Friday, May 19, 2017

How to Effectively Write from Multiple POVs

When we were little, we played dress up. Then we entered the land of Adulting where it is frowned upon to play dress up...though maybe we're able to get away with cosplay. Maybe. But it's no longer socially acceptable to pretend to be fairies or knights or astronauts (or knightly fairy astronauts) whenever we feel like it.

Unless, of course, you happen to be a writer. We get to play dress up, only in a slightly different way. Rather than putting on costumes, we slip into different mindsets. It's called POV writing. And it's awesome. Mostly.

I'd know, because I'm writing a story in deep third person with multiple POVs. Some days it's fun. Other days I find myself three pages into a particular POV before realizing that half way through I switched voices and my spunky female elf is now thinking like my anxious male human. Not good.

Thankfully, writing from multiple POV's just takes a little bit of extra planning. You have to consider two angles: The technical angles (scene placement, POV switching, etc) and the character angles (goals, voices, and tags).
Hannah Heath: How to Effectively Write from Multiple POVs
First, let's start off with some technical tips:

1. Choose which POV's you want to write from. You'll probably want to write from the main character's POV. Often, books with multiple POV have dual protagonists, so you don't have to limit yourself to just one main character. Traditionally, people also write from the POV of the MC's BFF (sorry. The abbreviations are addicting). Antagonists can also provide a really good POV. It's up to you to decide which characters should have POVs in your story, but here are some quick points to consider:
     You want POV's that will bring something new to the table. I'm sure there are people out there who are dying to read books from four different POV's that all show the exact same thing in the exact same way. But let's just assume that those people don't exist. Pretending this, go and pick characters who have unique perspectives. Omit the POVs that do not.
     You don't want too many POVs. This is true for two reasons, one being that if you have too many POV's, your readers won't be able to get attached to any of your characters because none of them will get enough page time. The other reason is that your brain simply can't handle writing from 18 POV's. Trust me on this one.

2. Choose your opening POV character wisely. Legend says that you should always start with the protagonist. Not true. Your opening pages should mention or allude to the the main character, but that doesn't mean that your first pages must be from your MC's POV. Nope. You simply need to choose the POV that will provide the most immediate conflict. This means you can open from the villain's POV. It means you can start with a secondary character who sets the main character into action. You can even get creative and open with an omniscient narrator that is never used again. Do whatever you have to do to give your story an urgent conflict or immediate hook. If you have to, try writing your chosen opening scene from several POVs and see which fits. There's always one that seems more natural than the others.

3. Recognize that page time doesn't need to be split equally.  The characters that have the most direct impact on the plot (or are most directly impacted by the plot) should get more page time than those who don't. I don't care if you have to hurt your character's feelings. You're aiming for good writing, not fair writing. If any of your characters complain, let Snape give them a talk.

4. Decide when POV switches will take place. At the top of each chapter? Or will you allow more than one POV per chapter? It depends on what works for your story. Action-packed stories can often benefit from POV switching from scene-to-scene rather than chapter-to-chapter. More laid-back stories (or first person stories) may flow better with POV switching from chapter-to-chapter. Pick the one that makes the most sense for your plot.

Now that we have some of the technical tips out of the way, let's talk about how to tackle the problem of writing from multiple POV's without confusing the voices of each character:

1. Find out the goal for each POV character. Your book has an end goal. Some kind of conflict for the characters to overcome (If not: You are doing this wrong. Go fix your plot, then come back and finish reading this). Hopefully you've also given your characters other side-goals to achieve along the way. It can be anything from killing the 6-fingered man who killed his father to finding delicious crunchings and munchings. Write down what each of these goals look like for each POV character.

2. Find out why each POV character is working towards his/her goal(s). Why are they doing this?   What do they hope to gain or learn? Why does it matter to them? None of your POV characters should have the exact same reason for trying to overcome the main conflict or reach their own personal goals. If they do, then at least one of your character's isn't pulling their weight.  They are thus unworthy of POV page time.
Be sure to find each unique motivation and write it down.

3. Give each character a tag. Give them each a few unique things that they do when they're nervous, excited, or just acting normal. Give them each specific speech patterns, go-to emotions, character flaws, and heroic traits. Now write it down.

4. Find their buzz words. Words that sum up who they are: Their emotions, their fears, their hopes, their skills. Colors and sounds and places you associate with them. They should be single words or short phrases that get to the heart of who they are. guessed it: Write it down.

5. Consider creating soundtracks and storyboards for each character. This can help you get to the core of each character simply by looking at some images on Pinterest or listening to some music. It's not 100% necessary, but it does help.

Now, with all of this information written down, sit down and pick a scene in your story where all of your POV characters are present. Now write that scene from each character's point of view, being careful to use your knowledge of their emotions, goals, and mindset to give each scene a unique feel. Read these scenes over. Tweak them. Make sure that each is not only engaging to read, but also immediately recognizable as a different voice.

Now not only do you have unique POV voices, but you also have material to go back and read whenever you're having a hard time slipping into that specific character's viewpoint. Though, thankfully, the more you write in a particular character's POV, the easier it gets.

What do you think? Have tips to add? I'd love to hear from you!

Related articles:
7 Tips for Writing in Deep POV
What to Do When Your Story Bogs Down
Tips for Deciding Whether to Ditch Your Current Writing Project

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  1. This is wonderful input. I love your posts; they're all so helpful. :)

    1. Thank you, Olivia! This comment put a huge smile on my face.

  2. POV changes in the same chapter - do these work in Middle Grade as well?

    1. Absolutely. It's less common in Middle Grade (from what I've noticed, at least, but I don't read a lot of MG), but you can still do it. If you feel it flows well with your story, then go for it.

