Friday, June 15, 2012

A Whole Lot of Points Of View: Multiple Viewpoints in Your Fiction

Hi, everyone! I hope you have been enjoying my recent posts on point of view. Today, I want to answer a question raised by Lynette Sharp on The Chipper Muse Facebook page“If you have multiple POVs, does it have to be equal or close to equal?”

The short answer is: No, it doesn't have to be equally done. In fact, in most stories, one character is going to get far more attention than others. Though it's possible to split viewpoints equally if your particular story warrants it, that's not the most common approach.

In most stories, you have one protagonist at the center of the action, and his or her scenes are going to outweigh everyone else’s. This is the person we relate to most as readers, and we want to know what they are doing, so it makes sense that this central character will dominate the scenes in a story, even one in which you’re sharing more than one character’s point of view.

A perfect example of this is the Patrick Bowers series of thrillers, written by Steven James with multiple points of view. I just finished James’ second book in the series, The Rook, so I did a rough count of chapters/scenes as told from the different viewpoint characters. (There are a total of 8 viewpoints shared, and a rough total of 211 scenes.)
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The protagonist, or primary character, in The Rook is Patrick Bowers, an FBI agent who solves crimes. As the main character, he vastly outweighs every other viewpoint character, weighing in at roughly 111 chapters/scenes. It is also worth nothing that his is the only POV told in first person. He is the person we’re meant to identify with most. Everyone else’s scenes are told in third person.

The character with the next highest number of scenes is Patrick’s step-daughter Tessa, with whom he is trying to build a relationship in the wake of her mother/his wife’s death. Tessa’s scenes weigh in at 30. That means Patrick has nearly four times as many scenes as anyone else who is a viewpoint character in the book.

This is normal. Your central protagonist, the person who drives the action and without whom there is no story, always gets the most scenes, even when you are using multiple viewpoints.

Other characters in The Rook get even fewer scenes. Lien-hua, who is Patrick’s colleague and a possible love interest, has 26 scenes. The primary villain, Creighton, has 23 scenes. Victor Drake, a player in a subplot, has 10 scenes, and in that same subplot, General Biscayne has 4 scenes and Hunter has 5. The villain in the background (Shade), who is pulling the strings and will show up as the mastermind in a future book, only has 3 scenes, the least of all. Just enough, in fact, to let us know that there is a mastermind and let the reader know he will show up later as a bigger problem.

If you think about this breakdown from a story standpoint, it makes sense that the protagonist, Patrick, has vastly more scenes than everyone else, because we as readers need to know what he is doing and thinking. The characters he cares about, Tessa and Lien-hua, get the most scenes out of the rest of the cast, because they add complications to Patrick’s story. After all, his main goal is to solve the main crime, but his secondary goals revolve around his relationships.

Patrick’s relationship with Tessa, though troubled, is extremely important to him. And she often comes across as a surly teenager from his point of view, especially since dealing with teens is not his strength. So, the author gives us a good number of scenes from Tessa's point of view, which accomplishes several story goals: It helps us to like her because we can see what she’s thinking, which she doesn’t always share with Patrick and which he often can’t intuit. It allows us to see Patrick at his weakest, when he's trying to figure out his stepdaughter but is blowing it. And it creates a diversion from the main crime plot that Patrick is trying to solve.
Strategic breaks like this can ratchet up the tension in both main plot and subplot when done properly, because we’re forced as readers to wait and see what happens to Patrick. And if Tessa is also in danger, then when we switch away from her and back to Patrick, we’re both satisfied to be back with Patrick and worried about what is happening to Tessa, which keeps us reading. And that's your main goal as a writer, no matter what you write: to keep the reader turning pages instead of putting your work down.

As a love interest, Lien-hua’s viewpoint can be helpful. And as an FBI profiler, she is much more adept at reading people than Patrick is, which adds a refreshing nuance to certain situations in the book that Patrick doesn’t quite understand, but that Lien-hua does. Or that she sees differently than he does, because of her area of expertise.

Of course, if you’re doing multiple viewpoints, it helps to show the antagonist’s point of view. This gives your bad guy more depth, making him more believable and in a thriller, more scary because you know he's about to do something evil but you are a mere reader, so you can't stop him.

