My favorite part of starting a new project is getting to write new characters. Usually I go in already knowing what POV (or POVs, since most books I write have multiple) the book will be told from. But recently, as I started to brainstorm a new idea, I realized I was trying to choose between one and… uh, four perspectives. So today I thought I’d briefly talk through my process of selecting which perspectives to include.
Outsider vs. Insider
When starting a new project, I always begin by asking myself whether the “main” perspective is that of an insider (i.e. someone already familiar with the world of the story) or an outsider (i.e. someone new).
Most speculative stories pick the outsider perspective because it’s easy to convey knowledge about the world quickly and clearly. Mystery is great, but sometimes it helps to be given vital information straight up, and a newcomer is in the perfect position to do that with minimal info-dumping. Think about how confusing it would have been to have The Sorcerer’s Stone from Ron’s perspective. Unlike Harry, he’d grown up with magic. We’d be thrown into Weasley family madness from chapter one, which would be so overwhelming and confusing when we don’t really care about these characters or the world just yet.
However, a drawback of having an outsider means you have to forge a lot of new relationships and establish them very well. For instance, imagine a book where the MC was an outsider, but every single twist or reveal actually affected the love interest, the insider character. The MC tells us the reveal is a big deal, but it doesn’t have the same level of emotional impact because they don’t have deep ties to many of these characters like the LI does. But if we’d had the entire book from the LI’s perspective, it would have been far more devastating to realize that people they’d trusted for years had betrayed them.
If you have a big world with lots of moving parts, an outsider can help orient readers as they discover more about the world. However, I prefer having insiders wherever possible. If the reveals and big twists don’t have intrinsic emotional value to the character whose head we’re in, they won’t land and you won’t have any payoff. Or alternatively, you can have someone who straddles that line–Jude from The Cruel Prince is a great example of someone who is both an outsider (as a human) and an insider (grew up in the fae world).
Single vs Multiple POVs
So if you haven’t realized by now, I really love writing books with multiple POVs. But not all books need additional perspectives.
Single POV books can be great because they allow you to take a deep dive into one character. It gives us more time to develop complex relationships–with love interests, with friends, even with villains. We get to see everything about this person’s life and how that intersects with the problems of the world and the plot.
But there are also benefits to having 2 or more POVs. You can go to more places and learn more things about the characters and the world. You can show multiple things happening without one character needing to travel to each place separately to gain information the reader needs. And you can showcase really different dynamics and relationships between various characters and elements of the world.
There are definitely benefits and drawbacks to both. Having multiple POVs means more work, as we’ve talked about in some of our other posts. All of the characters have to be well developed and distinct. They all have to be vital and bring something valuable to the table. But single POVs can also have their own challenges. As Mara pointed out, having the only POV be unlikeable or untrustworthy means that other characters will act a specific way around them. You can’t easily show the complexities of side characters if they wouldn’t necessarily be vulnerable around a MC because of who they are.
Sometimes adding a POV is as simple as wanting to explore a specific character dynamic and knowing you need to get two perspectives to build a complex story. This is a great tool to develop tension and conflict in a romance heavy story, or one where two characters are on opposite sides of an issue or country. But sometimes, one of those POVs might just have too much information. A mystery, for example, is much more challenging to unravel if you’re getting half the book from the POV of the culprit. It could actually decrease tension if the audience already knows who committed the crime, even if the detective doesn’t.
Interesting vs Valuable
You often hear people say “you should write your book from the POV of the most interesting character.” But we don’t always go in and break down what makes a character interesting to follow.
Everyone has a different idea of what “interesting” is, but in terms of story, a POV character should be complicating things. They should be making choices and decisions that make things messy for themselves and for others. Their choices, good or bad, should have consequences that irrevocably change the course of the book. If we’re sitting around waiting for someone else to act to give the POV character something to do–that’s a sign we’re following the wrong character.
But interesting alone isn’t a good enough reason to have a POV. A character can be the coolest, most dynamic person, but they have to make sense for the story you’re telling. You have to think about how their perspective is going to intersect with the main plot, and if they’re the character who has the most to lose if things don’t go as intended.
A character can have a great backstory, a lot of personality, they can be clever, funny, have clear goals and motivations. On paper they can have all the makings of a great POV to read about. But they have to be the character who has the most at stake, who stands to lose or gain the most with each twist or reveal. In other words, if this isn’t their story, but rather they’re a witness to someone else’s, their chapters will lack tension because anything interesting that revealed more information or drove the plot forward would actually be happening off page by the character we should have been following in the first place.
For me, picking the right POV is about balancing my vision for the project with logistics. When I come up with ideas, I usually have half a dozen characters I love and can’t wait to write. But I also have to sit down and say okay these are all potentially great characters, but which one(s) should actually get air time for this particular story?
Ultimately it depends on what the book is really about. Is it a sweeping epic about a group cast on an adventure? Is it a romantic comedy full of high school mishaps? Is it a mystery about a girl clearing her name after she’s implicated in a murder? Each of those scenarios is going to need a different type of approach and a different number of POVs–and sometimes changing or adding that perspective is what will give you that fresh spin on a tired trope.