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I am writing a book with the particular twist that between chapters it switches the point of view. For example, in the first chapter it is from the main character's point of view, then in the second chapter it is the sidekick's point of view.

How would I introduce the sidekick in that second chapter? I want people to know it is from a different point of view, but how?

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5 Answers 5

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Label the chapters with the character names. George RR Martin does this at the top of every chapter of his monolith books, since he easily has a dozen POV narrators per book. No muss, no fuss, crystal clear. Roberta Gellis did the same thing in her Fires of Winter, and Patricia Briggs does it in her most recent book (which is mostly from the first-person POV of her main character but has two chapters from the POV of her husband, and those two are headed "Adam").

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No matter what else you do, make sure you do this:

Clearly distinguish the sidekick's personality from the main character's. Different attitudes. Different "voice," such as diction or accent or sentence structures. Different level of education. Different background. Different opinions about everything. Different desires and agendas.

Then write from within the sidekick's personality.

If you do both of those things, readers won't have trouble distinguishing.

If you want to give readers additional cues, you can label the chapters, as Lauren says.

Or use James Patterson's trick: Write the main character's viewpoint scenes in first person, and other characters' scenes in third person.

But never rely solely on chapter labels or first/third person to orient the reader. You still need to make the viewpoints distinct.

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Seconding this. Try to zero in on why you decided to use multiple POV to begin with. What does your sidekick know, think, or care about that your hero doesn't? That's your establishing moment. You need to prove to the readers that there's a reason you've taken them out of the hero's head, that they have something valuable to learn from the additional POV. –  lea Aug 4 at 7:02
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@lea, I will absolutely second this. There's no point on having a second POV if his view of the world is the same as the first. 1st person multi-POV can be done fantastically, such as The Bartimaeus Series by Jonathan Stroud. One chapter is done again, from each POV, but warps based on their view. //"Just be quiet," I said calmly// from 1 POV becomes //"Shut it!" he shrieked// in the other. –  Mac Cooper Aug 4 at 11:55

Lauren Ipsum has one suggestion. There are dozens of ways to do it. For example, you could simply start Chapter 2 with "His sidekick did not agree. Michael Fisher dumped the cheap beer over the cobblestones and went for his knife."

We the reader now know we're in the sidekick, Mr Fisher,'s POV.

But like I said, there are many many ways of doing it.

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I agree. Just be sure that the change in POV is clear. I think that in general the first sentence of each chapter should establish whose eyes we're seeing through. I've read stories where I was three pages in to a chapter before I finally realized, "Oh, this chapter is back in London, now I get it", or "Oh, this is a flashback", etc. –  Jay Aug 4 at 16:32
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Don't rely on subtle clues, like, "Oh, the reader should realize that we're now talking from Sally's point of view because I'm talking about colors and Sally always pays attention to color." Make it 100% clear: Use the character's name or some other blatant identifier. –  Jay Aug 4 at 16:33
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@Jay, absolutely agree. A reader should never have to struggle to know who we're looking at, or have to put up with any more than a single ambiguous paragraph. As you said, first sentence should tell us :) FWIW, as an example, Rowling played with POV. The first chapter of several books is clearly, from the start, not with Harry, and she also changes POV half way through chapters (PS only I think, we go from Vernon to Dumbledore, and also Harry to Ron at the Quidditch game) and it's very clear paragraph to paragraph who we're with. –  Mac Cooper Aug 4 at 17:42

The first questions here are:

  • Between how many viewpoints do you switch?
  • How many changes in point of view are there?
  • For how long do you switch?
  • What is the purpose of the switch?

The last question is the most important, because you can tell the exact same story without switches, from only one point of view.

In her answer, Lauren Ipsum assumes that you are narrating the lives of an ensemble cast, where each character is equally important and has roughly the same time in the "center of the stage". Dale Emery assumes that you are switching between one central and several minor characters. But there are other possibilities:

  • You might tell a love story from the perspective of two protagonists that are easily distinguishable by their individual voices and concerns and easily identifiable because there are only two options.
  • You might only switch once. For example, many crime novels start with a prologue from the perspective of the criminal or the first victim, and the rest of the novel is told from the perspective of the sleuth.
  • You might change the point of view only for a short paragraph or sentence, as Stephen King does.
  • and so on

Each of these and the many other "rhythms of switching" must be handled differently, and how you handle them will be dictated by the purpose of the switch:

  • Do you want to show contrasting views of the same events, as in a two-viewpoint love story or legal drama (e.g. the movie Rashomon)?
  • Do you want to create mystery and leave the reader wondering who it is that we see acting, as in a detective novel when we see the murderer doing things before we can identify him?
  • Do you tell the tale of a whole world over many generations?

There are as many ways to handle viewpoints and viewpoint transitions as there are novels. There is no recipe for this, rather it is an artistic decision that you must make according to your artistic vision.

One of the most famous multi-perspective novels is probably William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Each of the four chapers is told from the viewpoint of a different person, but the chapter headings and first sentences do not tell us who the viewpoint belongs to. It takes the reader a while until he realizes the identity of the protagonist (in fact many of my class mates needed the teacher to tell them). This is not a shortcoming of this novel, but obviously the author's intention. I don't want to speculate on the purpose, others have done so and you may read up on their arguments, but it is clear that you don't have to label your sections, if you feel that your novel works better without them.


One preliminary choice you'll have to make in this context is if you want to change viewpoint at all.

Personally I find that viewpoint changes tend to throw me out of the story. I have gotten into the character, am interested in his or her fate, and now I have to make an emotional and cognitive effort to get into the next person. And then back to the first person in the next chapter. And back and forth, all through the book. Which is why I seriously dislike action novels told from mulitple viewpoints.

When I read George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, I found that I began to skip over the chapters with different viewpoints to the next chapter told from the same characters's perspective. And near the end of the series I stopped reading those character's chapters that I disliked or found uninteresting.

The viewpoint switches work in Faulner because there are only four chapters and those chapters are long enough to be read as complete tales unto themselves.

I am sure there are many people who love getting into many people's heads, but I am equally sure that I am not the only person who dislikes this. During my writing I have found that I sometimes want to switch viewpoints because it makes my telling of the tale easier. It is often not a choice that promotes my vision, but a choice based on laziness and a lack of ability.

Make sure, before you think about how to switch, that you really need the switch to tell your story at all.

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I agree that how clear you make the POV transitions is a matter of stylistic choice. A fast-paced adventure novel might have POV changes labeled to make it more accessible. A more cerebral genre book might make readers work harder to learn to distinguish the characters. This has merit, but it will narrow your audience. Style means choosing what kind of story you're telling. Once you've done that, you can readily identify the most effective technique. –  lea Aug 7 at 6:26

I once read a book I can't even remember the name of, Eternities End or some trite, it was terrible. Its one redeeming quality was that it was constantly switching between first person narratives of maybe half a dozen characters. They were only differentiated by the subtle differences in their diction (and other more obvious clues). At first it was a little hard to follow but in short order it became an exercise akin to discerning an accent (is that Scottish or Irish?) It was actually kind of a fun. It must of taken an awesome degree of control though because the shifts in voice were slight but very consistent.

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