Headswerving: Storytelling from Multiple Points of View

20 Feb

By Vaughn Roycroft

Multiple faces with textHeadswerver Extraordinaire: What, you’ve never heard the term? I’m guessing you haven’t since I made it up. It’s a riff on the Shakespearian bedswerver, or one who is not faithful to a single bedmate, prone to swerving capriciously from one bed to another; a playful name for one with a voracious sexual appetite and/or an adulterous inclination.

I made it up because I happen to be one. A headswerver, not a bedswerver.

So what’s a headswerver? It’s a fiction writer who is not faithful to a single character’s point of view, prone to swerving capriciously from the viewpoint of one character to another. To deserve the moniker, one should be prone to writing from many characters’ viewpoints. I’m not alone. George RR Martin is a well-known headswerver, as are Joe Abercrombie and Guy Gavriel Kay, to name a few. Robert Jordan and Marion Zimmer Bradley were also eminent headswervers.

My headswerving may not be as outrageous as someone like GRRM, but I’m right up there. Most writing educators advise moderation when it comes to multiple POVs, some saying keep it to two or three, perhaps four at the extreme. I have eight. And that’s just in book one.

All told, in all four of my manuscripts, I have written from the tight third-person perspectives of twenty-two characters. Hello, my name is Vaughn, and I’m a compulsive headswerver.

Scale and Dimension: I didn’t know any better when I started. I had no sense of restraint in my use of multiple POVs. I simply wrote what I like to read, and considered this approach the best way to tell my tale. I write historical fantasy, and the scope of my world is, if I do say so, rather epic. I was interested in seeing my world from a variety of angles. Utilizing the viewpoint of several (okay, in my case, many) characters helps me to give readers a grasp of the scale of the story. Seeing the issues and conflicts from various perspectives adds dimension to what could be as flat as a map when viewed from a lone standpoint.

I’ll give you an example in relation to setting. In book one I have four characters from three ethnicities, hailing from disparate backgrounds, all starting the story from one place—a walled port city on the northern shores of the Black Sea. For one character, the Greek provincial governor, the city is an opulent world, his ancestral home, rightfully back in the control of his family, a wealthy shipping dynasty. For another, the Roman garrison commander, it’s a stinking backwater post, an assignment he deems beneath his noble standing. There are also two Gothic characters who start the story there, and to them the city is a prison, as they are both slaves. The younger of the two, a slave most of his life, escapes with the aid of the other slaves, bidden to bring back an army of his kinfolk. The other, an aging warrior from a wide green land, stays behind, willingly remaining cloistered in a windowless stone room for an oath to a dead king.

A simple port city could’ve been a distant and detached spot on a map for most of my tale, as neither of my MCs have ever been there. I’m hoping that instead, the experience of these four distinctive secondary characters give the place shape and shading, bringing its history to life.

On the Other Hand: I’ve read my share of stories, particularly historical fantasy stories, where the antagonists are just a distant looming peril. While there’s nothing wrong with looming peril, I believe a story can be enhanced if we get to know the opposition. And I’m not just talking about a scene where the dark lord uses telepathy to strangle a messenger bearing ill tidings, simply to show us he is merciless and arbitrarily cruel. For me it’s all the better that Sauron is a duplicitous fallen demigod, corrupted by a desire to create order from chaos; that the Nazgûl were deceived kings of men, lured to accept corrupting rings by their promise of power; that Darth Vader went to the dark side in a vain attempt to rescue lost love from death’s grip. I want more than simple good versus evil. Give me many shades of gray (no, wait—oh, never mind). I like to know what’s driving my favorite antagonists.

And what better way to get to know a character than to be in their skin, to feel their feelings of betrayal, loss, or injustice? What drove them to the dark side? Is their side even dark to them? Headswerving to your baddies’ viewpoints delivers the answers. Goals can be clarified, motivations strengthened, and conflicts escalated when we are brought deeper into the psyche of the antagonists by seeing the story from their perspectives. For me there’s an added bonus: they’re just plain fun to write.

Options for Optimizing: Headswerving also allows you to optimize the tension and impact for any given scene. It’s not just what’s happening, but who’s experiencing it. For example, say a character slaps another across the face. Who’s going to best sense whether the incident will escalate and how? The slapper or the slappee? Maybe it’s a bystander. Who best knows the depth of shame involved, or the amount of regret for the impulse? Which is greater? Rather than offering the reader just a stinging hand or cheek, you allow them to experience the event from the head that feels the fullest impact and senses the gamut of the potential repercussions.

How about a first kiss? Who is most shocked, or elated, or scandalized? Okay, how about a death? Who’s going to be horrified? Who least expected it? Who will be devastated? You can explore one or all of them—see the incident and delve the ramifications in any variety of ways. But most importantly, you get to choose the perspective that best moves your story forward and will deliver the biggest impact on your readers.

