Posted On: 2023-07-03
Earlier this year I mentioned that I was breaking from genre (and medium) norms to use multiple point of view (PoV) characters. For today's post, I thought I should dig into why I am making that change, starting with three benefits, and then following that up with an example from my current project.
In writing, film, or just about any other medium, the author can accentuate contrast (or similarities) by juxtaposing unlike things side-by-side. This is easiest and most often done with polar opposites: finding new life growing in a place of death, or cutting from a vibrant city to a ghost town. It can be used to create more subtle contrast as well, and is a common design element of character foils.
Importantly, juxtaposition often requires narrative setup to work: cutting from a story in the jungle to an (apparently unrelated) desert will leave the audience scratching their heads. A secondary PoV character can provide an elegant way to establish that narrative context: different characters in different places with different goals will provide an abundance of opportunities for juxtaposition. What's more, having exactly two different points of view directly supports juxtaposing those two characters at nearly every turn - every time the story shifts from following one to the other, there's a natural opportunity to highlight a difference (or commonality) between the two.
Whenever a new idea is introduced in a story, it tends to demand attention - even something as cliche as "this world has flying cars" requires a moment where that information is conveyed to the audience (ie. looking up and down before crossing a crosswalk.) This first introduction can potentially upstage other ideas, if they are simultaneously seeking the audience's attention (ie. an ongoing conversation when the character stops at the crosswalk.) Authors can combat this by introducing ideas earlier (ie. panning across a highway of flying cars in the establishing shot), but the setting, conversations, and characters may limit what is available to preview, or make it come across as forced*.
Having a second point of view can be a useful way to create a more diverse set of opportunities to preview an idea. If, for example, the main PoV character is a monarch surrounded by yes men, previewing ideas about multiple currencies and foreign exchange would feel very out-of-place, even though they are necessary for understanding a (later) economic crisis. Adding in a secondary character who travels across borders to find new work would solve that issue, as such ideas could naturally fit into their current circumstances.
As a general rule, the audience only knows what the PoV character knows*, unless the storyteller takes some action to break that rule. While having an omniscient narrator chime in is one way to do that, changing the point of view can allow the audience to gain new information in a way that feels more relatable. Sometimes this is done with a one-off change in point of view, such as briefly following an otherwise faceless member of the crowd, but regularly changing between two different PoV characters can allow for conveying such information with more frequency, and can be a boon when a story builds towards something larger than any individual character can see.
While writing the story for my current project, I routinely run into informational issues. The setting of the story is very fantastical, and giving the player enough information to not only follow along, but also make informed choices is not easy. To combat that, I have experimented with using flashbacks, padding out dialogue, or otherwise forcing more information into a single point of view, but every attempt to do so led to an overall decrease in quality. Adding a new PoV character, however, created a much more natural way to add that additional information: I can maintain the same tension and plot beats for the first PoV character, while spending time with this second PoV character to preview and explore new ideas - all while advancing a separate (but interconnected) plot.
Hopefully you can see why I chose to defy the norms of my medium and use multiple PoV characters for my current project. While it's not the right choice for every story (it can change the tone and pacing of a work, to say nothing of the increased writing difficulty), I think it's worth considering when the benefits match the story. I hope you've enjoyed reading this exploration of the topic, and, as always, if you have any thoughts or feedback, please let me know.