The Perils of Multiple POVs

Common pitfalls on the POV side

On Thursday we talked about the perils of multiple plotlines, but Thursday’s question also asked about the perils of multiple POVs. The more I think about this, the more I realize that I think about these in an almost entirely uncoupled way. Other people may vary on this, but other than making sure I have a POV character in the physical place I need to tell the story of a particular plotline, POVs fall into a different craft area for me from plotlines. In other words, when I do multiple plotlines with multiple POVs, I pretty much treat each plotline as if it’s a single plotline with multiple possible POVs.

But what are the perils of multiple POVs?

Peril #1: Choosing the Wrong Character

This may sound like an obvious thing to think about, but choosing the right character to tell a scene from can make a huge difference. Sometimes I write a scene from multiple POVs just to see which one works best.

And sometimes it’s not obvious! For instance, I’ve gotten great mileage out of unusual perspectives like telling a chunk of story from the POV of someone with a head injury. It can actually help move the story along to hop into the mind of someone who’s not aware of everything and whose awareness can skip to the next important bit.

Of course, you also have to make sure to balance the POVs effectively to get in everybody’s character arcs.

Peril #2: Boring the Reader by Repeating Info

I’ve seen this one a lot, and I have to be very careful about it myself when I have a lot of points of view! This is an easy trap to fall into, because when something major happens, it can feel like cheating not to show each major character reacting to it. But that can lead to retelling the same event four or five times as each POV character learns about it, reacts, and has their arc adjust accordingly.

The problem is that this can get boring when the reader already knows what happened. I’ve used a variety of techniques to get around this, such as:

  1. Skipping straight into a character’s reaction, so that we don’t have to see exposition of the major event but we’re not cheated of the emotional reaction;

  2. Do a quick summarizing line or two of the person being caught up instead of a blow-by-blow of them finding out;

  3. Showing multiple characters’ reactions from one character’s POV;

  4. Actually letting go of the idea that I have to show everybody, and skipping showing some of the characters finding out and reacting — it feels weird, but it can work, as long as it doesn’t violate one of the major relationships or arcs!

I can usually tell if I’m overdoing catching up my POVs if I’m getting bored retelling something, and then I know I need to move it along.

Peril #3: Violating Theory of Mind

I don’t know if this is accurately what it’s called in philosophy, but there’s a concept I’ve heard called “theory of mind” which, for our purposes, refers in simplified terms to which characters know what. This can be especially hard to wrangle when something’s been revealed to the reader but not yet to all the POV characters.

I find I have to be very careful keeping track of this, so as to make sure no POV character refers to something they shouldn’t know yet just because the reader has found out.

Even more difficult, it can feel wrong to the reader if the POV character isn’t connecting something or referencing something that the reader knows is important — so not only do I work to make sure the POV characters aren’t referring to things they don’t know, I work to reinforce to the reader that the POV character in fact isn’t referring to it because they don’t know. For example, say a major character has died and the POV character at the moment doesn’t know it — sometimes I find it necessary not just to refrain from mentioning the character is dead, but to remind the reader the POV character hasn’t seen the dead character in X amount of time, is hoping to see them again, etc. Something to actively remind the reader that the character shouldn’t be thinking about that character as dead.

Peril #4: Pieces in the Wrong Places on the Gameboard

I mentioned up at the top that I think about multiple POVs as largely separate from multiple plotlines. But one thing that does tend to come up more with multiple plotlines is events happening in different settings across a world.

And what’s hard here is making sure to move your game pieces in a way that you have a POV character ready to observe everything you need to be observed.

Depending on what you’re doing — for example, if you don’t have set POV characters and are happy introducing one and then exiling them within one scene — this might be less of an issue. But if you have a specific, limited set of POV characters, sometimes you have to make sure you’ve got the right people moving in the right places at the right times.

The more people, settings, and plotlines you have going on, the more you’ll have to make sure all the motivations and arcs line up. The key for me is making sure each one makes sense individually — if one doesn’t, something needs fixing, even if it’s occupying an important part in the story tapestry.