My Rose Colored POV Glasses: By now I’m sure you’ve surmised that I’m unabashed and unrepentant about my headswerving. I may love seeing from the eyes of many, but I’m not completely blind to the pitfalls. I’ve made my share of mistakes with my profusion of POVs, and I may make even more changes to my manuscripts before I’m done. So before you jump on the headswerver bandwagon, take a note of caution from a longtime devotee. Be aware of these potential complicating issues:

* Make them distinctive!  Be sure each character has a unique voice and perspective. Does each character come across differently and offer the reader a fresh outlook? Use of quirks and vocal tics can be helpful, but don’t rely on tricks. Make sure each POV character has a singular personality and set of opinions. Don’t duplicate worldviews.

*Avoid head-hopping. Make sure it’s very clear to the reader whose skin they are in. It can feel disorienting or even creepy when they aren’t sure. Delineate the changes with a scene break or a chapter change, and quickly identify the new POV after the change—within a line or two.

*Don’t fall down the rabbit hole. Secondary character POVs can be a blast to write, and they often aid the pacing. The development of subplots can enhance your story’s themes and keep your novel’s middle from sagging. But beware of being sidetracked! Your readers want to follow your protagonists—after all, they’re the ones you put in the story’s driver’s seat. Get back to him/her/them… Often.

*Offer closure. Don’t allow yourself to leave dangling participants when you get to ‘The End.’ If you’re going to create them, give them an arc. Every POV character should have some clear reason for their departure or the end of their role in the story—for better or worse. (I know some of you brash young headswervers are going to kill a few off, aren’t you? It’s okay, I get it.)

Headswerving’s Head Recruiter: So tell me—are you already a headswerver, or do you enjoy reading them? If you haven’t yet, do you think you’ll ever try a story from multiple POVs? Or are you just annoyed by all this hopping around, wishing I’d join Headswervers Anonymous already?

Vaughn RoycroftMany thanks to Heather Reid for allowing me to fill in for her, and to all the H&C ladies for their hospitality! For those of you who don’t know me, feel free to drop by my other blogging home at anytime, and we can get better acquainted. 

Image credit: rolffimages / 123RF Stock Photo


Posted by on February 20, 2013 in Characters, Point of View, Uncategorized


Tags: , ,

39 responses to “Headswerving: Storytelling from Multiple Points of View

  1. Nicole L. Bates

    February 20, 2013 at 8:05 am

    Hello, my name is Nicole, I’m also a headswerver. 😉 I love this post. I also love writing from the point of view of almost every character that I introduce. I have had to go back and edit most of this out because I have learned that to keep the story moving in the intended direction, rather than meandering down every imaginable sub-plot, I need to tighten up my points of view. That’s just me. I think a lot of writers can keep on track really well while still allowing the reader the fun of experiencing the story from every angle. I think it can add to the story and actually reduce the need for extraneous events to take place, because we’re getting so much input on the same series of event from all the different characters. You have great pointers on how to write from multiple Points of View and do it well. I will no doubt need to refer back to those in future stories!

    • Vaughn Roycroft

      February 20, 2013 at 8:16 am

      Welcome, Nicole. At the next meeting I’ll teach you the secret handshake, complete only with a simultaneous head-swivel. Don’t worry, you’re not alone having had to scale back. I’ve dropped several to get down to eight, and who knows, I may end up dropping it further. For me, one of the nice things about exploring so many early has been the ease of incorporating them later in the series. I already knew them well when their time arrived in another manuscript.

      Great point about the reduction in events. I love a well-done first person story, as they’re so intimate. But sometimes first person POV can start to read like an uncoiling series of events, rather then a multi-dimensional story (first this happened, then I did this, then this, etc.).

      Glad to know I am not the lone headswerver around here, Nicole. 🙂 Thanks for reading and sharing! Have a great snow day reading!

  2. ddfalvo

    February 20, 2013 at 8:52 am

    Oh my– you coined a new writerly term, I’m sure of it. Look at you forging new paths in an age old journey. 😀

    Having hopped aboard this same bandwagon (and navigated the same learning curve), I agree. Do it right, and it’s smooth traveling. The elevated stakes create a savory impact for the fallen villain or the failing protag. It is . . . more delicious. Do it wrong, and the proverbial potholes will break the axle of your story.

    You hit the nail square with your rules for writing from multi-pov’s. The whole point is too deepen the experience, not confuse the hell out of the reader. Each contribution must point to a focused goal (keep your eye on the ball) and support the MC’s quest.

