Writing

Five Ways to Make Multiple Viewpoints More Engaging

a woman wears steampunk goggles on the cover of Boneshaker

In Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, the two viewpoint characters are a son on a quest and the mother desperate to keep him safe.

Additional viewpoints are a valuable tool for storytelling, but they are drastically overused. Careless use of multiple viewpoints is so common that most writers would do better by using only one. However, since it’s obvious that writers won’t stop using extra viewpoints anytime soon, let’s go over five ways to minimize the damage that switching viewpoints can do.

1. Give New Viewpoints a Strong Hook

Stone Engravings from the cover of The Fifth Season, first book in the Broken Earth Trilogy

Writers are encouraged to toil over their books’ openings. They know that readers will peek at the first few pages, and they’ll only keep reading if they like what’s there. However, beginnings are tricky to write because the reader has no idea what’s happening and no emotional investment in the story. If the writer manages to multitask successfully – motivating a reader to continue while filling in what they need to know – storytelling gets easier after that.

But all too often, the story then jumps to the viewpoint of a new character in a different situation. The process has started all over again, and since this is no longer the book’s opening, the writer hasn’t put the same time and care into it. The reader is expected to read things they don’t care about as the cost of continuing the story they liked.

Don’t take your readers for granted. If you jump to a viewpoint for a new protagonist, treat them like they’ve got their own book. How would you sell that book to potential readers? How would you pitch it to an agent?

For instance, in The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin, we start with the character Essun as she finds that her son has been murdered and sets off after the killer. Then the story switches to Damaya, a young girl who is abandoned by her parents and taken off to an evil mage school for dangerous training. Both these viewpoints have strong conflicts to hook the reader.

When you add a new viewpoint, follow the same best practices you’d use for the main storyline: make sure your new protagonist is likable and give them a conflict to work through right away.

2. Introduce Characters Before Adding Their Viewpoints

Aragorn from Lord of the Rings

In many cases, new viewpoints use characters that have never appeared in the story before. After all, if the new character was hanging around with a previous viewpoint character, the writer wouldn’t need a new viewpoint to show what’s happening. This disconnect with the previous storyline slows stories down and lowers reader engagement.

Introducing a character before moving to their viewpoint makes this better in several ways:

  • Readers who already know the new viewpoint character won’t start back at zero when it comes to learning what’s going on. This also means there’s less explaining to do in the new viewpoint, and it’ll be easier to give it a good hook.
  • Reader who’ve seen the new viewpoint character in a scene with the old one will have some idea of how the stories are linked. Or, at least, readers will anticipate that these stories could come together soon.
  • Depicting the new character gives writers the opportunity to build reader attachment. In a best-case scenario, readers will already be invested in the new protagonist before switching to their viewpoint.

Writers love composing separate stories that come together in a glorious finale, but that sabotages engagement through most of the story. Having protagonists that start together and then split up works better. For instance, in The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn shows up when the narration is focused on the hobbits, during which he helps them survive. The audience has the chance to get to know him before watching him go off on his own adventures and get tons of candy as the true and perfect king. If the narration had jumped straight to his candied storyline, it would have been a much harder sell.

3. Make New Viewpoints Matter to Previous Viewpoints

Cover art of the main character's face from Children of Blood and Bone.

Instead of depending on your readers to become invested in your new viewpoint character, you can also leverage their investment in your previous one. To do this, make what happens in the new viewpoint impact the conflicts in the previous one. For example:

  • Your first viewpoint character loses something precious and heads into danger to look for it. Your second viewpoint character finds what they lost.
  • Your first viewpoint character is scrambling to get ready for an inspection. Your second viewpoint character is the inspector.
  • Your first viewpoint character is tossed out onto the street on a cold night. The second viewpoint character gives them a place to sleep.

Ideally, all viewpoints would continue to follow the same storyline. For instance, in Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, the main character is a mage whose powers haven’t manifested. When the second viewpoint character is introduced, she steals an item that can unlock the main character’s magic. After the two of them meet up, the third viewpoint character sets out to hunt them down. If you weave all your viewpoints into the throughline like this, most of the disadvantages of additional viewpoints will disappear.

However, if the second protagonist gives the first a place to sleep and then wanders off on their own adventure, it’s still better than nothing. That bit of interaction will raise early engagement and buy time to get readers invested in the second story. So do your best to weave your viewpoints together, even if the changes are small.

