Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, February 19, 2015

4 tips for handling multiple perspectives in a third person narrative

One of the biggest challenges with third person narratives is how to balance multiple perspectives.

This isn't always something beginning writers give much thought. Third person is third person, right? Can't you just jump from one character to another as you need to? Aren't all-seeing perspectives essentially the same?


Head jumping can be really confusing for a reader. It can be wildly disorienting to see three, four, five characters' inner thoughts in succession. You stop feeling anchored in a scene and instead feel like you're swimming through a thought explosion.

There are two main ways to solve this: sticking to third person limited (anchored to one character's perspective) or third person omniscient (Gods-eye). But most novels deviate slightly from these strict categories and cheat from time to time.

Rather than telling you "rules" about omniscient vs. limited vs. hybrid, here are some directional tips that will hopefully help you keep the reader feeling anchored in a scene:

1) Consider separating a shift in perspective with chapter or scene breaks

This is the most straightforward approach to multiple perspectives in a third person limited narrative. Pick a character and stick with their perspective through a cohesive chapter or scene. This is how George R.R. Martin handles the Song of Fire and Ice books (aka Game of Thrones). The novels are anchored by several key characters per novel, and we see what is happening through their eyes.

2) If you're going to break perspective within a scene, think of it as keeping a "camera" in place

Occasionally you might want to remove the narrating character and show something that is happening out of their view, whether in order to show the reader something the main character can't see or because it just makes sense for them to bounce for a second.

If you're going to do this, I compare this to keeping a "camera" in place in the scene. Remove the main character, but keep the narrative going with the other characters who remain. Don't suddenly shift deeply into someone else's thoughts and feelings, but it's okay to linger a bit and show something the anchoring character shouldn't be able to see.

When/if the character returns, you can slide back into showing their thoughts.

3) If you're using a more omniscient third person perspective, imagine the narrator as a fully-fledged character

Third person omniscient allows more head-jumping and more flexibility in showing various thoughts and motivations. But it's tricky to keep things consistent and avoid disorientation.

Rather than thinking of the narrative jumping from one character to the next, imagine that there is an unseen narrator who is observing the action.

This does two crucial things. One, it smooths things out for the reader, because rather than taking into account multiple perspectives and biases, you're seeing things essentially from one point of view. The other is that it stops you from diving so deeply into one character that it's jarring to shift to another character's thoughts.

This omniscient narrator doesn't have to actually be a real, named character, but it's helpful to think of them this way so you tell the narrative through a consistent perspective.

4) The more the perspective is limited, the deeper the inner thoughts. The more omniscient the perspective, the shallower the thoughts

This isn't a hard and fast rule, but generally, if you have tied the perspective very closely to one character you can go as deep as you want into what they're thinking. It won't be jarring for the reader to see inner monologues, straightforward thoughts, etc.

If you have a more omniscient perspective that includes multiple characters, you may want to stick more to observing outside, physical actions and general, apparent emotions rather than diving too deeply into what multiple characters are thinking. This way we're seeing what's happening on the outside rather than having to wonder how it is that we're jumping around to what everyone is thinking.

Have you tried balancing multiple perspectives in a novel? How did you handle it?

Art: Hercules Killing the Hydra by Cornelis Cort


JohnO said...

This raises another possible set of discussions (which I'm sure are somewhere else on the site), about points of view other than third and first. I was just rereading some John Le Carré, and ran across an interesting comment about omniscient POV from novelist WIlliam Boyd. In an appreciation for Spy Who Came in from the Cold for the Guardian, Boyd wrote this:

"Unusually for a spy novel, Le Carré's narrative point of view is omniscient – a dangerous choice, because with authorial omniscience you cannot have your cake and eat it. If you are saying to the reader that you can enter the thoughts of any character and can comment on the action or events in your own voice, then any deliberate withholding of information counts as a black mark. The narrative house-of-cards begins to collapse; the reader's trust in the author's control dissipates immediately."

To me, one of the advantages of novels over movies is precisely the ability to get in a character's head. Which raises the question, who is working successfully in omniscient POV nowadays?

Unidos Por La Sangre said...

Very good article, i am just in it for my second novel (in spanish), and even if I am writing in another language the challenge is still the same.Being my first novel in a third person narrative is really an incredible experience to jump between all those characters, digging their feelings, their body language, and to build their own personalities! However, you topic just underlined my own concern: would it be to much for the reader? Did I keep the balance correctly enough to be smooth? So far I used the first two techniques, now I will take your advise and check again some parts that very satisfied with... Thank you Nathan! said...

I'm just nearing the end of my first novel, in which I somewhat break the rules of sticking to one perspective - but it makes sense for the story and I stay consistent (I hope), so I'm hoping agents/editors will forgive my blasphemy. I have a mix of two first-person perspectives in the form of journal entries and another three third-person PoVs for the "story around the story". The journal entries in the inner story are always their own chapter, and it's clear whose entry is being read, and I have a section break whenever I switch between perspectives in the outer story, so hopefully this assault of perspectives won't be confusing to the reader.

A fellow blogger who recently edited some of my material pointed out that I was, in one spot, phrasing something so that it sounded like a "thought" from a non-PoV character, which I'd missed. So if you go down this road of mixing, you have to be extremely careful and always conscious of whose thoughts or intentions you're allowed to reveal, directly or indirectly, and whose you can only hint at (for instance, in the form of "Jack seemed to think/want/feel/etc." or "Jill thought Jack thought/wanted/felt/etc." when Jill is the PoV character). Before I submit any of my work, I'll be sure to re-read the entire thing with that in mind.

