Handling POV in stories with multiple major characters
A writer recently asked the following question:
“I’ve read novels where the POV shifts from one character to another. Is it frowned upon to do so in a short story? Even in flash fiction?”
The writer then observed that in some novels where there is more than one protagonist, the author will shift the POV in the same chapter, but in a new paragraph or with a scene break. In other words, the author will have two main protagonists in the same chapter.
This question is really deals with several questions plus some terminology issues (like the meaning of “protagonist”).
I’ve talked about POV shifts in previous blogs. If you want more detail, I’ve cited two previous posts below.
POINT OF VIEW AND HEAD-HOPPING
POINT OF VIEW SLIPS AND HOW TO AVOID
A POV shift means changing the narrative’s perspective from that of one character to that of another. Here’s an example:
When John entered the room, he saw Peter, Kevin, and Amanda talking, about him he assumed because they all looked his way and abruptly stopped talking.
Peter saw John enter and quickly whispered, “John’s here. We’d better not say any more.”
Not a great example, but it gets the point across. We certainly can switch perspectives in a story. It’s done all the time. The issue is WHEN and HOW we should do it.
NOTE: I’m not talking about omniscient POV, where apparent POV shifts are freely allowed. I say “apparent” because omniscient POV is not a shift in POV. Omniscient POV means there is a single omniscient god-like narrator, one who is privy to the thoughts of the individual characters. The narrator in that case is not shifting the POV at all but is merely showing us the characters through his or her eyes.
How do you know if the writer is using true omniscient POV or is just head-hopping? Simple. A good writer will make it clear in the beginning of the story or novel that an omniscient narrator is being used, whether the narrator is identified or not. And it will be consistently so. If such a narrator is not apparent, then it’s not omniscient POV.
Okay, let’s return to the original question and break it down into its component questions.
(1) Is changing the POV during a short story frowned upon.
Before I address that, let’s look at why POV shifts in a scene are frowned upon, especially since we see established authors doing it.
Consider writing about a ping-pong match. You can write it from one of two perspectives. Your character can be watching the match, or he can he one of the players. But what if the writer decides to head-hop between the two players instead?
I’m not saying it can’t be done, but you have to be sure the reader knows which head he’s in at any given moment. Second, such a tactic could very easily disorient the reader because he’s not going to know which character to root for since both characters want to win. A good writer might be able to pull this off, but most of the time, it’s going to be a mess—even if the writer makes it clear who the “hero” of the match should be. Watching a ping-pong match is one thing. Describing it in words is not easy.
Some romance writers seem to think it’s necessary to show both perspectives during both male and female readers don’t feel left out. Is for political correctness to not slight either gender? There’s nothing wrong with equal time for the two sexes, but is it really necessary to do it in the same scene? Guess what? Whichever gender the reader is, he or she is only going to get half whatever he or she wants from reading it. It may be better to do the sex scene from ONE perspective, then later do the next one from the other perspective.
NOTE: I’ve seen writers do the scene from one perspective then pretty much repeat it from the other perspective immediately after. Please don’t. In every case I’ve seen, it’s just bad writing. In the hands of a skillful writer, a sex scene can show both perspectives while using just one character’s POV. And it’s not just sex scenes. The same applies to ANY well-written scene (although I will admit that fight and battle scenes present a special challenge in this regard).
Just because a number of established writers do shift POV during a scene doesn’t mean it’s a good practice. Some readers may not complain, but others will. In general, one perspective per scene makes for smoother, more engaging reading and less confusion for the reader. Every time you switch perspectives, you’re asking the reader to shift gears in his or her own head.
There are exceptions, but they should be just that: exceptions. Most of the time head-hopping is the result of poor writing technique or simple laziness. Inexperienced writers see other writers do it and think it’s okay.
The best answer is this: If you really need to shift the POV, use a scene break (or you can also start a new chapter in the case of novels) to signal the reader that something is changing. To do otherwise borders on sloppy writing.
That’s takes care of POV shifts in general and novels in particular, but is it acceptable to change the POV in a short story or flash fiction, as the writer asked originally? Yes and no.
Think about it this way. A short story, because it is short, rarely has room to develop more than one major character (and what’s the purpose of shifting the POV to a minor character?). In a short story, it’s usually best to keep the number of characters to a minimum anyway. Longer short stories of several thousand words have more leeway, but when the story is only a couple thousand words, using multiple viewpoints risks weakening the story overall because you’re trying to deal with too much in terms of the characters. Again, there are exceptions, but it takes a skilled writer to pull them off.
(2) The original question also referred to “multiple protagonists” in a story. I’m not sure if the questioner meant multiple protagonists or multiple major characters. Here’s a link that clarifies what “protagonist” means.
As you can see, there is a big difference between having multiple protagonists and multiple main characters. Many stories that seem to have multiple protagonists really have ONE protagonist supported by other major characters. Sometimes you do have a team of characters that together act as one protagonist. This is more often seen in novel than in short stories, though.
The article I cited mentions that “protagonist” and “hero” are sometimes viewed as synonymous terms. That’s not the case. A hero is a narrow definition of protagonist. A hero can be a protagonist, but the reverse is not always true.
(From Wikipedia) “A hero (masculine) or heroine (feminine) is a person or main character of a literary work who, in the face of danger, combats adversity through impressive feats of ingenuity, bravery or strength, often sacrificing their own personal concerns for a greater good.”
Getting back to the “multiple protagonist” discussion, we can see that, in the strict definition, the protagonist is considered the leader of the story, the one whose story is being told. As I said already, in the confines of a short story, it’s difficult to tell more than one character’s story. In a novel you have more options, but every major character added means less space devoted to the main character’s story. With too many characters you risk diluting the story, and if you try to use more than one perspective in a scene, you’re splitting the reader’s attention and opening the way for confusion, which could cost you that reader.
Again, there are always exceptions, but most stories that focus on more than one major character will often link those characters’ stories together (think Star Wars and Harry Potter).
As another writer observed, having multiple protagonists (assuming they are true protagonists and not merely other major characters) can add complexity to a novel, but you have to be sure you balance everything. Allow enough space to develop each character properly and don’t make your story so complex that the reader has trouble following the various story threads.
In the end, there is no “rule” that you cannot use multiple POVs in any story or that you can’t shift the POV.
However, when it comes to writing multiple POVs and where and how you shift them, make sure you understand all the implications of your choices and how the writing will be perceived. And be prepared for criticism if you don’t follow the current conventions either because you chose not to or did it from ignorance.
Any time you choose to go against conventions, be SURE that it serves to improve the story, and not because you just want to do it.