity.

I am a very curious person, so – of course – I wanted to know my reading and writing communities thoughts on multi-POV. I threw the question wide open to Twitter and group chats.

Multi-POV is prevalent in YA. I think half the books I read from that age range have two or more perspectives. Clearly, it’s a popular choice among authors – and readers. Some people that I talked to liked larger casts, while many had a limit – usually 3 or 4.

The Joys

The major advantage of multi-POV is the versatility provided by having a variety of characters able to tell their side of the story. This was the key point from lovers of multi-POV – the variety of lenses through which to see the story unfold.

If the story threads are diverging and interweaving story lines that just have to be shown, then having different characters allows you to show what Betsy is doing while Anna and Charlie do something else entirely. ‘Larger’ stories (as in stories with many plot lines) often require this so that the reader can understand what’s happening across the board.

In Susan Dennard’s Witchland series, there are five POV (I believe) in WINDWITCH. The book just wouldn’t work without this, as Safi, Iseult, Merik, Aeduan and Vivia are perusing separate goals in different places (yes, yes, they intertwine and two travel together). If the book solely focused on Merik, we’d lose most of the scope and overarching story.

Showing the action/discoveries can also reduce the number of recounting scenes. Betsy doesn’t need to spend a whole chapter telling Anna and Charlie what happened to her, because the reader’s already knows. This helps the pace, as the story isn’t bogged down in retelling, which lacks immediacy and can struggle with emotional impact.

There is also the chance to inject even more tension. If Charlie’s chapter ends on him being chased by rhinos, and then the next chapter involves Anna diffusing a bomb as well as the inherent tension in Anna’s scene, there is also tension over what happened to Charlie.

BLOODWITCH, the latest Witchlands book, has the most POV so far in the series (seven). The chapters ended in such a way that I wanted to know exactly what happened to them – but wait, I also needed to know what was happening to the others. It pulled me through the story rapidly, and helped the stakes rise and rise and rise.

But what is Anna, Betsy and Charlie stick together for most of the story?

Having multiple POV characters allows for multiple perspectives on the world and story. How do they’re beliefs vary? I love stories where the leads have opposing ideologies and the author has made me sympathise with both sides of the debate. When the characters then clash, which side do I root for? I find this makes the show-down even more nail-biting as I want everyone to win, but know only one can.

This works for allies as well as enemies, because even in a team people will disagree. They’ll advocate for different methods, and they have to fight for compromise and cohesion, as well as facing the villain.

In TRUTHWITCH (the first Witchlands book), three of the four POV are together in the middle of the book. Safi and Iseult have similar goals, true, but they’re approaches are very different. Merik, on the other hand, has priorities that often conflict with the girls’. Seeing his side of the argument made me wonder how on earth they were all going to achieve their goals as he was in opposition to the redoubtable Safi.

The Challenges

Balancing these POVs can be hard, and they need to feel distinct. No point having three clones (Anna, Anne and Annie), it’ll just turn the reader off. The readers I talked to had a limiting number of POV they liked after which they either got confused, started picking favourites or found they didn’t care. The larger the cast, the harder it was to care about the characters.

Voice can be one of the hardest parts of writing, and multi-POV demands unique, separate voices for each character. This scales up the challenge of voice by the number of POV.

Unexpected POV changes can also jar the reader out of the story. In THE ORPHANAGE OF THE GODS, there were three different POVs, one for each act. There was no indication until the POV suddenly switched, which meant I was scrambling to re-orientate myself in the middle of the story. Another example, provided by my twitter conversation, was Jacob’s POV in the middle of BREAKING DAWN.

With many POV characters, there’s a risk that it bogs down the story and bloat the narrative. THE DEVIL’S THIEF had so many POV, and a page count over 700 pages. I’m reminded of the old adage ‘Kill your darlings’ – and someone I talked to talked of the struggle to make yourself cut POV who don’t add to the story. Interesting doesn’t equal serving the plot. Freelance editor Elizabeth Buege said on twitter the number of POV characters should match number of characters whose internal conflicts matter in the story.

These different POV need to be linked. Simply by a promise that they’ll come together at the end is not enough – there need to be consistent links throughout the book between the POV. The actions of each must influence the others and interact. The book can run the risk of feeling like several stories mashed together, not one single, coherent story.

This was my problem with KING OF SCARS, because Nina’s story line felt so separate from Nikolai’s – connected only by the world, and they didn’t even come together at the end.

Multi-POV can be done so well, and elevate the story, but it comes with its own pitfalls that need to be navigated.

What are your thoughts on POV? Do you prefer single or multi? What books would you recommend for multi-POV done well?

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