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Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

TARA K. HARPER
WRITER'S WORKSHOP
Multiple Points of View

Writing from More than One POV
Problems with Multiple POVs
Being Fair to Your Characters


Writing from More than One POV
    

Writing from more than one point of view (POV) means writing from the viewpoint of more than one character.  For example, it could mean writing from Mike's view, then switching to Joyce's view, then switching to Rick's view, then switching back to Mike...  Writing from more than one POV can be distracting to the reader.

It is a common misconception that writing in third person means you should take advantage of each character's POV and write from each one.  Yes, the third-person narrative is omniscient.  However, the omniscient view does not mean you must divide your reader's attention in order to be fair to each character.  Skilled writers present more than one POV but still keep their stories focused.

Writing from multiple POVs without keeping the story focused -- that is one of the most common mistakes I see new writers make.  In particular, I think writers with a background in RPG (role-playing games) make this mistake often.  The temptation is to weight each character in the group (in fantasy in particular) equally, just as it is done in RPG.  But stories are a different medium than RPG.  In stories, multiple POVs can clutter and confuse plotline, goals, pacing, and so on.  It's not that multiple POVs can't be done well.  It's just that most aspiring writers have not usually developed or honed the skills to do that effectively in their first book.

Writing from multiple POVs does not mean you cannot include side scenes about secondary characters or that you cannot include scenes without the main character.  As long as these secondary scenes remain focused on the main story, the scenes will work.  Such third-person writing allows you to introduce information about secondary characters (including villains, of course) that the main character cannot yet know.

If you feel you must write from more than one POV, you should ask yourself these two questions:  Are you writing a single story that has elements which really must be presented through different eyes/views?  How many stories are you trying to tell?  You might actually have more than one story in your book.

Combining more than one story in a single book presents three problems.  It:  a) distracts the reader from each of the other characters as each viewpoint is encountered,  b) detracts from each point/issue made by each character as soon as the next character's POV is encountered, and c) is unfair to the reader.  If there are two main characters, there are two stories.  If there are three main characters, there are three stories.  Don't weaken each character or story by dividing the reader's emotions.  This forces the reader to choose among the characters for the one person in which to make the emotional investment while reading.

If you cannot focus your story more clearly, then give each character equal weight in his own arena, his own story.  Or, if you are a strong enough writer (like James P. Hogan or Mike Resnick), you will make sure that each POV tells part of the same story.  A good multiple-POV book focuses the characters in the same direction.  With a skilled writer, jumping between viewpoints does not also fracture the story.

Have I ever written from multiple POVs?  Yes.  In my first novel (which was published as two books), the two main characters were separated at a few points in the story.  I got away with the two POVs in these places because, even though there were two main characters, one was much more "main" than the other.  Also, the separated characters remained focused on the goal of the story, and the story remained focused on the more-important character (the wolfwalker).  Without these advantages, the two POVs could have weakened the story significantly, and I might still be an unpublished author today.

The last two books in the Grey Wolf series are also multiple POV stories because the two stories (Wolf's Bane and Silver Moons, Black Steel) occur simultaneously.  My publisher had asked me if I could write them in a single book, as one title.  I had to say no.  The focus of such a book would have been too fractured; there really are two stories.  So, I wrote them as separate novels.  Silver Moons, Black Steel does have multiple POVs, but the book is a convergence of three main threads, and is the culmination of the initial Wolfwalker series.

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Problems with Multiple POVs
    

There are four main issues with multiple POVs:
1. Readers usually identify best with one point of view.  Presenting more than one POV denies the reader the ability to live the story.  With multiple POVs, readers must constantly reset their thinking to adjust to yet another main character.  They must try to remember the action, the points made, and the issues brought up for each character while they read on to the next.  With each shift, the readers who have made an emotional investment in one character, are torn away to yet another viewpoint--a viewpoint which may not be their favorite.  After a while, your readers could easily stop caring about any of the characters.
2. Switching back and forth between two points of view is acceptable, if a) the characters are different enough, and b) there is a good reason for switching back and forth.  Simply wanting to get into the heads/thoughts of more than one person is not a good reason.
3. The omniscient point of view is obtained by the third person, not by being in more than one place at one time.  Omniscience does not mean that everyone's thoughts should have equal weight.
4. Separated characters must continue to move toward the same goal:  the end of the story.  Without common threads linking their actions and goals, the plot and characters will appear disjointed, cluttered with extraneous ideas and actions, or unclear.

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Being Fair to Your Characters
    

Being fair to your characters means making each character real, not making each character a main player.  For example, perhaps one woman has a habit of touching her eyelashes.  In chapter 12, someone asks her (being driven nuts by the habit) why she is always doing that.  You find out, in her brief answer, that when she was five years old, she had mites in her eyelashes.  She has never lost the habit of straightening and touching them to make sure the mites aren't back.

Being fair to other characters means taking the time to develop implied relationships between them and the main character, and between the secondary characters themselves.  Make sure each person's emotional state and motivations are consistent with his personality.  Make sure that each person responds as if he was a real individual, not just any Joe Bloe in the party of five.  Make sure that each secondary character furthers the main story, and doesn't wallow or wander off in his own little subplot.

You can't create impact without focus.  Focus your story, and the story, like your writing, will be stronger.


Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.


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