Combining Different Points Of View (Point Of View Post No. 5)

The point-of-view articles posted here so far covered three third person point-of-view options–omniscient; third person limited shifting (multiple characters); and third person limited (single character)–and the second and first person points of view.

If none of the options seems as if it will work for your entire story, though, you can combine different points of view in the same novel.

First And Third

Some books shift scene-to-scene or chapter-to-chapter from first person told by one character to third person limited told by another character.

You might do this if you have a strong sense of one character’s voice and really want to write using “I,” but you need the reader to know things that character doesn’t know. Or you may feel third person seems more appropriate for one or more other viewpoint characters.

In the thriller Right Behind You, Lisa Gardner shifts between two first-person points of view—a teenaged girl and her estranged older brother—and two third-person points of view—profilers Quincy and Rainie, who are foster parents to the girl. It’s worth a read to see how Gardner does this (and because it’s a great book).

Second And ???

You could do the same with second person, using it for a particular chapter and then shifting in another chapter to third person or even to first person.

Because second person is less common in fiction, though, your reader might feel disoriented, so use with caution.

First And First

You can shift from one first person viewpoint to another first person viewpoint. This can be a bit trickier than shifting from first to third. With multiple first person points of view the reader may assume the same “I” is speaking.

While you can put a character name on the top of a chapter or scene to signal the switch to the reader, beware: not all readers look at those tags. I tend to overlook them myself, just as I rarely read chapter titles.

To truly do shifting first person right, the changing voice of the current narrator alone ought to cue the reader that someone else is now telling the story.

That can be quite challenging. But you can make it work if you’re willing to listen intently to how each character speaks and get that down on the page.

The popular thriller Gone Girl is an excellent example of an author using two different first-person narratives—a husband’s and a wife’s. Both the viewpoint character’s voices and the actual story change dramatically depending upon which POV we’re in.

Epistolary Novels

Another way to combine points of view is to tell some or all of your story through letters. Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice includes the full text of multiple letters. Austen’s original plan for the novel was to tell all of it in letters.

The book overall is in third person omniscient, as we get a big picture view of the community and its views as well as a look into the minds of multiple characters.

But we also get first and second person through letters. When Darcy writes his pivotal letter to Elizabeth (the protagonist) he both details his own feelings, referring to himself as “I,” and relates things that occurred that involve Elizabeth, referring to her as “you.”

The letters create a greater intimacy between the readers and the characters, as we’re drawn into direct and often private communications between them. They also allow Austen to have fun with different characters’ voices. The letters from Mr. Collins are a joy to read–full of pomposity mixed with some good intentions and a heavy dose of self-importance–and convey his character perfectly.

(Elizabeth says to her father after hearing the first of the letters read aloud: “He must be an oddity, I think….Can he be a sensible man, sir?”)

If you try switching points of view, once you’ve written a few chapters it’s a good idea to give them to a few friends. Ask them to mark any point where they were confused, even momentarily.

Confusion doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make the shift. But you’ll know where you need to work harder to make clear who is talking.

Until next Friday, when we’ll talk about how you decide which point of view to use for any particular scene or story–

L.M. Lilly

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