Writing Advice Series #3 – Introducing multiple POV characters

Notepad and pen next to coffee cup and flowers on desk

Having multiple point-of-view (POV) characters in a book can be great for telling large-scale stories with different strands coming together to form the narrative. It can add depth to the story, allows lots of room for worldbuilding, and lets readers experience events from different perspectives.

However, it’s not without its challenges! Readers will be looking for a shared connection—if not between the characters themselves, then within their place in the larger narrative. Sometimes it can be jarring when the story switches between POV, like the reader is being jerked around from scene to scene without having an idea of how they relate to each other.

While multiple-POV stories aren’t for everyone, they’re something I have always enjoyed both as a reader and a writer. They lend themselves well to those large, epic-scale genres such as high fantasy and space opera, and when done well, can really enhance those stories through a rich, multi-stranded narrative.

So what’s the best way to introduce multiple characters in a story without overwhelming or alienating readers? Today, I’m going to talk a little bit about the process I used in THOSE LEFT BEHIND, which is the first book in a space opera trilogy which has five POV characters.

Leaving breadcrumbs

In a nutshell, the way I like to introduce new POV characters is by leaving breadcrumbs in the run-up to their first POV chapter. This means when we get a chapter from their perspective, it feels like we’ve already got to know them a little and we’re not starting a stranger to who they are. This can be done by referring to the character by name or even having them interact with the current-POV character. By doing this, we start to get little glimpses of their personality and what kind of person they are before we meet them ourselves.

To illustrate how this works, I’m going to go through several examples in the first few chapters of THOSE LEFT BEHIND to show the ways I introduce POV characters before it’s time for their chapters.

Minor spoilers for the first five chapters of THOSE LEFT BEHIND follow…

Chapter 1 – Ridley

Ridley was always going to be the best choice of character to start with, because she’s the one least involved at this stage of the story. In the beginning, she functions as an ‘everyman’ kind of character, discovering things and learning at the same pace as the reader. This helps introduce us into the story slowly and ground ourselves rather than getting thrown into the deep end.

Ridley’s chapter also serves to introduce two of our other POV characters, Alvera and Kojan. We first see Alvera mentioned when Ridley is being escorted off planet to the space station in orbit: 

“What the hell was that? You killed him for no reason.”

He ignored her while he fastened the straps into place around her chest. It was only when he took his own seat that he replied. “He got in the way of my orders. I had plenty of reason.”

“Orders? Captain Renata would never have ordered you to shoot an unarmed surfacer!”

Mentioned here only by surname, this is our first introduction to Captain Alvera Renata. Through this exchange, we pick up that she’s in charge of the mission, and also that (to the best of Ridley’s knowledge) she’s not the kind of person that would shoot someone in cold blood.

She’s mentioned again later in the same chapter, when Ridley is reflecting on how she got involved with the mission in the first place:

It was hard to feel anything but honoured when Captain Renata of all people showed up at your office at Hyperion University, unannounced and unapologetic and asking for help. […] Then Captain Renata asked her to give it all up for a desperate mission nobody thought had a chance of succeeding. And Ridley said yes.

In this sequence, we learn a little bit more about Alvera before we actually meet her—the fact that she’s important enough for it to feel like an honour meeting her, and that she’s persuasive enough to convince people to follow her in her mission, despite the dangers.

Near the end of the chapter, Ridley also meets Kojan, one of our other POV characters. He steps in to defend her against one of the other crewmembers, showing himself to be kind-hearted and unaccepting of prejudice. In their conversation, we find out that Kojan is the pilot for the mission, and learn a little about his background:

Heat rushed to her face. “Sorry, I’m new here. I’m not sure I know who you are.”

“The pilot, amongst other things.” He raised an eyebrow. “You really have no idea? I guess the surface doesn’t breed gossip as much as up here. Makes me jealous.” He rubbed a hand across his forehead. “Well, you’re bound to find out sooner or later so you might as well hear it from me. I’m Kojan Irej.” He grimaced. “My mother doesn’t use her surname in public, but you might know of her as Councillor Ojara.”

