Author Resources: Whose Head Are You In? Writing Multiple Points of View

On an ordinary day not too long ago, three characters gathered in a library.

Alpha drew in a deep breath. The scent of leather and paper filled her lungs. Intoxicating. Could there be a more perfect location than an old library?

“Excuse me,” someone said.

Alpha turned. “Hey, Beta! Isn’t this place great?”

Beta glared at her. He’d just been musing about whether he should climb a ladder to the higher shelves, but her thoughts had distracted him. “You’re obsessing over the scent of paper?” he said. “Really?”

“First, stay out of my head. Second, if you don’t understand the allure of old paper, you’re beyond help.”

“Could you both please shut up?” Gamma looked over her reading glasses at the other two. They were always like this, bickering constantly, when all she wanted—

“ ‘Bickering constantly?’ ” Alpha and Beta said in unison.

“How’d you hear my thoughts?” Gamma asked. “This scene is supposed to be in my point of view.”

“Apparently we’re all sharing the scene,” Alpha said. Sensing the silent groans of the two others, she looked at the ceiling, hoping the mythical Author of All Things was listening. “Hey, you! Word Lord! This is confusing!”

Photo by Olya Kobruseva from Pexels

Authors, any chance your characters—or readers—are as confused as these three, as you hop from one point of view to another?

Many of us, at one point or another, choose to write a novel with more than one point of view (or POV). I’ve written two trilogies in third person with multiple POV characters, and I’ve enjoyed the process thoroughly. It’s a blast exploring the thoughts of the hero and the villain or of both halves of a romantic partnership.

Multiple POVs can deepen and enrich narration, but they can also cause frustration for authors and readers. In this post, we’ll discuss how to use multiple POVs effectively. And while some talented authors write first person with multiple narrators, today we’ll focus on writing in third person.

There are two ways to write in third person with multiple POV characters: third person omniscient and third person limited.

When using third person omniscient, your narrator isn’t a character in the story, but they’re privy to the thoughts of every character in the story. Your narrator can give the reader a glimpse of the thoughts of multiple characters in one scene. Here’s an example:

Dan drove slowly, hoping the vase of flowers on the passenger’s seat didn’t topple over. He parked in his driveway and walked toward the front door.

Alma saw him coming from the kitchen window. Her pulse quickened when she saw the flowers. Unexpected gifts were her favorite sort. But she had to wonder if he was trying to make up for some transgression.

As the reader, we “hear” Dan’s thoughts (hoping the vase doesn’t fall) as well as Alma’s (who loves unexpected gifts but doesn’t quite trust her partner).

The second way to use multiple POVs in third-person writing is to use third person limited with multiple POVs. As with omniscient, the narrator isn’t a character. However, with this technique, the reader is only privy to one character’s thought per scene. Here’s the above scene, written in third person limited:

Dan drove slowly, hoping the vase of flowers on the passenger’s seat didn’t topple over. He parked in his driveway and walked toward the front door.

He saw the outline of Alma’s figure in the window. She’d told him a hundred times how much she loved unexpected gifts. He hoped she’d still love these roses when she heard the confession they came with.

In this case, we don’t have any idea what Alma is thinking. However, the next scene could be in her POV, which would allow us to get inside her head after her partner fesses up.

If you choose to write in third person with multiple POVs, you get to decide whether to write in omniscient or limited. I believe that in most cases with most modern books, limited is a better choice than omniscient.Here are several reasons why:

Embrace a Modern Style

  • Omniscient POV is a more classic style, so if you’re writing modern literature for modern audiences, it can easily feel dated. 
  • Limited (with multiple POV characters) is a more modern style. Many of today’s readers like to read one POV per scene, and if you plan to query agents and/or publishers, they may also prefer limited over omniscient.

Avoid Head Hopping

  • Omniscient POV can easily turn into head hopping.
  • What’s head hopping? It’s a when the narrator hops from one character’s head to the next within the same scene. Readers use the term head hopping when POV shifts feel jarring and/or happen too frequently. 
  • It’s possible to write in omniscient POV without head hopping. However, it can be difficult, and even if you think you’ve avoided head hopping, reviewers may disagree.

Immerse Your Readers in Your World

  • With limited POV, readers may more easily feel connected to your story and characters since they’re “spending time with” one character for an entire scene or chapter (or longer).
  • Limited POV is like going to a party and sitting with one person all night, really getting to know them, rather than hopping from one table to the next, having quick conversations.
  • You can give your readers the gift of depth and immersion by spending time in the head of one character per scene.

