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Too Many Voices: Writing With Multiple POVs

June 20, 2023

Whether it’s your first time writing a novel or fifth, writing with multiple perspective characters can be difficult. It requires planning, strong character development, and complex plots. Before you settle on how many POVs are in your novel, take some time to analyze your story and decide if multiple perspectives are a right fit.

What is driving your plot?

Decide what your main plot is. Is it a single set of events in the same setting? A collection of events in different settings? What is the scope of your world?

A single set of events usually occurs in one place. The characters are reacting to something that happened, but they’re all seeing the same things. This type of story can make it easy to overlap and rewrite the same scenes from different POVs. Readers don’t want that. It’s better to keep your cast of anchor characters here to two or three. 

A collection of events in different settings often means that your characters rarely overlap, but each perspective helps drive the plot in the others. This type of big-scope story is perfect for bigger casts of anchor characters. 

Remember: you have to tie up all loose ends by the end of the story. This is much harder to do with larger casts. To make it easier, go through your plot and trim it until you’re left with the minimum you can use to tell a story. 

Why do you need multiple POVs?

Now that you’ve reviewed your plot, ask yourself, “Whose story is it?” Is the focus on more than one character? Who really owns the spotlight? If you can answer this question with only one character, your story is probably more compatible with 1-2 anchor characters than an ensemble. 

Next, decide what kind of effect you want to have on your reader. What are you trying to achieve? Once you have an idea of this, you can look at your story and see if it makes sense to write it from multiple perspectives. 

What you can get out of writing with multiple POVs:
  • Suspense – What characters see and feel can guide the reader to gain their own curiosity or confusion about the plot, and from there begin to ask questions.
  • Big pictures – Because they are navigating between multiple people, the reader can be kept in the dark about important information or learn information that other characters don’t know.
  • Complexity – More characters means more individual stories, experiences, and settings. This can give you the opportunity to create a vast world with unique systems, cultures, and morals.
  • Plot twists – Multiple anchor characters allows you to reveal that one of them is an unreliable narrator, leaving opportunities for you to plan plot twists.

It is worth noting that because of the sheer vastness that comes with large casts, readers may find it difficult to form a connection with any specific character. Because of this, it’s important to take time developing each one.

POV characters must have their own arcs and voices

A character arc describes the way a character transforms as the story progresses. Perspective characters, or anchor characters, must always have their own arc. They are a main character. They each have their own stories and details to reveal that drive the main plot forward. 

To build arcs, focus on each characters’ goals, motivations, flaws, and what stakes they are personally up against. Use these parallel to their backgrounds to build a sense of voice while you’re writing from their POV. Voice is what will identify the character early whenever a perspective change occurs.

To build voice, focus on:

  • Background – Where did they grow up? What is their socioeconomic status? How much education did they receive? 
  • Speech patterns – What is their tone? What phrases or terms are specific to their vocabulary? Do they prefer any euphemisms? Do they use long, flowery sentences or short and terse sentences?
  • Personality – What is their temperament like? Are they bitter? Angry? Joyful? What interests do they have? How do these interests affect the way they act?
  • Dominant sense – Do they have a strong sense of smell? Maybe they’re always associating scents with things. Are they hungry often? Maybe they make a lot of comparisons to food.
Things to keep in mind:
  • Your characters interact and affect each other. Identify where they interact and what the effects are.
  • Each character has their own limitations. Stay true to them while you’re writing from their POV and when you’re writing about them from another’s POV.
  • Anchor characters who have a POV just because they’re “cool” are weak. They need more substance.
  • Give yourself permission to drop a character or make them a secondary character if not enough interesting things happen to them.

Choosing a POV for each chapter or scene

When writing with multiple perspectives, authors will often choose either first person or third person limited. Some might write in a combination of the two (ex: one character will be first person, while others are third person). Whatever POV you choose, you must stick to it.

An easy way to structure your novel is to use chapters to switch between POVs, rather than scenes. Plan when each POV switch occurs by outlining. Make sure the POV switches are very clear, whether through an established pattern (Character 1, Character 2, Character 3, repeat) or by titling the chapters with the name of the POV character (Chapter 1: Ben). 

While it’s important to give each anchor character roughly equal time in the spotlight, you don’t want to create boring scenes. Use outlining to make sure that something is happening each time you switch perspectives. Don’t backtrack and describe the same events as multiple people or write filler chapters just because your established pattern says it’s Character 2’s turn now. 

Keep track of where each anchor character is – what are they going through mentally, physically, and emotionally? For each chapter or scene, identify which one has the most to lose, win, or learn? Use them as your POV character. Remember that even if a chapter is about one specific character, the POV can belong to a different character.

Tips:

  • Establish whose head the chapter is in as soon as possible.
  • Try not to mix voices. Practice writing multiple scenes in one character one day, and another character another day to stay true to their respective voices.
  • Avoid head-hopping.

Common mistakes while writing with multiple POVs

  • Too many characters – You will most likely need fewer characters than you think you do. The reader shouldn’t get a headache trying to keep track of the main cast and where they are in the story.
  • Same voices – Writers who don’t take the time to make each character’s voice distinct from the others risk confusing their reader. Everyone you encounter in the real world has their own speaking patterns and way of thinking. Your characters should have them too. 
  • Head-hopping – It’s easy to accidentally switch POV when you’re juggling multiple characters at once. Remember that your reader doesn’t have the experience with your cast that you do. They’re still learning. Be gentle and don’t jump perspectives too much.
  • Re-telling scenes – Showing a scene through one character, then switching perspective and showing the same scene through another character does not help the story progress. 
  • Timelines – It can be difficult to keep track of anything. Many writers juggling multiple POVs may find logic problems in their work. Make a detailed outline to remember where important events happened or when information was given.
  • Mind-reading – Note down the information that each character knows. If one character is keeping a secret, another character shouldn’t reference it unless you showed the reader how they found out. 

Have fun experimenting!

In the end, there is no direct answer for how to organize your cast of anchor characters. Only you can decide that. Remember to give them a voice, keep track of key information, then grab a few characters and write. Test out a few different perspectives, step back and see how they fit together, and have fun writing!

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