Monday, September 05, 2011

Using Multiple POV Characters

I hope you're having a safe and happy Labor Day weekend. A reminder: Today's the last day to take advantage of my e-book giveaway.

And another reminder that I'm hosting a month-long discussion of characters at Coffee Time Romance. It's free, and you can drop in any time. And thinking about characters leads me to today's post.

When authors put a character on the page, they've made a decision as to whether or not it will be a POV character. In my opinion, if you're going to make a character a POV character, there needs to be a good reason for it.

If the only reason you're adding a POV character is to show his thoughts, then you should probably re-think it and see if there's another way to get that information to the reader. We live in a single POV world. A POV character has to be critical for plot advancement, not author convenience.

In romance, it's a 'given' that there will be two POV protagonists: hero and heroine. There might be more, but there are always at least two.

Mysteries are another genre. Most mysteries I read feature some kind of crime-solving detective, and often, they're part of a series where the same character heads up the entire series.

And then there's suspense, which by nature, requires more than one POV character, because the reader needs to know more than the protagonist—hence, the suspense.

A recent read falls into the suspense category (the back cover calls it a thriller, but I disagree with the recent overuse of the term). As someone who definitely prefers to connect with characters, I tried to step back and examine why the book works for me.

Because the author is using so many POV characters, there's not a single character to get behind, to care about. Technically, as a character-focused reader and writer, I shouldn't be enjoying the book. So why am I? I think it's because despite the complexities of writing multiple POV characters, the author has worked to avoid distancing readers.

1. Readers should connect with each POV character, one way or the other. Show us the stakes.

For example, there's the kindly rancher who harbors the children who claim to have witnessed a murder. They're afraid because the killers have seen them. We know the children are telling the truth, because we've seen it. The rancher's conflict is whether or not to reveal that he has the children. He knows their mother is frantic with worry. But can he trust the people who are supposed to be the good guys when the children say they're really the bad guys?

2. Character back story needs to be woven in with the same care you'd take for a single or dual POV character story.

To layer character depth here, long before the rancher and the children come into contact, we see that he's in danger of losing his ranch, that he has had marital problems, and he's lost his son. In short, he's a 'real' person with real-life issues beyond wondering what to do about two kids who need help.

The flip side to having so many POV characters is that we're constantly being shifted from one to the other. If a reader doesn't connect with one of the characters, it's quite possible they're going to skip over those scenes. Each character requires its own introduction, creating even more opportunities for the author to lose readers with dumping back story so many times. The author has to make sure we don't wonder why he's introducing the rancher's financial and marital problems when it appears there's no connection to the mystery.

3. Transitions between characters must be logical and clearly ground the reader in the POV character's head.

This is more of a challenge in books with many POV characters. Simply because switches are clearly marked with scene breaks or extra spacing doesn't make things flow smoothly. The reader still has to regroup and figure out which character's head we're in now.

An author wants a reader to turn pages. Wondering what happens in the story is definitely a reason a reader will keep going. But making your reader wonder what's happening to the character in addition to following the story is even better.

Tomorrow, my guest is author Kelly McClymer who's going to discuss the downside she's encountered with her expansion to indie publishing

Like this post? Please share by clicking one of the links below.


Jan Romes said...

Thanks for the advice, Terry! I'm currently trying to write a suspense. It's been a learning experience for sure. And I appreciate you sharing your knowledge on the subject.

Have a great Labor Day!

Jan Romes

Sofia Essen said...

Hi Terry,

This is not my first visit to your place but it's the first time I comment. Okay, where to begin... I'll start with thank you for all the wonderful tips you share. I'm constantly looking for places to learn more about writing so I'll be dropping by here often. And I'll leave a message so you know I've been here ;)

Susan Vaughan said...

Excellennt post, Terry. As a suspense author myself, I often use the villain's POV as well as other important secondary characters. Do you ever use a victim's POV, for instance, just before he's captured or killed?

Terry Odell said...

Jan - I'm always happy to share what I've learned. Just adapt so it works for you.

Sofia - welcome. Hope to see more of you.

Susan - I'm a "mystery" gal, so I don't write much suspense. Danger in Deer Ridge is probably the closest to an actual suspense novel of any of mine. It's the first of mine with a villain's POV.(And I only did it because it was totally clear who he was, so I figured no need to hide him--and he insisted on some scenes of his own.) I'd be curious as to your take.

And (because I never follow the rules) I don't always center my books around a murder, so I don't always have someone who shows up dead. But since I don't like reading those little head hops, I don't write them.

Joyce Yarrow said...

Wonderful post Terry.
One of my favorite writers, Kate Atkinson, usually writes from multiple POVs and is a master a making the most of this difficult technique. Reading her work has convinced me that seeing directly into the heart and motivations of each character can make for a compelling - and suspenseful - read.