Go Deep

  • Limited POV allows you to easily shift into “deep” (also called “close”) POV, a subset of third-person POV.
  • In deep POV, you get so deep into your character’s head that the lines between narrator and POV character get blurred. 
  • Example: With a distant (not deep) POV, you might write, “Jarvis took the pickles off his burger. He couldn’t believe they’d gotten his order wrong again.” With deep POV, you could instead write, “Jarvis took the pickles off his burger. They’d gotten his order wrong…again. Unbelievable.” Note how the narration took on the tone of Jarvis’ thoughts. 
  • If you use deep POV within omniscient narration, there’s a good chance you’ll be accused of head hopping. Omniscient narrators need to stay distant so they can shift from one POV to the next without giving readers whiplash. Limited narrators can go deep.

If you decide to write in third-person limited POV with multiple POV characters, here are some tips to help you succeed:

Keep it Manageable

  • There are no hard-and-fast rules about how many POV characters you can use in third-person limited, but a smaller POV cast is often more effective than a bigger one. If you get inside too many characters’ heads, your readers may not connect with any of them. Sure, it would be fun to know exactly what the quirky candy-shop owner is thinking, but if she doesn’t play a major role in your book, she should stay in the background.
  • Some genres tend to have more POVs than others. For instance, if you write epic fantasy, your readers may accept several well-written POVs. If you write romance, your readers may expect only two.

One POV Per Scene or Chapter

  • Only shift POVs at scene changes or when you start a new chapter.
  • If shifting at a scene change, indicate the change with an ornamental break between the scenes. A common ornamental break is three asterisks (***). It should be on a line by itself, centered.

Identify Your POV Character Quickly

  • Some authors include the POV character’s name at the beginning of the scene or chapter, as a heading, like this:

Chapter 1

Mei

  • Regardless of whether you use the character’s name as a heading, indicate whose “head” you’re in quickly, so your readers can “center themselves.” For example, instead of starting a chapter or scene with, “Gold, pink, and orange clouds covered the eastern sky,” you could write, “Mei faced the gold-and-orange clouds in the east, letting the sunrise burn away her fear.”

Use Reaction Scenes

  • If you’re used to writing in omniscient POV, it can be hard to give up the freedom of hearing two characters’ thoughts within the same significant scene. You’ve spent an entire book building up to a big kiss, and now you’re supposed to only show it from one POV? Well, yes…but you can follow up with a scene showing the second character’s reaction to the big scene.
  • Example: In the book you’re writing, your two main characters, Ahmed and Rose, get kidnapped. First, show the kidnapping from Ahmed’s POV, focusing on his terror. By staying in his head, you’ll keep your readers on the edges of their seats, totally immersed in the intense scene. Once your poor characters are locked in a tiny cell together, follow up with a scene from Rose’s POV, showing how she’s hiding her own fear so she can comfort Ahmed. 

Let’s go back to the scene we started with. Imagine if we’d stayed in Alpha’s head the whole time. It might’ve gone something like this:

Alpha drew in a deep breath. The scent of leather and paper filled her lungs. Intoxicating. Could there be a more perfect location than an old library?

Her gaze fell on Beta. He was climbing a ladder that leaned against a bookshelf so tall, Alpha had to crane her neck to see the top. The rickety ladder squeaked as his foot moved to the next narrow rung. One of these days, Beta was gonna get himself killed. But if it happened in this place, Alpha supposed he’d die happy.

A gasp got her attention. She turned to see Gamma standing next to a stack of books almost as tall as she was—and Gamma was tall. Her eyes looked huge behind her reading glasses as she examined the pages of an old tome, her mouth gaping.

Beta and Gamma were both so immersed in their tasks, they seemed to have forgotten Alpha existed. It’s now or never

Alpha walked silently toward the southwest corner of the library. Her heart pounded and her mouth went dry as she approached the shelf of forbidden books.

Better, right? As the reader, you got to delve deep into Alpha’s mind, experiencing her time in the library right along with her and seeing her friends from her perspective. Maybe the next chapter will be in Beta’s or Gamma’s POV, but for now, you’re immersed in Alpha’s story.

There are no right or wrong points of view. However, if you’re a modern author planning to use multiple POVs in third-person writing, I encourage you to stay focused on one POV per scene or chapter. Your readers will thank you for bringing them along on a captivating, non-confusing ride…and maybe your characters will too.

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