Ridley flinched. She knew the name. Everyone did.

We then get a little bit of background on Ojara, who is set up as one of the story’s antagonists, as well as Kojan’s personal history with her and how it’s shaped his views. This is all very useful in giving the reader a glimpse into Kojan through Ridley’s eyes before we get around to Kojan’s own chapter.

There’s also a brief exchange where they discuss Alvera:

A dark look flashed across his face. “Not many people see me as anything other than Ojara’s son. Even the captain can’t help but hold that against me. Not that I can blame her.”

“That doesn’t sound like the captain. I would have thought she’d be above that.”

“Captain Renata is as human as the rest of us, much as everyone likes to make out there’s something greater.”

This exchange offers a different perspective on Alvera than the one we first encountered through Ridley, and it suggests that she’s not quite as infallible as Ridley might believe. Seeing POV character through the eyes of other characters can often give us completely different insights into their motivations and actions than what we get from their POV chapters, which is especially helpful when creating conflicts in which there’s no right or wrong side.

Chapter 2 – Alvera

Now that we’ve learned a little bit about the world from Ridley, we move onto Alvera’s chapter with the benefit of already knowing some key information about her. There’s a brief mention of Ridley at the beginning of the chapter, referring to her role as the ship’s translator, which helps solidify her place in the story and help situate both characters’ relationship with each other.

We also get a lengthy conversation between her and Kojan, which reveals a lot about the dynamic between them:

 

He stared at her with his arms crossed and disapproval etched in the faint lines of his frown. “What did you need to tell me, Captain?” he asked again.

Alvera had to admire his restraint. There was no impatience, no temper. Just a little more bite in the formalities he took so much comfort behind.

In contrast to his compassionate, relaxed manner around Ridley, Kojan appears considerably stiffer and more formal around Alvera, showing a different side to him which reflects the nature of their relationship. The ensuing conversation ends in an argument, setting the characters at odds with each other and laying the foundations for their conflicting ideals:

“With all due respect, Captain, this is bullshit. Those people out there—your crew—they should have had a choice. You’re using them the same way Ojara would have. And now I have to play your game because if I don’t, a planet dies.” He pressed his lips together. “I don’t know what’s worse, the fact you’re doing this or the fact you’ve forced me into going along with it. But I’ll tell you one thing—once this mission is done, so am I. You can find yourself another pilot.”

One of my favourite ways to show a character’s personality is by showing the different ways they play off and interact with other characters—you’re not the same kind of person around your boss as you are with your friends and family, after all! By using characters as foils for each other, you can start to show more multi-faceted layers to them through their interactions—whether that’s their actions, word choice or even body language to show how relaxed or uncomfortable they are.

Chapter 3 – Kojan

By the time we reach Kojan’s first POV chapter, we should already have a pretty good idea of what he’s like thanks to his interactions with both Ridley and Alvera in previous chapters. Instead of introducing a new POV character with no context at all, forcing the reader to start again and figure out where this character sits in the story, it naturally follows on from the set-up that’s already been done and instead lets us delve deeper into his personality.

We’ve already been introduced to three of our main characters now, so rather than add more breadcrumbs at this stage, this chapter is more about reinforcing and solidifying that characters that have already been introduced. This way, the reader should be comfortable and familiar with them by the time the moment comes to shake things up (more on that later).

There’s a couple of character interactions or observations with Kojan this chapter, first with Alvera:

He turned around to see Alvera standing behind him. No, not Alvera. Captain Renata. She stood tall and straight in her polished exosuit, the metallic sheen of armour reflecting the console lights. Every line on her face looked like it had been carved from stone, and her dark grey hair had been scraped back into a tight bun. The tremble he thought he’d heard in her voice was nowhere to be seen in the sharp edge of her jaw and the hardness of her eyes. This was the woman they’d chosen to follow. The one who made them believe they could be the difference.