Terry Odell said...

Joyce - yes, doing things well is the tricky part!

Maryann Miller said...

Excellent tips as usual, Terry. This comes at a good time for me as my current WIP does have a lot of POV characters. I am noticing as I go through the first draft that I am doing some unnecessary head hopping and I need to mark those sections for fixing in the next draft. It is amazing how easy it is to slip into that in first drafts.

Susan, in my mystery series I have gotten into the head of a victim just before he or she was killed, but I keep that very short. I have found that some authors do several pages of "story" about the victim, and I don't care for that technique. I know the reasoning is that we will care more about that person getting killed, but too often it goes on too long.

Donnell said...

Hi, Terry, interesting post, and like anything else, I think you have to do what works for your story. In my soon to be released book, I have the hero/heroine, antagonist, and a fourth POV, I go into the head of the heroine's teenage son. I think it's critical for the reader to know how this kid is feeling, and I think it made it a richer book. But then I'm prejudiced ;) Have a safe and productive Labor Day.

Adelle Laudan said...

I agree the POV switches have to go smoothly so as not to jar the reader. I envy any author who can do so with more than 3 POV switches.
I think the reader needs to be emotionally vested in the hero and heroine. A dirtbag villain who gets the readers' blood pressure rising is definitely not a bad thing lol
Great post! Food for thought.

Carol Kilgore said...

Love those cows. I enjoy reading and writing multiple POV. And I agree about the reader being invested in each POV character. If they're important enough to have a story POV, they're important enough to be fleshed out.

Terry Odell said...

Maryann -- Sometimes you'll find that you've got several characters whose function in the story can be combined into one character.

Donnell - I totally agree that it's about what works for you and your story. And, more importantly, doing it well. I got a rejection from a publisher who said they couldn't handle more than one POV character. (I haven't gone through their published books to see if they only publish this sort of story, but it did seem strange to me. I had 3 in that book.)

Adell - it's all about emotional investment for me.

Carol - I had more trouble trying to come up with an "appropriate" image for this post, and Googled just about every permutation I could think of for multiple POV, crowds, groups, etc. I hit the cows and loved them. Thanks for stopping by.

Jemi Fraser said...

I'm currently working on a rom/mys and am using the 2 povs. It's really fun to pop inside both of their heads - I like the connection I can get with the characters :)

Lauren @ Pure Text said...

Hmm, let's see how I can apply this advice...well, as I work on my brand new WIP, I'll be sure to get into each character's head so the reader can connect more with them, instead of showing the character from the outside only. :D I'm excited to write now.

Good luck to everyone else on their WIPs.

Lauren I. Ruiz

Vonnie said...

I totally agree that you'd better find a reason to insert someone's POV, rather than just their thoughts. But I love thrillers with multiple points of view, and my writing gets skewed that way. The POV of your antagonist for example can show motivation. Unfortunately my meatier stuff gets weeded out for the sake of 'romantic suspense.' Sigh. POV is something I'm studying hard at the moment in order to stop dumbing down by books.

Terry Odell said...

Lauren - so glad you're excited. That's when the magic happens.

Vonnie - no need to 'dumb down' books. POV was my first writing lesson, and I'm hooked on deep 3rd, although I've written 1st. Suspense does have its own challenges.

Karen Emanuelson said...

What is the name of the suspense book you are reading with the rancher & the kids?

Terry Odell said...

Karen - Blue Heaven by C.J. Box.

Susan Vaughan said...

Terry wrote:Susan - I'm a "mystery" gal, so I don't write much suspense. Danger in Deer Ridge is probably the closest to an actual suspense novel of any of mine. It's the first of mine with a villain's POV.(And I only did it because it was totally clear who he was, so I figured no need to hide him--and he insisted on some scenes of his own.) I'd be curious as to your take.
Terry, going into the villain's head when it's obvious who he is works for me in my suspense novels. And sometimes I've avoided using the villain's POV. I've also used the villain's POV when the reader didn't know who he was but that's trickier. As with any writing technique, it's important to use what works for that story. I'm planning a mystery now, not a suspense, so I'm probably not going to use the villain's POV in that one.

Patricia Stoltey said...

My new manuscript is a suspense novel with multiple POV -- my main female character in trouble, three different bad guys, and one female cop.

I was a bit disturbed to find how much I enjoyed writing from one of the bad guy's POV, especially since he's a fat evil thug with a dirty mouth. My inner self is not a person I recognize. :)

Terry Odell said...

Susan - true. It's being able to understand that what worked for one book might not work for another that helps a writer move forward.

Patricia - yes, I was surprised to find how much fun I had writing those Villain POV scenes.