Lately, I’ve been getting back into writing stories. My go-to hobby in primary school, I still have the notebooks containing my rather unique storytelling attempts from my youth. Seeking to reignite my passion, turning to an online course and writing down story ideas when they strike me, as well as looking at what I’ve been reading, has helped me to get out of the starting blocks.
This means that I’m starting to be more conscious of the structures and techniques that writers employ in their storytelling. Of course, this is something that I like to mention when I’m writing my reviews here on Fictionforteens.com, but approaching literature from the authorial angle has given me a deeper appreciation of the challenges of form and establishing a character’s voice, as well as what works in different situations. Obviously, it goes without saying that I’m no literary expert, or author (yet…), I’m just an opinionated girl with a passion for books.
Points of View (POV) is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as 1) (in fictional writing) the narrator’s position in relation to a story being told. 2) The position from which something or someone is observed. It’s this second point that I think is most apt – for me, who tells the story frames the action, and the interpretation of it, is an important choice. In terms of Young Adult (YA) Fiction, I’ve found that most novels are told in the 1st person present tense, which really lends itself to coming-of-age novels especially; the account of the young person at the heart of the book is the author’s mouthpiece for exploring themes and topics relevant both to the entire demographic and the individual that is telling the story.
What I’ve been thinking about lately is the use of multiple, alternating POVs. This means that two (or more) characters share the narration, taking turns in each chapter to share with the reader their perspective on the events that are unfolding, like this:
Chapter 1: Character A
Chapter 2: Character B
Chapter 3: Character C
Chapter 4: Character A
Writers do this for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it’s because two people are writing the book, like Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, and this is particularly effective because the two different writing styles add that extra layer of interest. Other times, it’s because the writer wants to set up the death of a character (I won’t give an example because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s reading!) and they’re in a pickle, because they want to kill off their main character but they can’t, because the story is told from their point of view. Another reason why it’s a feature in some novels is when characters get physically separated so the reader can be informed of developments in each location. I haven’t been too bothered about alternating POVs in the past, but lately, the way they are often executed is starting to grind my gears a little.
Some books don’t differentiate between the two characters’ “voices” or the style used to put across their thoughts and feelings, and this becomes particularly clear when the multiple points of view are in 1st person. No one really knows what other people’s internal monologues are up to, but I assume that they’re different from one another. However, in some multiple POV novels, the characters seem to think the same things. Now, maybe that might be because they’re from a very similar background: siblings, for example. Even then, there’s at least going to be some difference between the two voices. Either way, alternating POVs should enhance the storytelling, not the opposite.
From time to time, I’ll read a book with so many characters’ POVs present, that I feel like I have no connection to some, or all, of the characters – I either can’t remember them by the time the story is next told from their perspective or because they’re not as interesting as other characters. I’ll be reading a chapter, blissfully chugging along at a steady pace, taking in the world in which the story takes place, and starting to empathise with the inner discourse of the character. Everything’s going well. I’m looking forward to reading the next chapter. But suddenly, I’m jolted to my senses; it’s time to buckle up and be transported into the mind of another character and the process starts again. What I’m trying to say is that when so many voices are added into the mix, there is an inability to fully empathise or become invested in the character, which after all is one of the main aims of literature and many other art forms.
All that being said, there are a number of books that utilise multiple points of view particularly effectively. The first one that springs to mind is Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which has a new narrator every chapter, each one descended from the last. As well as being a wonderfully vibrant book with rich descriptions, it was also informative, taking the reader from the 18th century to the present day: from a village in the Asante region of modern-day Ghana to Stanford University, covering everything in-between the two, including the Anglo-Asante wars, slavery on plantations, segregation, and microaggressions in modern-day America. Each chapter feels like a short story, and none of the characters return after their chapter, so it doesn’t fall under the alternating POV category (it feels more like a collection of short stories). Will Grayson, Will Grayson is another highlight, as previously mentioned, that does fit under the alternating, multiple POV category heading.
So, there is a time and place for the use of multiple POVs – they have the potential to be done well, but unfortunately, they often miss the mark. I don’t think that I would be able to pull it off in my own writing, though, that’s for sure.
I would be interested to hear about your opinions on books that have multiple POVs. Do you think that this was the best way to tell the story? Are there any books that you would recommend for a multiple POV sceptic like me?
Take care, Al