And later with Ridley:

He finally found Ridley perched on the end of one of the beds, breathing heavily. Her eyes were watery and shot with red, and her dark brown skin was clammy with sweat. She looked more fragile than he remembered, slender and shivering against the ordeal she had been through. […]

“There’s a ship approaching. Looks like this could be first contact. But if you’re not feeling up to it—”

“Not feeling up to it?” She waved him off. “Punctured lung or not, there’s no way I’m missing this. It’s the reason I’m here.”

We get a few different sequences in this chapter – Kojan and Alvera, Kojan and Ridley, and then finally ending the chapter with Kojan, Alvera and Ridley all together. By this point, all their POVs should be firmly established so when the time comes to cycle back around to them, we already have a strong sense of their characters and their place in the story.

Shaking things up…

This is the part where things change. The breadcrumbs are gone, and the next change in POV is deliberately intended to be jarring and cause a bit of whiplash.

Chapter 4 – Rivus

At this point in the story, Alvera, Kojan and Ridley, along with the rest of the Ranger’s crew, have just travelled through a space tunnel to find themselves in a new galaxy. Alvera’s next chapter will do a lot of heavy lifting in explaining exactly how they got there, what it means and the consequences they’ll face, but that doesn’t come until chapter six.

Instead, I wanted to shift gears at this point and swap to one of our remaining two POV characters, Rivus.

The reason I did this rather than follow onto the more explanatory chapter was to give the reader the chance to feel grounded and familiar with this new galaxy. Seeing it through the eyes of one of the Ranger’s crew for the first time would have a fish out of water feel, whereas I thought it was crucial to introduce this new world through the eyes of the people who live in it:

The training grounds of Cap Ossa were too beautiful for the violence the legionnaires prepared for there. […] When Rivus had arrived as a wide-eyed young dachryn all those years ago, the beauty of it had confused him. Now he understood it. To be a legionnaire was to fight, but it was to fight to protect something. Violence without that context, without that reminder, was the enemy.

It was the way of the Idran-Var.

Early on in this chapter, we’re thrown a lot of new terminology that we won’t have encountered yet in the story—Cap Ossa, legionnaire, dachryn, Idran-Var. I wanted to establish early on that we definitely weren’t in Kansas anymore! It hits the point home that this is a completely different world, with new aliens, new factions, and new perspectives. We’ve already had a few chapters to learn about the crew of the Ranger and where they came from, and now it’s time to establish this new place they’ve found.

While the crew of the Ranger would be overwhelmed and not have any idea what was going on, these next two POV characters are familiar and at home in this galaxy, which was important for me in terms of worldbuilding and establishing the familiarity of this galaxy as normal to them, not strange and new.

At the beginning of the chapter, Rivus observes a sparring match between a young dachryn and siolean—two of the alien species introduced so far. We learn that sioleans have the power to harness energy, but that some sioleans, known as ilsar, cannot control it:

“You fought well today,” he said. “But next time you piss someone off, try to make sure they’re not a damn ilsar.”

“Understood, sir.” The dachryn had the decency to look abashed. “I didn’t know… I mean, we’ve sparred before and she’s never flared like that. Is…is she really flare-sick?”

“She’s young. She’s still learning to control her instincts. But she’ll be watched closely, like any potential ilsar.”

This exchange works on two fronts—it’s a piece of worldbuilding to describe one of the new alien species, but also lays some more breadcrumbs for our final POV character, Niole, who is a siolean ilsar who has gone into exile. By briefly introducing the concept of an ilsar here, I don’t need to be as heavy-handed with it when it comes to Niole’s chapter.

The rest of the chapter sees Rivus in discussion with the Coalition ambassadors to discuss the newly-arrived crew of the Ranger. While the reader already knows Alvera’s motivations and the reason behind her mission, these characters don’t, so this chapter helps to establish the state of the galaxy the Ranger’s crew has arrived in and what that might mean for them. Again, it’s about seeing the same key moment through a variety of perspectives, and understanding that different characters will have different interpretations of each other’s actions and intentions:

The lines on the soft pink flesh of the human’s brow crinkled and deepened. “Tens of billions, Supreme Commander. Integrating those kinds of numbers into civilisation will not be easy, even for Governor Cobus. The Idran-Var prey on the disenfranchised, and who is more disenfranchised than a colonist who doesn’t have a place in their new home? If our enemy were bolstered by even a fraction of the human colony’s numbers, they would stop being a threat and instead become something much worse.”