Great topic, Nathan :-)

Alan Drabke said...

One of my novels includes a shoot out during which the DEA guy thinks the CIA guy is part of the drug deal, although nothing could be further from the truth. The scene ends with the CIA guy hands up in the air, under arrest by the DEA guy. That sets the stage for the rest of the novel. I never pass up a chance to write third person omniscient with a heavy layering of 'point of view' narrative style. (O.K. you guessed it, I wear a fedora on my bald head while I hunt and peck at an old Smith Corona)

Sally said...

Your illustration cracked me up. The phrase I use to describe my efforts to complete an unwieldy, 3 POV literary novel is: "trying to stuff a giant squid in a box. Messy tentacle everywhere." Gah. Who knew there was an actual illustration of the process?

2+ POVs means attention to very distinct voices and personalities. Really seeing the world through these different sets of eyes. And balance. I made the mistake of thinking 'balance' meant I'd go A-B-C-A-B-C alternating chapter by chapter. That was dumb and artificial. In the next draft I let the plot dictate who told what, for most impact...

I am still not finished. The squid's still out of the box. :-)

Greg (G.P.) Field said...

This article provides clarity around a difficult topic for most authors.
I prefer third person limited for my work but I like the idea of using an omniscient approach using the narrator as a separate character. The idea of changing approach raises the spectre of reader expectations. I suspect an author may have to experiment with a different genre or under a pseudonym if they already have a substantial readership.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this info, Nathan, some good points raised here.

What I've usually done is start from an omniscient pov and gradually move into the main character's pov. In this way the reader has an objective glimpse of the main character from the outset and sees her/him in a way that the character wouldn't see herself or himself. It's kind of like the start of a movie where you see the main character from a distance and then gradually zoom in to get a more intimate understanding of the character and starting seeing the world around that person through the lens of his/her beliefs and attitudes.

Thank goodness the often difficult to decipher (for me) captcha has been removed.

Wendy Peterson

Caryl McAdoo said...

When I open a book as a reader and find the author doesn't know how to stay in point of view, I close the book and avoid the author. That includes some of the BIG NAMES!

As a professional editor and hybrid author, I believe POV is probably the most difficult tool to grasp in writing Creative fiction, but IMHO, a serious writer MUST learn it and know how to use it. A switch in point of view kills tension, and as writers our goal is to build, not kill, it. Also the omniscient POV keeps readers at a distance from your story. It is my belief that readers read to live vicariously though our characters. It's getting deep into POV that let them do just that.

I've just finished (read it at read and critique this Wednesday) my chapter on Point of View in my new book I hope to release in August. I generally have three or even four POVs in a chapter - all separated by a page break, sometimes in the same scene, sometimes not.

Simon and Schuster's editors had me take out all but the hero's and heroine's in the first book VOW UNBROKEN of my historical series. I don't think it made the story better. I went Indie with the rest of the series and book two HEARTS STOLEN and book three HOPE REBORN are getting rave reviews that the readers loved VOW but liked HEARTS even better :)

Multiple points of view can really add to the readers' experience IMHO. I cannot read a story with omniscient - another whole issue that Omniscient is TELLING not showing, passive, not active. Call it a rule or not...if you want to be a GOOD writer, get a firm hold on Point of View :)

I'm writing STORY AND STYLE because countless writers have told me that before they could never 'get it' but I made it crystal clear and helped them to understand. It must be a God thing :) Blessings to all!

Cristine Eastin said...

Excellent, succinct article—one I'll actually print out for reference.

I wrote my first novel in third person limited POV, with an attempt at deep POV. But, for me, I think that POV limits the scope of the story.

I've been thinking of how to do it differently for novel #2. The working title is the MC's name, so that will keep me focused with her sections in deep 3rd, but I'll bring in the action she can't see in omniscient. Should create more tension. I want 2-3 other characters to have more action than what the MC can see.

cristine Eastin said...

And, ps, Nathan, I enjoyed your presentation at last year's UW Writers' Institute Conference.

Brian Tarbox said...

Think of badly this was handled in the last book of the Divergence trilogy (and that wasn't even 3rd person). After two books from a single person's pov the writer alternated between two character's pov but in a way that left most readers (including me) having to keep checking back to the chapter title to see who was talking!

Brian Tarbox said...

Think of how badly this was handled in the last book of the Divergence trilogy (and that wasn't even 3rd person). After two books from a single person's pov the writer alternated between two character's pov but in a way that left most readers (including me) having to keep checking back to the chapter title to see who was talking!

Alana Roberts said...

I love the art! The many-headed beast, very clever. :)

Virginia Llorca said...

When I do non-fiction it is, of course, first person. I know it is popular, being made more so by YA, but I cannot do it for fiction, and other's stories written that way annoy me -- especially when they switch POV. I have to narrate the story. Me. I pretend I am God. He even weighs in every now and then. Weren't the Oz books, the Raggedy Ann books, the Hardy Boys books written as narrative? That's where I learned. I actually had a critic say, "Sometimes it seems like the narrator is telling the story." I have tried telling him to wait in the car, but he just won't.

Pimion said...

Great advice, thank you a lot! And you're absolutely right about the limits of perspective. When I work with the perspective of one character, I pull his thoughts from the depth of his mind and put them on paper. And I know that it won't be tediously for readers (if written properly, of course).

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