Thursday, February 20, 2014

Multiple Points of View in Your Novel: Just Because You Can, Doesn't Mean You Should

A point of view is the lens through which we view a story. Some stories have a window directly implanted in a single character's head, while others prefer a panorama of views with a different window behind the eyes of every member of the cast. No one approach is superior to any other, as any bestseller rack can prove, but it's important for the serious student of storytelling to step back and ask if a kaleidoscope is really necessary when a porthole will do the job just fine.

The Different Perspectives

An example of the extremely rare worm's-eye-view perspective.
There are only three perspectives from which a story can be told; single perspective, multiple perspective, and omniscient perspective. No matter who we're seeing the story through, these are the only three ways it can be done. A single character perspective has us follow a one character (typically referred to as the main character) for the entirety of the story. Everything is told from that perspective. A multiple character perspective will head hop, taking the reader into the perspectives of several different characters and getting the story with multiple leads. An omniscient perspective gives us the view from god's recliner, letting us dip into the minds and feelings of characters as we wish.

It should be noted here that perspective is not the person a story is written in; it is not first, second, or third person. It's possible to write a first person story from a multiple character perspective (though with everyone calling him or herself "I" that's going to get really confusing really damn fast), just as it's possible to write in the third person from an omniscient point of view. Got that? Good, glad I could clear that up for you.

Don't Bring a Swiss Army Knife if You Need a Screwdriver

Never mind. Just never mind.
All right, mixed metaphors aside, I have a serious problem with hop-heads. These writers think that just because they have a big cast that means the audience has to know what every member is feeling and thinking. We don't need to know, and I guarantee you that nine times out of ten we don't care what's going on in the supporting cast's heads enough to jack in and find out.

Perspective exists for two reasons; first, it helps the reader form an emotional connection to a character. The more characters included in the mix, the harder this is to do. You should limit the number of characters whose perspectives we get, though some sources like Darcy Pattison recommend never going over 5 characters. The more characters the audience has thrown at them, the harder it can be to really tug their heart strings when those moments become necessary. The second reason perspective exists is to provide a vantage point to watch the coming drama.

Perspective is the seat you happen to be sitting in while screening the big game. Would moving a few seats over actually change the story? No, because you're surrounded by the same screaming fans, and you have roughly the same view of what's happening from way up high. But would you see a different game if you were sitting over on the opposing team's side of the field? Or if you were down at ground level, close enough to get decent cell phone shots of the plays as they're happening? How about if you were playing the game in question, and you were right there in the action? Yes, changes that extreme can tell a completely different story.

What Are You Talking About?

All right, plain English time. The only time you should shift a perspective is when it serves the story. In Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy there are at least three separate perspectives. The reason for that is the characters are all playing out their parts on different sides of the continent, and are not aware of each other. Despite that, the actions of one group still affect the actions of another which creates a bigger sense of the drama as a whole while increasing the scope of the novels. Additionally every time the perspective shifts it's done with the full intention of leaving a cliffhanger, which keeps the reader turning pages to find out what's happening. That is a perspective shift that is purposeful, which serves the plot, and which helps keep the story moving.

Make sense?

I think I saw the horse twitching... beat it harder!
All right, I'll give you another example. Let's take the Harry Potter series. Now ask yourself if you would have liked it as much if we'd bounced between Harry's perspective and, say, Professor Snape. First and foremost, the big twist at the end would have lost all of its punch. Secondly, why would we do that? The series is about Harry's journey into becoming a wizard, and the eventual self-fulfilling prophecy he was born into. Putting another character's perspective into that would have been pointless.

Which is kind of the point.

Here's My Perspective

The perspective a story is written from must always be used to support what the story is about. It is not a shiny red ball to be thrown in as a way to hook the audience, and it isn't a spice to be poured in until it overpowers the taste of your book. Lastly, and most important, perspective is not a cheap, lazy way for you to plug us into your characters' heads so you can just mainline what they're thinking and how they're feeling to us. That's telling, not showing, and I already wrote a guide about fixing that here.

If you feel you need to use a third-person omniscient perspective to tell your story in the proper way, that's fine. It's also fine if you decide to do a single character in the first person. Any time you decide that we absolutely must ride around in more than one head, ask yourself why. If it's necessary to show the audience what's happening, then by all means do so. If it's because you just want to play in your sandbox, or because you don't want to go into the work of writing snappy dialogue and developing characters through their actions, then stop. Your characters, just like real people, will be judged based on what they do. We don't want to be told what they're thinking or feeling; show those things to us without literary parlor tricks.

As always, thanks for stopping by the Literary Mercenary. We've added a new button on the right hand side where you can subscribe to us via e-mail so you never miss an update. It's free to you, good for us, and has exactly no impact on the environment. Lastly, if you really want to keep up to date with the latest literary doings, follow me on Facebook or Tumblr.


  1. All right, confession time: I've only semi-recently learned that I'm actually guilty of doing some head-hopping. When someone first brought it up to me, I pretty much thought to myself "Wait, that's a BAD thing?" As it turns out, yes it is. I don't know why it took me so long to get called out on it, though. I guess multiple perspectives didn't pop up very much in the stuff I wrote.

    I've gotten a lot better about it, though (I hope). I should probably make sure of that just to be safe -- but whatever the case, a post like this sure helps me keep in mind what to look out for and avoid. So yeah, thanks for this.

  2. No worries Voltech, that's what I'm here for. Feel free to follow and spread the word, maybe fish-slap any other writers you know who haven't been called on their own shenanigans yet.