Friday, April 15, 2016

M is for Multiple Points of View

M is for murder, but I already wrote about British mysteries once, and my favorite mysteries are listed here.

Luckily, M is also for Multiple Points of View, one of my favorite types of book (when done right).

Some omniscient narrators get close to this, dipping into the thoughts and emotions of different characters at different time.  Louise Penny does this, which allows the reader insights that the characters miss.

True multiple POV, in my mind, focuses on one character at a time, whether in third or first person.  There are several different ways to do this.

Most commonly, authors alternate between two main characters.  This keeps the focus while still allowing the reader in on secrets between the characters, and a different take on the situation.  The book I'm reading to two of my classes right now, April Henry's Girl, Stolen, alternates between two third person points of view, the kidnapped girl and her accidental kidnapper.  As a reader, you discover somethings the two have in common despite their obvious differences, and you see how their secrets get them working at cross purposes.  Towards the end, several chapters are told in just one character's point of view, making the reader wonder if the other character survived or not.  (After Veronica Roth, anything is possible, right?)

Will Grayson, Will Grayson (by John Greene and David Leviathan, each writing a different narrator) is another example of this subgenre.  Starflight, by Melissa Landers also has a boy & girl narrator, as does the far superior Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness.  I find Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist to be a less successful use of this technique.

Other books branch beyond two characters to paint a bigger picture.  The danger with this technique is that it gets harder to write in many distinct voices.  For that reason, writers who employ several points of view often stick to third person.  We get to know the characters' thoughts and feelings, but they are shared in the author's voice.   George R. R. Martin's famed series A Song of Ice and Fire is known for the wide range of POVs.  Mostly-good guys, mostly-bad guys, fools, heroes, brides, soldiers, grandpas--he lets us see Westeros from many different perspectives without ever losing the overall tone of his work.

Alternately, a writer can go beyond two characters, but still keep a smallish cast of narrators.  Neal Shusterman's Unwind dystology does a great job at this, as does Rebecca Stead's MG novel Goodbye Stranger.

My favorite style, though, is a large group of first person narrators.  This technique works best when the story is about a community.  Witness, by Karen Hesse, has a broad variety of narrators in a small setting--a few months in a small Vermont town.  The first person narration, written as free verse, is outstanding; each character truly has their own voice.  The middle aged shopkeeper, the young bootlegger, the black teenaged girl, the Jewish child, the racist teen, the smarmy minister...they all reveal themselves. Hesse even found period photos that represent each character, so you can refer back to the front of the book to see who is who.  This is pretty much my gold standard of multiple POV books.

How It Went Down, by Kekla Magoon captures the difficulty of knowing The Truth about any event, since even those who were there see and remember things differently.  And Seedfolks, by Paul Fleischman, is the classic of this genre.   A girl decides to plant a seed in a filthy abandoned lot, and from that, a community garden grows.  


  1. So B. Monkey (Andrew Davies) alternates between the two main characters. But The Year of Silence (Madison Smartt Bell) has a section each for several characters. I don't remember if Rules of Attraction (Bret Easton Ellis) is multiple POV or just a narrator who knows everything.

  2. Witness sounds cool. I had put that on the list for the Reading New England challenge, but I didn't really know anything about it. Now I hope I will get to it soon.
    Interesting topic -- I'm thinking about my favorite multiple POV books now. Thanks!

  3. I love novels w/ multiple points of view and think YA lit that features more than one narrative voice offer a sophistication that helps prepare students for classic and contemporary fiction that they'll encounter in college. I won't have time to read much YA this summer, but "Girl Stolen" is a book I'll include in my summer reading.

  4. I found this journey around Multiple POVs to be really useful for my own writing - thank you! I found myself unable to resist hitting the "buy" button on Witness, so a second thank you for the recommendation.

    Debs Carey


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