Writing a Multiple Viewpoint Novel

Let's start with the basics...

A multiple viewpoint novel is one in which two or more members of your cast list are viewpoint characters – that is, those characters through whose eyes we witness the events of the novel and whose thoughts and feelings we have direct access to.

Or to put it even more simply...

If different chapters are narrated by different characters – chapter one from John's point of view, chapter two from Helen's – you're writing a multi-viewpoint novel.

Multiple viewpoints are common in novels, so it would hardly be a risky choice if you chose to write one yourself. Before you can decide, though, you need to understand...

The Pros and Cons of Using Multiple Viewpoints

Is it better to stick with one viewpoint character, or does having two or more characters in the spotlight add dimension to your novel? And does writing a multi-viewpoint novel make the planning and writing more difficult?

First the "difficulty" issue...

While it's certainly the case that writing from more than one point of view is more complicated, it isn't much more complicated.

You have to learn when and how to switch viewpoints effectively, but if you follow the advice on how to do this lower down, you won't have a problem.

Using several viewpoints also makes the planning of your novel slightly more complicated, in that the chapters told from each viewpoint effectively constitute a separate subplot. But, again, it really isn't a problem.

A bigger issue than difficulty is that of "focus"...

Put simply, the more viewpoint characters you use in a multiple viewpoint novel, the less time the reader gets to become familiar with each one, which can result in an unsatisfying read.

It's like going to a party and having to move on to talk to somebody different every twenty minutes, just when you were getting a good conversation going.

My best advice? Stick with just one viewpoint character unless you have a good reason to use more.

What constitutes a good reason? The story you are telling, and nothing else.

If you believe that sticking with one viewpoint character is too limiting and that you won't be able to tell the story as well through one pair of eyes as you could through several pairs, write a multiple viewpoint novel.

But even then, keep the number of viewpoint characters to the absolute minimum required to do the job.

Third Person Multiple Viewpoint Novels

Virtually every novel featuring two or more viewpoint characters is written in the third person point of view, and for a good reason: it's the most logical viewpoint to use.

A third person story, remember, is told by a narrator (someone who is not a character in the story), and it seems perfectly natural for this narrator to slip inside not just one character's skin, but several.

What seems less natural, at least to me, is for two different first person narrators (people who are characters in the novel) to sit down and tell their respective stories at the same point in time after the novel's events are over.

So here's my best advice...

  • Write a single viewpoint novel unless you have a good reason to write a multi-viewpoint one.
  • And if you do use multiple viewpoints, choose third person point of view unless you believe the novel will benefit from using first person narrators.

How Much "Screen Time" Should You Give Each Character?

Viewpoint characters may or may not receive an equal share of the chapters in which to be in the spotlight. It all depends on the kind of story you want to tell. Suppose, for example, that you want to write a detective novel...

Here are some of your possible options...

  • Because the detective is the protagonist, you decide to tell the entire story from his point of view, so you write a single viewpoint novel. This is a good, simple choice.
  • You have created a great sidekick for the detective and you want to tell part of the story from her point of view. This not only allows the reader to see two very different detectives at work... it lets them see the protagonist (the detective) through a fresh pair of eyes (the sidekick's) and therefore learn things about him they may not otherwise have learnt. You give the detective nine of the twelve chapters in which to be the viewpoint character, and the sidekick three of them.
  • The novel you have in mind has two protagonists of equal importance: the detective and the murderer. It isn't a whodunit but a will-he-get-away-with-it. You give the detective the first chapter, the murderer the second chapter, and so on through to the end.
  • You want to tell the story through the eyes of all of your characters: the detective, the sidekick, the murderer and all of the suspects. The detective is the protagonist (the one the novel is essentially "about") and so you give him half of the chapters, with the other half being shared more or less equally between everybody else.
  • On second thoughts, you don't want the detective to be the protagonist, nor for him to be a viewpoint character at all. The murder and its detection will lie at the heart of the novel, but what interests you is telling the story from the viewpoints of the ten suspects, one of whom will turn out to be the murderer. The story is "about" all of them, in equal measure, and so they will each receive an equal share of "screen time." Such a novel would be called an "ensemble piece."

You can see, then, that who you choose to be viewpoint characters, and what proportion of the story you allocate to each of them, has a profound effect on the story you are telling.

So if you're at all unsure how to structure a multiple viewpoint novel (or whether you want to use more than one viewpoint at all), it's worthwhile working out all of your possible options, like I did with the imaginary novel above, and going for the version that excites you the most.

First Person Multiple Viewpoint Novels

Like I said, there is something not quite natural about a first person novel told from more than one viewpoint. To my mind, they would always work much better in the third person – though that could well be due to little more than my own personal tastes, so don't let that put you off writing one.

Technically, you can have as many first person viewpoint characters as you like (a first person "ensemble piece" featuring a dozen narrators/viewpoint characters, for example). But I would advise sticking with two first person viewpoint characters as a maximum (a dual viewpoint novel), or else writing in the third person.

What kind of stories are suited to the first person, dual viewpoint approach?

In short, stories in which the two characters are of more or less equal importance – for example, a love story. Or that idea for a detective novel above in which the detective and the murderer are the novel's equal protagonists, and in which they share the chapters between them.

A practical consideration with first person prose is that it isn't always immediately obvious who is speaking...