    A shout out to say that your own POV’s are very well done. The transitions feel natural and each “seasons” the soup to a harmonious blend. 😀

    • Vaughn Roycroft

      February 20, 2013 at 9:09 am

      Seems like a natural, doesn’t it, D? Of course I had a little help from the Bard of Avon, but it still feels fresh. 😉

      I’ve hit the potholes, and have often had to go back and repave, sometimes seeing the events from a new set of eyes. I’ve written some scenes from two or three perspectives before finding the one that feels right. Our mentor has had to remind me on more than one occasion to ‘get back to the MCs!’ And for that I am grateful, but it is still a struggle to stay on course, with all these voices in my head. 😉

      Of course, being a compulsive headswerver as well as a namey-namer, I’m always worried about confusing the hell out of the reader, so I’m gratified by your praise, D. I know I’ve confused some readers already, and at times have confused myself–but that’s another issue entirely. Thanks so much for your amazing support, my friend! Can’t wait to experience your headswerving ways, D! 🙂

      • ddfalvo

        February 20, 2013 at 9:26 am

        “had to go back and repave”– touché! Lol. Ah–Cathy is already hinting I will have to “tighten up” my POV wandering in the big draft but that was expected. I’m hoping I did better with the current rewrite.

        And ROFL, “at times have confused myself–but that’s another issue entirely.” Yup. That’s a daily battle for me. 😛

      • Vaughn Roycroft

        February 20, 2013 at 9:33 am

        FYI, Cathy’s wise input motivated me to ‘tighten’ (i.e. chop, slash, hack away, what have you) two POVs out of book one, and severly restrict another (hint: he only appears in the epilogue now), so you’re not alone, my fellow padawan. Keep the faith, re: our daily battle! 😉

  3. Jan O'Hara (Tartitude)

    February 20, 2013 at 9:28 am

    I wouldn’t consider 4 or 5 viewpoints to be outrageous, especially not for epic fantasy. I regularly read romance novels where we’re in the heads of two couples–one which takes center stage, the other serving as a foil. That said, I’ll read first person present to omniscient. I think I’m a forgiving reader of these things as long as I can immerse myself in whatever’s taking place at the time.

    To that end, I find headhopping jarring. And I’m not fond of authors breaking the wall. There’s a popular series I can’t read because things are explained to me so patiently, and I’m assured often that this moment will be seen as a HUGE one in retrospect if only I could know what the narrator now knows… That kind of discourse pulls me out of the story far more than a POV change.

    • Vaughn Roycroft

      February 20, 2013 at 9:46 am

      I would consider my two MCs and that non-center stage couple to be my primary four that you say are fairly standard for romance. They probably account for 75% of my ms. I think I’m more forgiving of this as well, and was a bit surprised to find out so many have strong negative feelings about it, but to each their own. One of the inspirations for this post was a comment Mo made about a historical fiction title she read for her book club. She noted that the heroine was rarely where the action took place, and said she wished there were more POV characters to take her to the battles and sea voyages, etc. (I think she may have been annoyed by the MC as well.)

      I’m jarred by headhopping as well, and always make a point to make very clear breaks because of it. I don’t even like it when I’m left for a paragraph of mystery as to whom I’m with after a scene change. And if an event’s huge, it should be self-evident, right? Good points, one and all, Jan. Thanks for sharing them!

  4. Christi Craig (@Christi_Craig)

    February 20, 2013 at 10:12 am

    Great post, Vaughn. I think you’re quite brave, swerving in and out of so many characters’ POV at once. I can only manage 2-3. But then, you and Jan make a great point as to why some genres almost require more. And, I love your point, too, about how those multiple POVs can add richness to a sense of place, highlighting the history and bringing it more to life (good food for thought for me). Thanks for including the tips for keeping POVs clear, tips applicable to any story or novel that are told through more than one character.

    • Vaughn Roycroft

      February 20, 2013 at 11:02 am

      I’m not sure it was bravery so much as foolhardiness, but it’s taking courage to continue to smooth out the transitions and hone the story, I suppose, so thanks, Christi. I’m glad you appreciate the richness it can add. When I read someone who has mastered headswerving, I’m always intrigued most if each character, each town, each new realm, has its own distinctive history. It makes a story continue to unfold in an exciting way, often all the way to ‘the end.’ So glad you found the tips helpful, too. Thanks for letting me know, Christi! 🙂

  5. liz

    February 20, 2013 at 10:41 am

    May I join the club as well? I love your suggestions for making sure the switches work, Vaughn. It takes me a lot of rewriting to make those transitions as smooth as I can, and you’ve posted good reminders for me here.

    • Vaughn Roycroft

      February 20, 2013 at 11:04 am

      Wow, you guys are making my day… week, even. Makes me feel great to know I’ve helped one of my favorite novelists! Thanks, Liz!

