It is important to understand that point of view is one of the key ways you are able to manipulate the reader’s relationship with the characters and to the events of the story. When you choose multiple points of view, you need to be mindful of the types of relationships you are building between the reader and the characters, and their purpose.
While it is quite common in recent fiction to read novels with two point of view characters, less common to have more than two points of view, in practice it’s not an easy thing to pull off. You are implicitly asking the reader to invest energy in point of view characters, and each additional point of view must warrant and pay off the energy invested, otherwise you risk compromising the relationship between reader and story.
Sometimes I find writers use multiple POVs because they feel it is important to show the reader different versions of the events. One writer had a note with her manuscript saying, ‘I have done my best to get inside the heads of all the characters, to give a balanced view of human beings and their conditions of living.’ I can understand why writers do this. Keep in mind, however, that while it is crucial for you as the writer to get inside the heads of all your characters, successful fiction is not necessarily about giving a balanced view, but about giving a character’s view, or select characters’ views. By presenting multiple characters’ points of view, showing the motivation for their actions, you may unintentionally confuse the reader about whose story it is and dampened the dramatic potential.
The manuscript of one fiction writer I worked featured a long distance, online affair between a woman in an unhappy marriage, on the verge of leaving her husband, and a married man who was not unhappy in his marriage, but a little bored with life. The narrative switched between the woman’s point of view and the man’s. From my reading, this was the woman’s story; she had the most at stake and the writer clearly wanted the reader to empathise with her. The fact that the reader knew the man didn’t really love her diluted the narrative tension. Knowing the man’s point of view meant that the reader could see the looming disaster that the woman couldn’t see. It seemed to me that the story would be a lot more compelling, and a lot more interesting, if it was told only from the woman’s point of view so that the reader, like the woman, didn’t know what was going on inside the man’s mind. If, however, this had been a story about how an affair can complicate lives in different ways and to different ends, the multiple point of view may have worked. But it would have been quite a different story on the page.
Sometimes using multiple POVs, even just two (as in the example above), has the effect of flooding the story with light so that all is revealed. In storytelling, the interest lies in what is unknown or hidden, and how this influences the way people act. Think about how shadows give a scene depth and intrigue.
John Mullan writes, ‘The more characters known, the more viewpoints represented, the more difficult it becomes to maintain narrative coherence. In practice, novels with third-person narrators tend to represent events from the point of view of a limited number of characters – perhaps just one. It is as if fiction were duty-bound to be true to our experience of the world, in which the perspectives of most people we encounter are guessable, but not knowable.’ (How Novels Work, Oxford University Press, 2006, p 68). In getting inside the heads of lots of characters, their perspectives are knowable. This results in a particular type of narrative.
If you are considering using multiple points of view, think carefully about how they work to amplify your theme and support the dramatic tension. Whose story is it? What information needs to be revealed, and to whom? What information needs to be concealed, and from whom? What should the reader know and not know? What would happen if you took out one of the points of view? How would this change the reader’s relationship to the story and to the characters?
Take your time to think about the best way to handle multiple points of view if you are leaning this way. It can take several drafts; it’s an important decision and requires careful consideration.