  3. Thanks for this! My one project is a nine-part fantasy series and, as you'd expect, a billion POV characters, so this is all very helpful. I gather you got this experience from writing your own fantasy epic?

    Also, who says you can't have 18 POV's??? *laughs maniacally and dies*

    1. Lol! So glad this helped you and your epic series. Yes, I'm also writing a fantasy series. It has four main POVs and a smattering of other, lesser POVs. It makes my head spin sometimes, which is why I came up with the above methods. =D

      *pulls out popcorn to watch you attempt 18 POVs* Go Emily, go! =D

      Thanks for the awesome comment!

  4. Great tips! I struggle with #3 since I have dual protagonists in my WIP- I find myself wanting to make their page time even-stevens. (Bad characters--go talk to Snape!)

    1. You and me both =) Especially since I'm doing the PoV of the main character, and one who starts out as a sidekick and grows into main character status

    2. Gah. YES. Same here. It's so hard because I love all my characters and want to show everyone how amazing they are. =D

      Also, Melindrea: The same exact thing happened to me. I started with one MC and then it ended up morphing into an almost-dual protagonist story. =D

  5. I almost always write from multiple points of view; in fact, in the story I'm currently working on, writing like this has helped me figure out who my protagonists are. So this post is really helpful! I especially like the storyboard/playlist tip :)

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

    1. I'm happy to hear this, Ellie! How many character POVs does your WIP have?

      I've found storyboards really helpful, so I'm glad you liked that tip. =D

  6. This was so helpful! I wrote a seven-thousand word contemporary short story earlier this year, and it was the first time I'd ever used two POV's; I wish I'd had this guide then.


    1. Haha! There's always editing. =D Also: 7,000 words? Be proud! Go Hailey!

  7. My last NaNoWriMo novel was written from two POVs. Most of it was from the MC but several chapters were the villain. It was really fun to write from his POV.

    One tip I'd add is make sure you let people know who's talking. I like it best when they add the character's name before their section starts. And I personally think multiple POV works best in third person, or a mix of first and third. I get confused when it's all first person. (Mostly because I forget to read who's speaking, but we won't mention that.) :)

  8. It's like you've read my mind this week! I'm working on adding different POVs to my book at this very moment, and I was looking for a few tips.

    Great post!

  9. Why are you so good at giving writing advice? *cries*

  10. Annastacia AndersenAugust 1, 2017 at 11:36 PM

    This helps a lot more than most things to help flesh out characters! I surprisingly haven't seen these tips before, but they are all amazingly helpful.

  11. This is so useful (sorry i'm a bit late) at first i thought handling many POV's are troublesome for readers but i found myself writing 3 POV's -one per chapter- in third person. And the reason is that there's too many plot twists and sub-plots . my question .. can i add a narrator voice alongside my other 3 MC's POV's without making it confusing? although the 3 POV's turned out well .
    And thanks again for this awesome post!

    Davina Leonhart

  12. Yay multiple points of view! I find this particularly fun if you have a lot of gray area characters (also my favorite). Then one POV character can be horrified by what a different POV character just did (which you, as the reader, were just cheering them on for doing, because you were in there head while they did it. But now you've stepped out, and from someone else's point of view...HOW DARE THEY?!) Also, I find the idea of making a soundtrack hilarious. I've occasionally assigned songs I hear to characters, which is particularly funny when I get to mentally watch a medieval high fantasy character sing and dance to 'Bad Boy, Good Man' by Tape Five. Electroswing and fantasy make odd, but surprisingly good, bedfellows.

  13. Hey Hannah,

    Thank you for the great post. I'm wrting to write an 'epic fantasy,' but I'm having a bit of an issue with the 'epic' part. A minor detail, really.

    One of my readers informed me that it's all disjointed, with the chapters cutting into the space of another instead of giving a picture from a different perspective. Imagine instead of 4 pictures laid out in front of you, you have an abomination that combined those 4 pictures.

    Not a very good analogy.

    But my point is! There is a time-line, and I constantly find myself having to switch in order to keep up. How the hell do I write from multiple perspectives , stay within the time line, while at the same time not leaving anyone behind?

  14. What a really good article... I was actually thinking of writing a fantast adventure with 2 POVs. Till i realized my other mc doesnt actually have a proper background and a specific goal.... Though ive been wanting him to be like uncertain of what he wants... And i dont know if it would be effective, though it somehow fits the story...

  15. Hi, thank you for this article. I've been looking for something/anything on writing different POV's. Unfortunately, I'm beginning to think my question is out of whack, but I hope you can lend some of your insight.

    In writing different POV's, do you write by chapter or storyline? In other words: do you write Chapter 1 POV #1, Chapter 2 POV #2 and so on, or do you write the entire story by POV #1, then POV #2, etc?

    I'm writing a story myself and realize I've never been this deep with my POV's before, so I'm confused as to which route to use. Do I write by chapter which involves switching POV's regularly, or do I go with one POV at a time, and rewrite the story like 5 times?!

    HELP! Please?!

  16. You're so right about the addicting abbreviations. I still haven't come up with a good one for 'character' :/ Silly question, but do you know if such a thing exists? It's a long word, after all! Thanks!


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