You are perfectly at liberty to have more than one viewpoint character if you think it will serve your story best. Think fantasy epics such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series. Lots of books. Lots of characters. Lots of viewpoints.
The main problem with multiple viewpoints is how to manage the POV shifts between characters. Again, consistency is the order of the day. You need to set up a structure for the POV shifts and signpost them clearly, because shifting POV without warning is like speaking to someone without first catching their eye. The first time, they may be merely taken by surprise, but if it happens more than once, they will become irritated very quickly.
Most common is a pattern of alternating narrators, with POV shifts usually occurring between chapters or larger book divisions. There are no limits on the number of viewpoints, but be aware that if your readers are fully engaged with a particular character, they may be unhappy at a POV shift regardless of how well you manage it. The way around this problem, of course, is to make the next viewpoint character every bit as fascinating as the last (something to keep in mind if you are planning a large number of them). Beware also random minor characters who pop up to grab their fifteen minutes of POV fame. Unless they have some piece of information absolutely vital to the story which cannot be imparted any other way, remove them from the premises quietly and quickly. Don’t forget, the more viewpoints you have, the more goodwill required from your readers.
A good example of the use of multiple viewpoints is Bram Stoker’s classic vampire tale, Dracula. The story weaves between major and minor character narrations via letters, journals, interviews, ship’s logs and newspaper reports. The clever thing about the way the novel is structured is that each narration moves the plot forward in time and place, linked by and chronologically following Dracula’s physical journey from Transylvania to England and back again. Indeed, it is the reader’s awareness of this sinister thread of Dracula’s evil presence underlying the narrated events (and mostly unbeknownst to the other protagonists) which pulls the disparate sections of narrative into a cohesive whole and gives the story its overwhelming sense of menace and urgency.
A note of caution – one of the most common mistakes in early draft manuscripts is the unintentional POV shift within chapters or even paragraphs. We’ll look at this in more detail in the next post, but here’s a quick taster:
‘Julia smiled at happy memories of children tumbling amongst the fallen leaves in autumns long past. Now the only thing tumbling about in the garden was her husband, Simon. He vigorously rubbed the grit from his eyes with his dirty hands, having accidentally hit himself in the face with the grubby roots of a particularly stubborn dandelion.
The POV shift from Julia to Simon may be subtle, but is unnerving nonetheless. Let’s face it, if readers have to work too hard to get the sense or atmosphere of a story, they may end up thinking less kindly of you as a writer. So keep an eye out for errant POV shifts to ensure you don’t end up with lots of VARs (that is, Very Annoyed Readers).
I love your “remove them from the premises quietly and quickly” – loving the image of a burly bouncer extracting an irrelevant character from the novel!! Great piece with lots of very on-the-button points…
Thanks, Tara, glad you enjoyed it. I tried to make the removal sound easy, but as Joan pointed out in her comment to my last post, getting rid of them can be a rather more painful decision. Fact is those little limelight stealers often have to be dragged out kicking and screaming!