Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.
(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)
Last week, I talked about chapters two and three of your manuscript, and I briefly touched on the question many new writers ask, which is "When do I introduce new POV characters? How many should I have?"
In classics, you might notice that stories tend to be told from the point of view of someone outside the major characters. Maybe it's the author—Jane Austen, as well as many others, tended to do this—or sometimes authors used the "double narrator" technique. This happened in Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte where a man completely removed from the story winds up at Heathcliff's house and is told the story of Catherine and Heathcliff by one of the household servants.
If you're writing for a modern audience, I wouldn't recommend this style of storytelling. It certainly isn't wrong, but most books are currently written in first person or what we call deep third. Some are omniscient, like Ally Carter's Heist Society, Anna Godbersen's Luxe series, or Magyk by Angie Sage. The omniscient point of view is different from what we call head-hopping, and it's a unique kind of beast. I've never written in it, so I won't pretend to be smart about it.
While many stories have multiple POV characters—by which I mean characters who tell us the story from their perspective—most modern stories have only one main character. But how do you know how many POV characters your story needs?
1. Consider your genre.
Many genres have their own unofficial rules when it comes to POV characters. For example, epic fantasy novels tend to have many, many point of view characters whereas "regular" fantasy (for lack of a better term) has significantly less. Romance novels usually have two—the hero and heroine—though sometimes a third is added. This is one of the reasons why it's smart to read a lot of books in your genre, because you'll naturally absorb storytelling techniques like this.
2. Consider the scope of the story.
Does your story span generations, or does it tell about a week in someone's life? Are we following a large group on a quest, a couple as they fall in love, or an individual as she navigates her parents' vicious divorce?
There's no right or wrong scope for a story, but before you can figure out how many POV characters are needed, you'll want to decide just how broad of a view you intend to show.
3. Consider what each potential POV character brings to the story.
After you have an idea of your genre and your scope, you'll need to ask, "Why do we need this particular character's perspective?" Each POV character should show the story from a unique angle, otherwise the story will have a cluttered, repetitive feel.
Sometimes figuring this out takes trial and error. With the most recent story I wrote, I thought I might need an additional POV character. I gave it a whirl but found that even though he showed us a different side of the story, this character wouldn't be involved in the climax of the novel, and because of that he only distracted from the story I wanted to tell.
How do you structure POV changes within your novel?
Going back to the question that was raised last week, when is it best to introduce new POV characters? This is something you have some artistic freedom in—yay!—though some ways tend to work better than others.
As a reader, I like when authors start with the main character's point of view, and when we get to hang out with them for at least an entire chapter before we change. Again, that's a preference, not a rule. If it's a longer book, I like getting two chapters with the main character before we switch to someone new. Really, you just want to be sure you've provided your reader ample time to get attached to your character.
Changing point of view characters at a chapter break is a nice, natural transition. Especially if you're writing your story with multiple points of view, but all in first person (like in Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park, or Kathryn Stockett's The Help) because then you can label each chapter with the POV character's name. Very helpful, especially in the beginning.
If you want to change POV characters in the middle of a chapter, however, you do that byinserting a scene break and then changing perspective with the next scene. Like this example from A Soft Breath of Wind by Roseanna M. White. (Scene break indicated with the # sign)
Dara slid her eyes shut and drew in a deep breath. Perhaps she should have felt some sorrow over the creature. Perhaps she should have felt some regret. But really, what choice did she have? She did not create the visions. She did not write the future.
If the master needed to blame anyone, he would have to take it up with Jehovah.
In her fortnight aboard this vessel, Tamar had never found herself so very alone. Two other families were traveling to Rome as well, and she had ended up sharing a chamber with four other females, happily.
See how clear it is that we're now viewing the story from another perspective?
Any other questions about POV that I can (attempt to) answer? How many point of view characters do your stories tend to have? Do you like to write in first, third, or omniscient?
Also, this month's Go Teen Writers monthly(ish) newsletter will have lots of tips for organizing your writing life. It'll be sent out later this week and you can sign up here.