4. Foster a Romance Between Viewpoint Characters

A Lady and Lord wielding magic on the cover of Elantris

A relationship arc of any kind – whether it’s a romance, a bromance, or a reconciliation between estranged family members – requires two characters. That means if you can get readers invested in your relationship arc, they’ll become invested in both characters instead of just one. In turn, that makes it easier to give these characters their own viewpoints without lowering engagement too much.

Of course, this approach generally requires either tip 2 or 3 – it’s hard to start a romance without putting your characters together in a scene or having one influence the other. But even if they are on either side of an ocean, you can make them pen pals, using excerpts from a letter to establish their relationship and build a little attachment to your upcoming viewpoint character. If they’re already in the same city, consider starting their romance early.

In Elantris by Brandon Sanderson, Prince Raoden and Princess Sarene have never met, but they’re betrothed and they’ve exchanged letters. The book opens by showing Raoden getting thrown out of the city by his father. The next viewpoint shows Sarene arriving for their wedding only to be told that Raoden is dead. While Sarene and Raoden don’t interact with each other right away, the romance shows how they’re connected and gives readers additional investment in both characters.

5. Make Viewpoint Characters Face the Same Threats

A woman in a Victorian gown holds a bloody axe

Even if your viewpoint characters are far apart and not interacting in any way, their stories will still feel connected if they are dealing with the same antagonist. Alternately, they could be facing antagonists that are different but clearly go hand in hand with each other. That means that even if one character’s struggle doesn’t directly influence the other viewpoint, the viewpoint characters will probably succeed or fail together. If one beats the antagonist back or lets the antagonist grow stronger, that lowers or raises the tension for all viewpoints.

In many cases, viewpoint characters facing the same antagonist will also build more anticipation for their converging storylines. The protagonists might gain different pieces of a big puzzle or have different strengths and vulnerabilities against the antagonist. Readers will know they’ll be stronger together and look forward to the birth of Team Good.

In the epistolary novel Maplecroft by Cherie Priest, sisters Lizzie and Emma are attacked by monsters on a regular basis. While fending off these attacks, the sisters try to study the monsters and find more ways to protect themselves. The sisters’ letters and journal entries trade off with the writing of Dr. Seabury. He’s investigating a rare illness that drives people to behave strangely and eventually transforms them into something inhuman. It’s easy to guess that the illness causes the monsters, so it’s satisfying when Dr. Seabury and the sisters begin working together.


You might have noticed that I’ve generally assumed your additional viewpoint characters are protagonists. If they aren’t, their viewpoints should exist only to make a protagonist’s plotline more compelling. Failing that, it’s really time to hold your nose and give that viewpoint the axe.

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Comments

  1. LazerRobot

    Maybe we’ll eventually get past the multiple viewpoint craze! It’s good for writers to know how to do it the best possible way, though!

    I read a post online where readers were discussing their preferences for viewpoints. Some said they hate multiple POVs because of the frustration of being jerked back and forth between stories. Some said they love it because it makes the world feel more expansive and epic.

    The most common answer, though, seemed to be that either way is good as long as it’s done well. And multiples are more difficult to do well.

  2. Innes

    Do you think there could ever be a novel that could benefit from multiple perspectives but that only has one?

    I recently read The Black Company by Glenn Cook, and I do think that the book could be improved by more perspectives, since the main character often feels distant from the action and a lot of important revelations or conflicts happen off screen since there’s no way Croaker would have been able to directly witness them.

    • Chris Winkle

      I haven’t read The Black Company, but when that happens, my first response is to ask whether the main character is central enough to the plot, or whether they need to be re-positioned so they can be more active in events. If they aren’t central enough, adding another viewpoint may just make the problem worse.

      Theoretically there are some scenarios in which I would advocate for another viewpoint. Particularly for relationship conflicts such as in a romance, it can be helpful to be in the head of both characters so readers can better sympathize with where each one is coming from. Other gray conflicts may also benefit from viewpoints on both sides, and in some cases, a brief minion viewpoint may be very helpful in raising tension. But in practice, I can’t say I’ve ever looked at a work and thought it needed an additional viewpoint.

  3. Jenn H

    I think it is worth asking if multiple viewpoints are needed for a given story.

    In some stories the answer is yes. If you have a world spanning conflict, then multiple viewpoints let the reader know about the important stuff happening everywhere, as a lone protagonist could never witness it all first hand. The story could be about a group of people, and if they split up then using multiple viewpoints can keep the story going smoothly.

  4. Writelhd

    I love reading multiple viewpoints! It’s actually one of my favorite things. I dunno why, I suppose because it is more immersive, we get to see things from multiple angles, or the story does feel broader. Although many of the stories I like have user these techniques with those viewpoints.

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