There are several references to the Idran-Var throughout the rest of this chapter, which is also important. Not only does it start to lay the groundwork for one of the books main conflicts between the Coalition and the Idran-Var, but it also builds some of their reputation ahead of a key meeting between Niole and one of their warriors in the following chapter.

Chapter 5 – Niole

Our final POV character, Niole, is introduced as more of a mystery. Unlike the first three chapters, where we slowly learned about Ridley, Alvera and Kojan through references trailed throughout, we’re meeting her as a complete stranger—perhaps fitting, seeing as she’s an exile who prefers to live a solitary life and not let people get close.

However, thanks to the sparring scene in Rivus’s chapter before, we already have some familiarity with what kind of alien she is, and the fact that she has trouble controlling her power:

The old urge to flare stirred within her again. The energy fizzled across her skin, but she turned it away, hardening herself against its call. It was no longer the scream it used to be. Over the past six years she’d trained herself to ignore it, to deafen herself to it, so she could only hear its faint cries across a distance too vast to bridge.

Even though we don’t know much about Niole herself, we do know a little bit about her species so it’s not as overwhelming for the reader to try and figure out what she is and what she is capable of. By establishing that early, it lets the reader concentrate on more of the character details than trying to understand what a siolean is and what a flare does.

We also get a confrontation between her and a lone Idran-Var, which is important in setting up the stakes for the wider conflict to come:

Niole’s mouth ran dry. “I’m not a legionnaire.”

“Never said you were. Only said they trained you. There aren’t many in the galaxy who bother with a varstaff when a gun will do the job better. Only those preparing to fight a very particular opponent.”

“This isn’t a varstaff.”

“I’d noticed. Nothing like the hum of a thousand volts coming from a real varstaff at full power. But your toy will have to do.” He took a short, rubber-coated cylinder from his belt, extending it at both ends. She knew what it was. An Idran-Var glaive. Their steel and silicone answer to the lethal voltage of the varstaff.

He cocked his head to one side, a predator sizing up its kill. “Let’s see what they taught you, little legionnaire.”

In this confrontation we learn a lot of things about the Idran-Var—their near-indestructible armour, their weapons, their history when it comes to tangling with the Coalition. We already know from Rivus’s previous chapter that the rest of the galaxy considers them a threat, so by the time we get to Niole’s encounter, we understand what’s at stake. Then, by drip-feeding more information about them through this chapter, I can start to delve deeper into their motivations and history without presenting it all at once as completely new information.

By the time we end Niole’s first chapter, we have a sound idea of her history with the legionnaires, her struggle with being ilsar and a potential future with the Idran-Var—all of which are referred to or briefly explored in the previous chapter as small breadcrumbs to plant the seeds for what is to come.

Finishing up

This ‘breadcrumb’ method has been really helpful to me in introducing different POV characters in a way that doesn’t leave readers too confused or overwhelmed by the sheer number of different perspectives. The most important thing to me is to try and takes things slowly and not push too much information too soon. By drip-feeding references and interactions in the run-up to the POV character’s first chapter, it helps establish a sense of familiarity early on and makes it less jarring to swap between different characters.

It doesn’t always work, of course! There’s always a danger in multi-POV stories that readers won’t connect with one of the characters and get frustrated when their chapters come around. And some people just don’t like multi-POV stories at all, which is just as valid. That’s why when writing a multi-POV story I always want to try and help the reader feel connected as early as possible, to give them the best shot at sticking with the revolving cycle of characters all the way through.

 

Do you enjoy multiple-POV stories or not? Got any questions or your own tips to share when it comes to introducing different characters? Share in the comments below!

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