He Said, She Said
This past weekend I traveled to LA for YALLWEST and He Said, She Said was my first panel. I love talking about multiple POVs because it’s a question every author must ask themself when they start a new book. It’s up there with what tense you write in and whether the POV is in first, second, close third, or omniscient. When you begin a book, you have to throw stuff on the wall to see what sticks. With some stories, it’s immediately obvious, but with others it might not be. So here are my thoughts on multiple POV’s for those of you considering it.
Many of my books have multiple point of views because I felt that, for those particular stories, they opened up the world and added more tension, while also giving the reader more insight into what’s happening than the protagonist herself. It’s exciting for the reader to know something the protagonist doesn’t. It ramps up the tension, creates cosmic inevitability, and adds a layer of suspense, all of which is exciting for a reader. If you only have one POV that’s totally fine, but it’s a more limited focus. When I’ve done books with one POV it’s because I want the reader to only experience the world as my protagonist does so that the reader is a voyeur, on the journey with the protagonist every step of the way. I did this in my first novel Something Real, because I wanted the reader to feel how claustrophobic the protagonist’s life was (she’s forced to be on a reality TV show with her family). I wanted the reader to feel helpless and frustrated, I wanted them to go through the story hand in hand with Chloe, weathering storms and finding ways to escape them. But this might not be the right approach for every novel you write, especially if it’s a big world like fantasy or sci-fi where things are happening on multiple fronts.
In my novel I’ll Meet You There, Sky’s narrative is more traditional—first person, past tense. But every few chapters, there is about a page or two from Josh’s perspective, written as a present tense stream-of-consciousness. He’s a nineteen-year-old Marine who has just come back from Afghanistan. He’s an amputee and has PTSD. I wanted the reader to be able to get inside his head, to go beyond the front that he presents to those around him (that he’s fine, that he’s not having nightmares every night or grieving the guys he lost). The choice to have the multiple POV had been there from Day One. I didn’t want to write the book if Josh’s parts weren’t in there. Using Josh’s parts helped create tension between him and Skyler. The reader knows how he feels about her, but she doesn’t (because he doesn’t tell her, doesn’t always show her). Another reason I wanted to include his POV was so that the reader was able to see what it’s really like for someone like Josh, rather than only seeing him through Skyler’s eyes. I feel like the tension between the Josh and Skyler parts intensified the romance and created suspense—will they, or won’t they get together?
In my jinni trilogy, I use multiple points of view in all the books. With the book that came out this year, Blood Passage, I had four POV’s, the most I’d ever worked with. The world of my series is so big, with gods and magic, history and culture, that I couldn’t possibly show it to the reader through only my protagonist’s eyes. The other characters allow me to highlight all the aspects of the world that the reader needs to know about—what’s going on in Earth, in the present, what happened in the past, what’s going on in the jinni realm, Arjinna. It allows me to show my protagonist in many different lights. When we look at Nalia from Raif’s perspective, we see a complicated woman who often comes up against stereotypes about her race, but constantly subverts them in surprising ways. When we look at her through Malek’s POV (her master), we see an object to be desired, someone who could be absolution, if she could ever love him. When we see her from Zanari’s perspective, we see a girl who has lied, broken her brother’s heart (Raif), and will stop at nothing to save her own brother. So now we get this complete, very complex picture of Nalia. If we were only in her POV, we might get hints of these other things, but not nearly the full portrait of who she is. We would get her despair over her past mistakes and her refusal to give up or give in. We’d get her desperation and moral complexity of her choices. But there is so much more of her.
It’s important to note that you should only use multiple POVs if the story really calls for it. Sometimes I get frustrated—especially with contemporary YA—when there are multiple POVs that weren’t necessary. What I mean by this is that every time I’m taken away from the protagonist and put into the other POV I feel frustrated, like I don’t want to be taken away. The other POV feels plodding, and is not as dynamic as the protagonist’s POV. Only use multiple POVs when the story is incomplete with only one perspective. Make sure you’ve exercised all the ways in which your protagonist can gather information (for example, maybe they overhear a conversation rather than the author creating another POV so that that conversation can be revealed to the reader).
A recent book that I’ve read that uses multiple POV’s really well is I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson. It is absolutely necessary to have the brother and sister as double protagonists with their own POV, in part because they keep a lot of secrets from each other—secrets we need to know in order to get the full story. The collective emotional resonance of their journeys is amplified by their individual experiences that they don’t share with one another. The other is almost a ghostly presence within their twin’s POV—we sense the pain and loss they have over these secret, individual lives that still interweave in unexpected ways. They are also both going through some serious internal work that we would lose if one of the POVs was dropped.
Using multiple POVs can expand the world of a story, deepen character, amplify emotional resonance, and add tension and suspense. It’s a great storytelling tool that, if you used effectively, can enrich a story tenfold.
A little writing exercise: consider a scene that is in your protagonist’s perspective. Now, write that scene from a different character’s perspective. That character may or may not be an active member of the scene. They could be spying on the character. Whether or not you decide to then turn the story into a multiple POV narrative is up to you. That’s not the point of this exercise. The point is for you to gain a deeper understanding of the scene, to see what’s at play and the layers that go into each moment. Perhaps you’ll realize something needs to be changed or that your protagonist needs to pay more attention to another character, another moment. Perhaps the scene is about something totally different from what you originally conceptualized. Either way, this can be extremely helpful.
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