Scenes from the antagonist’s point of view also provide information to the reader that the crime solver, Patrick, doesn't know. It increases tension when you know the bad guy is about to do something that Patrick either doesn’t know about or isn’t there to stop. This creates the same effect that you get when watching a horror movie, and you’re screaming at the characters, “Don’t open the door—crazy Freddy is standing behind it with an ax!” As I said earlier, this technique increases tension, which is what a thriller is all about.

And frankly, tension exists in all stories because tension means the situation isn't resolved. No resolution equals a need for resolution, which keeps readers turning pages. So you can see that multiple viewpoints isn't something you do just to do it. You do it as a deliberate writing technique with the goal of ratcheting up the story tension that will keep readers reading.

Now, back to The Rook to finish the analysis...

There are some other side characters, whose point of view scenes serve to share information that the reader needs to know, but that Patrick doesn’t know. In a multiple viewpoint story, this technique is an easy way to give information to the reader, especially when executed well. And Steven James is good at doing it, if you’re looking to study the writing of someone who is making this technique work for his stories.

I could look at other examples of multiple viewpoint fiction, but that would make this post even longer than it already is. So what I’ll do instead is suggest that you look at books like The Lord of the Rings for fantasy multiple viewpoints, and books like my friend Ellen Sherrill’s Treasure from the Storm, for multiple viewpoints in a romance. For the most part, you will find that the central characters get the most scenes, even in a romance, in which one lead will usually get more scenes than their romantic interest. Secondary characters with subplots always get fewer scenes.

In some cases, you may have two characters with almost the same amount of scenes, though to be honest, I can't think of an example. It's theoretically possible, yet you don't see it much. Once you get beyond two characters, you’re not going to find the breakdown being equal very often because too many viewpoint characters dilute the story and confuse the reader. Imagine five characters all getting equal footing. Who is the story really about? Who knows?

This is one thing that weakens George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series for me. The more viewpoints, the harder it is to stick with the story, especially since there are characters I don't like and feel tired of and frustrated with, as well as characters I care a lot about and I hate it when their part of the story is delayed by multiple stops into other characters' viewpoints. One thing to consider when you're thinking of using multiple POVs is that if you go with too many, it can create reader frustration.

Of course, many, many people like Martin's work (even I admire his ability to write strong scenes and make characters memorable), so you can take my objections with a grain of salt. But I wonder how the scene breakdown in his series works out. I won't add it up because it would take too long to go through the five books he has so far and count how many scenes have gone to each character. But my reasonable guess is that the highest number of scenes across the series when completed will be a short list of Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, and Daenerys Targaryen, because they seem to be the three central characters in the story to me. Other characters wax and wane.

Use of multiple viewpoints, in short, is a common technique in fiction, and you're going to give more scenes to the players that are more important and central to the story. If you want to see what another author has to say about this, one who has published a lot of work, check out Holly Lisle's Notecard Plotting Technique, in which she suggests a specific mathematical formula for breaking down scenes per character. I don't follow her technique exactly, but the idea is sound enough, and clearly it's working for her. So it's worth a look.

Now, you share: After all this, you probably have a lot to say. Maybe you know of a book that breaks down multiple POV evenly or almost evenly. Let me know what it is. Or maybe you have a different opinion of George R.R. Martin's technique than I do. Share it. I don't mind. Or maybe this post has created other questions in your mind. Ask away. I'll see what I can do to answer them.

In the meantime, happy writing!

Read part 1, From a Certain Point of View.
Read part 2, First or Third: Which Point of View Should You Use?

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.


  1. William Faulkner's short story, "As I Lay Dying" is a very interesting study in POV. Several distinct voices tell the story of a woman's death. It is both equally frustrating and genius and well worth the read for anyone interested in equal time POVs.

  2. Ah, yes, Faulkner. He also played with POV in "The Sound and the Fury." Interesting...

  3. Thank you for this post, truly helpful. Sorry it took me so long to read it, but my kids are home for the summer and I'm still trying to write consistently.

  4. No sweat, Lynette. The blog is always here when you've got time. I'm always amazed by people who manage to write (or read, for that matter) when they have kids/family too. It's a balance, for sure. And glad you found this post helpful. That's always my goal!


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