  • In the third person point of view, you write, "Fred did this," or "Mary did that," and the reader straight away knows who you are talking about.
  • But first person characters are identified merely as "I," which is obviously confusing when you have more than one viewpoint character.

You need a practical method for overcoming the problem, and the most obvious way is to label each chapter with the character's name.

So in a first person dual viewpoint novel, for example, Chapter One might be entitled "Fred", Chapter Two "Mary", and so on.

Or you could split the novel into parts, with the first part called "Fred" or perhaps "Fred's Story", and the second part "Mary" or "Mary's Story".

First person multiple viewpoint novels are relatively rare, but one good example I managed to find in my own novel collection is Jane Hamilton's A Map Of The World.

(I also found an example in my DVD collection: Martin Scorcese's Casino – watch it and you'll see what I mean.)

When and How to Switch Viewpoints

"Mangling viewpoint shifts is one of the sirens-howling signals of an utter beginner - as bad as saying 'ain't' in front of your strictest teacher."
- Ansen Dibell

If you've made it this far down the page, you have probably already decided to write a multiple viewpoint novel – probably in the third person, but possibly in first person point of view.

The next thing you'll want to know is how to switch from one viewpoint character to another without committing the cardinal sin of writers: confusing the reader.

When you switch viewpoints from one character to another in a novel, your job as a professional writer is to make the transitions as seamless for your readers as you can.

In practical terms, it should be obvious in the first paragraph – and preferably in the very first line – that a change has taken place.

Why? Because there's nothing more annoying for readers than to get a page or two into a new chapter before they realize that they are no longer looking through the father's eyes, for example, but the daughter's.

And so, when you finish with one viewpoint character and step into the shoes of a new one, be sure to name them as early as you possibly can – ideally, in the first sentence.

But merely naming the new viewpoint character is not enough by itself. Just because you write...

"Andrew poured himself a large scotch."

... it doesn't necessarily mean that Andrew is the point of view character. Jane, his wife, could be the viewpoint character watching her husband pouring the drink.

So you must also make it clear, as early as you can, that we are looking through Andrew's eyes and hearing his thoughts. And you could do that by writing something like this...

"Andrew poured himself a large scotch and emptied it in one swallow. He hated the stuff, normally, but he needed something to take the edge off with his bitch of a wife giving him the evil eye from across the room."

So that's dealt with how you switch viewpoints. But when should you switch? There are a few simple rules here...

It is virtually always best, if at all possible, to start a fresh chapter when you switch from one viewpoint character to another. This is the simplest option of all for the reader.

Next best is switching viewpoints during a break within a chapter (the kind denoted by a line of white space, or by asterisks if the break occurs at the bottom of a page).

Yes, it's possible to switch characters where there are no breaks. But if you do this, make it clear immediately that a switch has occurred. Also, try to do it during a natural disruption to the flow...

If two characters are talking at a dinner table, for example, switch viewpoints in that moment of silence between one conversation and the next.

It's also best to maintain a consistent pattern of viewpoint switches throughout the novel, and to make that pattern clear early on...

If you write the first chapter from Fred's point of view, the next six chapters from Mary's, chapter eight from another character's viewpoint altogether, and the final two chapters from Fred's and Mary's viewpoints, with switches occurring every two or three pages, don't expect too much fan mail from your readers!

Bottom line? Always put yourself in a reader's shoes and you won't go wrong...

  • You'll always be sure to make it clear whose eyes they are looking through at any given point.
  • There will be no jarring switches in unlikely places.
  • And the overall viewpoint "pattern" will have a logical symmetry to it.

And the result of all that, of course, is that the readers won't even notice how you have handled viewpoint, because you have handled it seamlessly like a master, not messily like a novice.

What About Switching Viewpoints In Mid-Scene?

We touched on this briefly above, but let's dig deeper...

In some novel writing guides, you'll read that you should never, ever, ever switch viewpoints in mid-scene. To which I would reply (politely)...

Why the heck not?

A scene can be defined as a character pursuing a specific goal in the face of opposition and (usually) ending up in a worse position. (See the plotting section for more on this.) An example would be a husband pleading with his wife to forgive him after she caught him being unfaithful...

  • His specific goal is to achieve his wife's forgiveness.
  • The opposition is the wife, who has no intention of forgiving him.
  • And the bad outcome is her kicking him out of the house (serves the cheating rat right).

Now, the obvious way to write the scene is through the husband's eyes (because he's the one the scene is about). But you could also write it from the wife's point of view.

Yes, it's the husband's scene, in that he is the one with the goal. Writing it from his point of view would allow the reader to feel his humiliation and his desperation to win his wife back.

But told from the wife's viewpoint, the reader could feel her pleasure in watching him squirm, which would be an interesting, pleasing alternative.

So here is my argument...

If it is possible to write the scene in two different ways, it's surely possible to switch viewpoints in mid-scene...

  • first we would feel the husband's pain...
  • then the wife's pleasure.

Yes, it's best to stick to one viewpoint in the scene if you have no compelling reason to switch. In other words, what is added to the scene by seeing it through two pairs of eyes should outweigh the disruption to the scene caused by the switch.

But if you do have a compelling reason to change viewpoints in the middle of a chapter (rather than between chapters, which would be more usual in a multiple viewpoint novel), ignore the "rules" and go right ahead and do it!