Handling multiple POVs

This entry is part 13 of 14 in the series Deep POV

Sometimes, using more than one POV in a novel can be tricky. Handling multiple POV styles can be even trickier. Today we’ll look at how to transition effectively between multiple POV characters in third person, and next time we’ll take it to the next level, looking at multiple first person narrators and mixing first and third.

Multiple third-person POV characters

In general, the guideline is that we don’t change POV characters within a scene. I’ve even seen this rule phrased as “you can’t change POV characters within a chapter” but from all that I’ve read and seen, I think that’s far stricter than general publishing guidelines. I’ve also seen some writers state that you can’t change POVs within a chapter, but that’s patently ridiculous, to put it mildly.

When changing between viewpoint characters with all third-person POVs, you will want to use a scene break (denoted by white space or other marks in novels, denoted by centered asterisks or octothorpes in manuscripts) or a chapter break. As with any scene ending, you’ll probably want to give us something to look forward to for the next time we see that character or we get that character’s POV (a hook, if you will).

In the new scene, orient the readers to the new POV character as quickly as you can. You have a number of options of narrative modes to start the scene, but orienting to the POV character can make it a little tougher. Using dialogue can be hit or miss. Thoughts, in general—such as the sequel from the previous scene in this character’s POV—aren’t the best way to switch off the POVs.

I think of opening with thoughts like starting a movie scene with a black screen and a voiceover—without the advantage of recognizing the voice right away. There’s a certain stark effect there, but if you’re not going for that, use the anchor and marble in those thoughts amid the present action.

The easiest way to orient the reader to the new POV character is to begin with a physical action anchor. I do try to avoid falling into a formula, but this beginning is also a good place to orient the reader and character in place and time, include a short sequel from the last scene we saw the POV character in (especially if something important happened and we need their reaction) and state the scene goal (which is often related to the sequel).

Seems like a lot? You can do all that in as little as three sentences.

Another personal rule that I use with multiple POV characters (and this is totally my option, a guideline I gave myself, you don’t have to follow it, but I do) is that any character whose role in the story is important enough to warrant getting their own POV should probably have their POV introduced within the first 3-5 chapters or 30-50 pages.

I find POV characters that jump out of nowhere jarring, especially later in a book (especially if it’s for a single scene—drive-by POV—and most especially if that single scene isn’t needed or didn’t need an additional POV character). They don’t have to come up in a regular rotation, but I try to keep the “minor viewpoint characters” in the loop every few chapters as well.

Multiple third-person POVs within a single scene

Seriously? Didn’t I just say we shouldn’t do this?

All right, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen in published books. At this point, I avoid this (I’m very strict on myself about POV, actually). But if you really, really, really want to do it, here are some tips:

  • Make sure the transition is necessary. Gratuitous changes can feel like indiscriminate head hopping. Limit the number of heads you pop into in a single scene
  • Make sure the transition is obvious (i.e. obviously intentional). The reader needs to feel like we’ve passed the POV baton onto this new character and the character has accepted it, not like “we’re just in this character’s head for a visit, and then we’ll pop back into the real POV character’s head.”
  • Make sure the transition is smooth. (Obvious and smooth? I’m not asking much, right? Maybe this is why this has fallen out of favor.)

This is not quite like omniscient POV, because in omniscient, you don’t have to be quite so strict about transitions. You want to be systematic in omniscient, but once you’ve established your POV expectations (that you can dip into all characters’ thoughts), you can continue to operate in those parameters.

Unless you’re already published, you have to prove you know what you’re doing with POV, so tread carefully here.

What do you think? What “person” do you typically use? How many viewpoint characters do you typically have? What is the most you’ve ever juggled? Come join in the conversation!

Photo credits: couple eating—Mr. Thomas;
anchor & compass (Falkland Islands War Memorial)—Ambernectar 13; leap frog (for head hopping)—TRiver

Series NavigationHandling multiple POVs: first person

2 thoughts on “Handling multiple POVs”

  1. In Christine Feehan’s Leopard People series, I notice that the third person POV shifts mid-scene from character to character to show both sides of a couple’s take on a developing romantic encounter. The upside is that one can see why each side is attracted and/or suspicious, increasing readers’ understanding of the characters’ behavior (and level of attraction). The downside is that with so much sequel – each character’s feelings and thoughts and decisions are laid out so one can follow the author’s trail – the text can have two paragraphs between a line of dialogue and its response. This slowness obviously doesn’t harm her sales, but it’s a dramatically different book than an action thriller.
    I mention it because it involves successful mid-chapter 3p POV changes. Confusion is avoided by using character names, just as in the case of the chick walking into the living room from the kitchen. It’s effective at POV switch.

    My question is, how critical is having POV switches? I started a piece in 1p, and began wondering whether – in order to sell romantic subplots or heighten suspenseful subplots – I should use 3p and skip about, showing things the main character(s) can’t see. I realize this sort of strategic decision isn’t subject to easy analysis, but if you have any questions you ask yourself when answering the “which person” question I’d love to hear what those questions are.


    1. Typically for me, I know from the character’s voice what person to write in, but there are a lot of other things I take into account. For example, I had one main character who believed some things very strongly that my audience would have a hard time buying (because of their own beliefs), so I wanted to use first person with her because the factual style of third person would make it harder for readers to relate. (There was another first person POV character, and a third person POV character in that novel, too. If I ever fix it, I’ll let you know how it turns out 😉 .)

      In a couple of my manuscripts, I had to add the villain’s POV to increase the suspense and mystery, since they were plotting things while the main characters’ POVs focused on other problems.

      In my most recent WIP, I used single 1st person for the first time in years. I had to make sure the MC’s POV was suspenseful enough, and weave in just enough hints at the bad guy’s intentions, and then I had to give the bad guy the opportunity to do some explaining. These things might have been easier if I’d had another POV character (like the villain), but it didn’t feel right for the voice of the novel. Of course, I can always change that!

Comments are closed.