We’ve discussed perspective quite thoroughly in previous posts—first-person, third-person limited, and third-person omniscient, as well as a host of perspective errors. But we haven’t much discussed stories with multiple perspective characters, where the narrative jumps from point person’s point-of-view to another’s and back again.
Multiple-perspective stories can be written with any type of perspective, but these days third-person limited is the most common for these types of stories. Third-person omniscient stories are uncommon these days in general because they are difficult to write and to read (though they are all, by definition, multiple-perspective stories). First-person stories, on the other hand, can often be confusing if there is more than one perspective because readers can easily lose track of which narrator is speaking, since all of the narrators simply refer to themselves as “I”.
The number of points-of-view in a multiple-perspective story can vary widely. On one extreme, you have the Harry Potter books, which feature only two or three chapters across seven books from perspectives other than Harry’s. On the other extreme, you have stories like George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which follows dozens of different points-of-view and switches perspective with nearly every chapter.
There is nothing wrong with writing a story from multiple perspectives—if it’s good enough for Homer, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy, then it’s good enough for the rest of us. Keep in mind, however, that writing from multiple perspectives is much more difficult than writing from a single perspective. If you choose to undertake this sort of difficult task, make sure it’s a choice that serves your story. If your story needs multiple perspectives in order to cover all of the plot, then put in multiple perspectives. If you’re only doing it because George R. R. Martin did it, however, then that’s not a good reason.
Here are some reasons a story might need multiple perspectives:
One person can’t be there for the whole story
Take a story like The Empire Strikes Back. At the beginning, the rebels are driven and scattered from their hidden base on Hoth. Luke goes to Dagobah to train with Yoda; Han, Leia, and the others evade the Empire through a strangely-cluttered asteroid field and then flee to Cloud City. Plot happens, and they’re (mostly) reunited at the end.
If Luke were the only perspective character, the audience would miss Han and Leia falling in love, the dark intrigue of their arrival at Cloud City, their capture by Darth Vader, Han being frozen in carbonite, Lando’s change of heart, and Leia and the others’ escape from Cloud City. If Leia were the only perspective character, we would miss Luke’s plot-important training—from Yoda’s reluctance to train him, “Do or do not. There is no try,” Luke’s vision of Vader, lifting the X-wing from the swamp, Luke’s decision to disobey his trainer to go save his friends, all the way to the climactic duel between Luke and Vader and the famous reveal of Vader’s identity. If we were to follow only one perspective character, then we would miss half the plot—therefore, multiple perspectives are needed.
To avoid an overabundance of convenient coincidences (Chosen One Syndrome)
Almost every story from any place or time relies on a certain amount of coincidence. Characters just happen to be in the right place at the right time to overhear just the right conversation, or Luke just happens to crash on Dagobah within walking distance of Yoda’s house—those sorts of things. We all accept a certain amount of implausibility for the sake of story.
But single-perspective stories tend to necessitate more implausible coincidences than do multiple-perspective stories. Look at the Harry Potter novels—across seven books, how many times does Harry conveniently overhear an important conversation that he wasn’t supposed to? How many more do Ron and Hermione happen to hear and relate to him? The sheer amount of coincidence can get to be a little staggering. In a multiple-perspective novel, you can give the audience all of the important plot information that they need without having to get all of that information to a single person.
To avoid boredom (More Chosen One Syndrome)
When plotting a story, it is a good idea to follow the action—show whatever part of the story is most interesting and engaging, and skip over parts that are dull or repetitive. The problem that arises in a single-perspective character is that this means that your single protagonist has to be there for almost every plot-important event or conversation that ever happens. Everything! J.K. Rowling even had to invent the pensieve so that she could have Harry be present for plot-important events that happened before he was even born! (And it was an excellent way to handle this problem, in my opinion.) But not every story can whip out a pensieve when the main character needs to be present for something plot important. More often, they have to rely on yet more convenient coincidences and implausible situations.
When single-perspective stories try to handle this more realistically, the story tends to become less engaging. One of the most common complaints that I’ve heard about Mockingjay (book three of The Hunger Games) is that so much of the actual story happens “off-screen” while Katniss is doing little to nothing on-screen. It was realistic to have her suffering from a PTSD-esque problem; but planning a big, daring mission to finally go save Peeta and then not showing us when it happened? That was disappointing, to say the least.
Multiple-perspective stories can handily side-step this problem. If one character has to drive for three hours before they’ll get to where something interesting will happen, switch to a different character in a more interesting situation. More characters get to share more of the spotlight, and the story will usually be a bit more plausible for it.
To give greater understanding or increase tension
Have you ever read The Wheel of Time? There’s a character named Galad who is in and out of the story throughout the entire fourteen books, and almost everyone hated him. He was cold and strict, a man whose devotion to what he believed was right led him to throw in his lot with dangerous, unthinking zealots. Or at least, that’s what he was for ten books or so. Then, I think in the eleventh book, we were for the first time shown a scene from Galad’s point of view. For many people, it was a revelation. Once we could see things from his perspective, he became sympathetic and understandable. Once scene was enough to make him suddenly likeable for the rest of the series, even when we weren’t in his perspective.
Writing a scene from a character’s perspective is an excellent way to get the audience to understand and sympathize with the character, if that’s what you need. (Or, if they’re despicable enough, it’s a good way to get the audience to quickly dislike or fear the character.)
Multiple perspectives can also increase tension. Show us a scene from a side character’s point of view that reveals that they are a traitor with a plan to bring down the other characters. Bam. All of a sudden, the audience knows that something bad is coming that the main characters don’t. That’s dramatic irony, folks, and it’s a handy tool that is only available in multiple-perspective stories.
So there’s some handy reasons for using multiple points-of-view in a story. Next time, we’ll go over some of the difficulties and hazards to look out for when composing multiple-perspective narratives.