As readers, we often say we’ll follow an interesting character anywhere. But in a book with multiple points of view, you have to make sure your readers are ready to follow not one, but several different characters. That’s a big ask, so each character really needs to prove that they’re worth following. And that all starts with their opening chapters.
Of course, every book is different, so your mileage may vary, but here are four things we (Akshaya Raman and Katy Pool) consider when crafting the opening chapters of a book with multiple points of view.
1. Each character needs their own inciting incident
Every book needs an inciting incident to set up the journey that the character will go on. (If you need a refresher on inciting incidents, you can check out our post on structure.) But when you have more than one POV character, the opening chapter (or chapters) for each character must set up the inciting incident for that character.
So what happens if you don’t have an inciting incident for your POV in the first few chapters? It comes back to making sure a character can prove they’re worth following. If you can’t quickly set up the character’s journey for the reader, it might be a sign that you need to go back to the whiteboard and restructure, or perhaps even cut, that POV. Just because you as the writer are interested in exploring a perspective doesn’t mean your book needs it.
However, all that said, if your book doesn’t have a group cast with roughly equal screen time for all your POVs (e.g. if you’re writing something more like THE READER than SIX OF CROWS), this might not fully apply. In that case, you want to make sure that you pay special attention to the next section: your character’s inner desires.
2. Introduce each character’s inner need as early as possible
A character’s inner need is the reason we’re reading about them. It’s the thesis of your story. Desires, both external (what characters want) and internal (what characters need) drive the story forward and help the reader become invested in each character’s growth. I would argue that in a multiple POV book, it’s even more important that we find out what drives the protagonists as soon as possible.
For one thing, unless your book is three or four times the length of an average single POV book (which…it really should not be unless you’re George RR Martin), there’s less page time to get to know each character. You want the reader to feel invested in every character from the very beginning, otherwise they’ll just be skimming Character B’s chapters and wishing they could jump ahead to the next Character A chapter. The earlier the reader learns what each character wants, the quicker they will buy into that character’s storyline, and the more they’ll want to keep reading about them.
The first chapter of each POV should set up that character’s inner need clearly and hint at how it relates to the overarching plot (more on that in a second). If you get to the end of a character’s first chapter and they still haven’t revealed what they need, you either have an issue with your plot structure or a character who doesn’t deserve their own POV.
3. Hint at how each POV ties into in the overarching conflict
The first chapters should also give hints about how these characters will ultimately intersect. For some books, this will be obvious because the characters may already know one another and have interactions within their opening chapters. You might, for instance, have chapter one in the point of view of a leader of street gang, and chapter two in the point of view of one of his gang members (if you’re Leigh Bardugo, anyway!) But for other books, it might not be clear right away how the separate POVs connect.
I’m actually a big fan of multiple POV books that take their time in getting the characters together — part of the fun as a reader is that sense of anticipation of the impending collision. But to achieve that feeling, you need to start planting seeds very early on that hint at what that collision will be. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the first chapters need to lay out exactly how and when the characters will come together. But the more you seed in details that hint at what’s to come, the more your readers will want to keep turning the pages to see how it all plays out.
You should use your character’s goals and desires to help develop that tension–for instance, if one character’s goal is to become king and another character’s goal is to topple the monarchy, we can very easily see from the beginning how these characters will come into conflict. If these goals are introduced in the very first chapters, then the tension will begin to percolate before these characters even meet–and each subsequent chapter can build on that tension so that when the characters finally do intersect, the reader is ready for fireworks.
But whether your characters know each other from the start or are fated to meet later on, the first chapters of your book should make it clear that each character’s storyline builds toward a larger central conflict.
4. Leverage world building to make each character distinct
Often, when people talk about multiple POVs, a question that comes up is “how do you make each POV sound different?” One answer is filtering the character through the lens of world building.
A character who grew up without much money, for example, might be more likely to notice waste than one who grew up in a more privileged environment. And this goes beyond just what a character might notice in a scene. This extends all the way to their attitudes, values, what they care about–all of which can affect how they interact with every other element in the book, including the other characters.
World can also be a great way to establish where your characters are in relation to one another. This note can be in terms of geography, sure, but it can also be in terms of the potential intersections that we talked about above. Let’s say two countries are at war. One POV is from Kingdom A and the other from Kingdom B. There is already a very strong connection between the two POVs now and how they might collide.
However, the risk of overwhelming your reader with world building is higher in a book with multiple POVs. Not only do you have to consider the amount of information introduced in each individual first chapter, you have to think about how all of that information works across several POVs. Each character’s first chapter should layer upon what has already been presented to construct an immersive, three-dimensional world.
Ideally, each POV would be distinct enough to showcase different parts of the world while also maintaining the connections that will keep the reader from feeling adrift in a vast, complex world.
There’s a lot of pressure to get the beginning of any book right. But with multiple POVs, that pressure is even higher. You have to treat each character’s first chapter as if it’s the start of their own book–but at the same time, each new POV should build on the events, conflicts, and world building of the ones before.
So how do you do it well? Good question. And we don’t have an answer (but boy do we wish we did). What works for one book might not work for another. But we hope these tips are helpful to keep in mind as you go about writing the opening chapters of a multiple POV book.
What keeps you reading a book with multiple POVs? What books do it well? Let us know in the comments!