One Story, Many Voices: Writing Multiple POVs With Michael Landweber

Writing Multiple POVs With Michael LandweberBefore starting a novel, every writer must first decide on what point of view they are writing from. So many other choices, ranging from character motivation to plot points, can be discovered during the writing itself. But in order to write the first word on the first page, you must know not only whose story is being told, but more importantly who is telling the story. After all, you’ve got a much different book depending on if it is from the perspective of the murderer, the detective or the dog.

But what about stories that can’t (or won’t) be told by a single POV. How do you decide that you need multiple narrators? And what are the challenges of telling one story with many threads and voices? I faced those questions while writing my new novel, The Damage Done, which is about a global phenomenon, the end of all violence, from the perspective of seven main POVs.

First of all, let’s talk about the benefits of sticking with one POV. You develop one voice, honing it to perfection for a few hundred pages. While I wouldn’t say that it is simpler—nothing about writing a novel is simple—it does simplify the choices available. With one POV, you only know what that character knows. In some genres, this is a huge advantage. For example, in a mystery, when there is only one POV pursuing the truth, the reader naturally joins that character in lockstep on the journey. Romance can be the same way – we become deeply invested in a single hero or heroine’s pursuit of love.

But novels can also benefit from getting the story from a wider range of perspectives. In a game of cat and mouse, sometimes you want to hear from the cat and the mouse. It is hard to imagine that Gone Girl would have been improved as told only by Nick without ever hearing Amy’s voice. And when you have a bigger canvas in your novel, the case for multiple POVs grows even stronger. In a global espionage thriller, for example, it makes a lot of sense to view the story from many perspectives, maybe the domestic analyst, the spy in the field and the submarine captain among others.

In some cases, it is the premise of the novel that demands multiple POVs, often a wide and diverse range of them. Consider World War Z, which is an oral history of the zombie wars and tells its story from multiple POVs of people who lived through it. In The Damage Done, I had a similar world-spanning premise, though my novel is not infested with zombies. Instead, one day, without explanation, it is no longer possible for people to commit any act of violence in the broadest sense of the term.

When I started the novel, I knew that I could not just write from one character’s perspective. I needed to tell the story from many different POVs, all of whom were characters who experienced violence in their daily lives—a bullied middle schooler, an abused wife, a high schooler whose brother was murdered, a professor with a violent past, a teenage refugee, a white supremacist and a dissident writer living in a dictatorship. They each play an important role in painting the bigger picture of a radically changed world.

Writing a novel with multiple POVs is challenging. The key is to allow each perspective to expand the story’s horizons without easing the tension. Each individual POV must have a distinct voice and a compelling story of their own. If a POV character exists solely to provide information that is unavailable to another main character, then those chapters will feel disconnected to the reader. These characters need to feel like real people, not merely plot devices. At the same time, there should be connections between the POVs. In my novel, the multiple POVs seem to be largely in their own worlds, but their connections to each other become clearer as the novel progresses. While each of their stories is contained, it was also very important that I provided hints throughout about how their lives will come together. That gradual unveiling of how a seemingly disparate group of characters are actually telling the same story can be one of the most satisfying aspects of using multiple POVs. It certainly was for me in writing The Damage Done.

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