Point of View

On Writing Multiple Points of View

“Hi Lizard! I have an idea for a writing piece I want to do. I have characters, a majority of the plot, and a brief outline of the ending. The only thing is, I don’t know how to begin in a way that isn’t overwhelming to the reader. I have a bunch of different characters who all need to be in the same place at the same time. I don’t know how to write in multiple perspectives in a way that doesn’t drag on or go too quickly. Any advice?”

I can think of more than a few examples of books with multiple points of view. For instance, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, and most recently, See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt. There are countless other examples, I know, but there are a few reasons I bring these up. Examples like As I Lay Dying, All the Light We Cannot See, and A Visit from the Goon Squad are all fairly experimental.

Multiple points of view tends to complicate a story. Giving a character a point of view in a story elevates their role in the story. It’s a way for the writer to point at them and say, Watch this character. Their perspective matters. If that is not true for the story, you may need to ask yourself, Why include this perspective at all?

It’s experimental.

As I Lay Dying by Faulkner, though published in 1930, is still relatively radical. After the death of their mother Addie Bundren in rural Mississippi, her surviving husband and children are left to carry her coffin through the county, to honor her dying wish, to be buried in her hometown, Jefferson. Faulkner jumps from character to character. He shows the family in mourning and each of their interior conflicts. He additionally writes perspectives of characters outside of the family and even a chapter from Addie’s point of view, though she is already dead. See? Definitely radical.

So what do all these points of view do for the novel? Good question. Faulkner manages to cover a lot of ground in a fairly short book. He shows the family’s grief, their financial struggles, the drama of Addie’s past affair, Cash’s broken leg, Dewey Dell’s pregnancy, among so many other things. Every member of the Bundren family is struggling with something. Every perspective is also so incredibly subjective. Perspectives outside of the family shed light on how the family is perceived by the community and also, enable the reader to see this story again as the dark comedy that it is. It’s about a family carrying the rotting corpse of their matriarch through the countryside. It’s a little funny.

Anyway, with this example, no storyline feels neglected. Every character is the protagonist of their own drama and there is so much drama. The many points of view is the central vehicle that makes telling this story possible. Had it been told any other way, it undoubtedly would have been a very different book.

More contemporary examples, All the Light We Cannot See and A Visit from the Goon Squad, similarly also skip around. As as a result, they are complicated novels with multiple protagonists. Like As I Lay Dying, there’s a lot to unpack.

It’s not actually that experimental.

Now let’s look at some examples that have more than one point of view that are less wild. I’m starting with See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt. This recent novel shares a possible version of the pinnacle days surrounding the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, father and stepmother to the infamous Lizzie Borden. While it is largely believed that Lizzie murdered her father and stepmother, she was never convicted of the crime. This novel delves into the mystery and accounts of persons involved.

In this story, the many points of view all seem to strive to claim their innocence as each person walks the reader through their account of what happened. While there are multiple points of view, the perspectives are straightforward. The style of story telling feels relatively traditional and why each character is privileged with a voice seems automatically clear.

How about another example? Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. In this novel, we’ve got two points of view. Two main characters, as suggested by the title, Eleanor and Park. It’s a love story. It’s adorable. And right from the start, we don’t question why we’re reading both points of view. Outside of just the love story, there’s a broader conflict that deeply effects both characters. They are both protagonists and the story feels relatively straightforward.

Why these points of view?

It can be fun following multiple characters through the world of a story, but it’s not always useful. Always be asking yourself, why is this character telling the story? It’s fine if there’s a reason, but there’s always the risk that you’re writing two different novels set in the same world instead of just one cohesive story.

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