  6. Heather Reid

    February 20, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Great post, Vaughn! I love books with multiple POV when done well. Will you teach me the secret handshake too? 😉

    • Vaughn Roycroft

      February 20, 2013 at 11:38 am

      Of course, another Ice & Fire devotee must know the handshake! 🙂 Thanks so much for having me fill in, Heather, and good luck and Godspeed with PDN2!

  7. Jamie Raintree

    February 20, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    You know, I’m actually on the exact opposite end of that spectrum. I prefer to stick to the point of view of a single character. I think it’s because it feels more like real life to me in that we only know what we, ourselves, are thinking. I like the mystery in that. But, it can also mean that sometimes I don’t know my other characters well enough. But who knows? Maybe it will shift one day. We’re always growing, right? 😉

    • Vaughn Roycroft

      February 20, 2013 at 4:44 pm

      I know you’re not alone in your preference, and I actually thought I’d hear a lot more of your sentiment. I’m determined to try a first person, lone POV story someday–even if it’s a short piece. Maybe you could try multiple POVs at the same time, and we could bolster each other through it. 😉 Thanks for weighing in, Jamie!

      • Jamie Raintree

        February 20, 2013 at 5:50 pm

        Lol! Sounds like a plan to me!

  8. Normandie

    February 20, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    I adore multiple POVs, especially getting into the head of bad guys and odd folk. I had to make changes to shorten both of my soon-to-be released books, which meant a few secondary characters lost their voice. (I’ve saved those chunks. Perhaps one day I should write a story that stars all the dumpees from my other works.) Having written in their head helped deepen my understanding of their motivations, which I hope still show up in the finished works. We’ll see!

    • Vaughn Roycroft

      February 20, 2013 at 6:06 pm

      I agree that everything you write in a project helps deepen your understanding of it, so I’m quite sure it will show in yours. 🙂 And I also saved all of my ‘lost voices,’ Normandie. I’m glad to hear another say they like reading the bad guys’ perspective, like I do. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  9. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke

    February 20, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    Although I’ve heard the admonitions about headswerving, (love your word), I am wondering if this advice came before multimedia infiltrated our lives? In the high-def multimedia world we live in today, audiences tune in to multiple viewpoints on a matter-of-fact and up-to-the-minute basis. Stands to reason fiction would evolve with the times.

    • Vaughn Roycroft

      February 20, 2013 at 6:09 pm

      That’s a fair point, Bernadette. I think we’ve grown more accustomed to multidimensional entertainment. So glad you like the term I coined. Thanks for adding a great point to the conversation, my friend! 🙂

  10. Lara Schiffbauer

    February 20, 2013 at 6:59 pm

    I’ve been stuck in first person land for about two years. Last fall I started a book in third person, and was tickled to get to explore two other characters. Not quite headswearving (love that term!) but for me it was gigantic!

    • Vaughn Roycroft

      February 21, 2013 at 6:30 am

      Yay Lara! Love to hear you’re exploring new techniques. I told Jamie, above, that I’m bound and determined to try first person. There are definite advantages I’d like to explore. I’m reading a gigantic epic tale right now from first, so I know it can be done. Good luck with your future headswerving endeavors!

      • Ellen Oliver

        February 21, 2013 at 8:43 am

        Vaughn, I find one benefit of 1st person is the dynamic and creative dialogue drives the story. It seems more immediate, not an adjunct to head talking and description. I feel more in the characters’ skin and therefore portray them more authentically. I know I’ve got it when I really hate someone or I experience extreme emotion while writing. Headswerving and first person need clear chapter breaks or other defining elements to keep the tension flowing.

        I’ve learned a lot reading – Thanks

      • Vaughn Roycroft

        February 21, 2013 at 9:31 am

        Isn’t having a real emotional response such a great indicator? I can genuinely see how it could feel more authentic. Thanks for weighing in on this, Ellen! I’m trying it for sure!

  11. sugaropal

    February 20, 2013 at 7:05 pm

    Now you’ve made me want to write something epic. Something requiring POV aerobics. The first two books I wrote were single scoop POV, the last was a double scoop…and it was delicious. Hmm.

    • Vaughn Roycroft

      February 21, 2013 at 6:36 am

      Ah, you found me out. Not only am I overtly recruting for Team Headswerver, I am subliminally recruting for Team Epic as well. You could flex you plot muscles, stretch your setting boundaries, and pump up your POV aerobics. The results are bound to be interesting, even if your epic runs away with you, like mine did. After all, it’s fun to get carried away. 😉 Have fun, and thanks, Rhiann!

  12. Tonia Marie Houston

    February 21, 2013 at 7:27 am

    When I met my husband, I was reading the second fantasy series I’d ever picked up- SK’s Dark Tower series. My husband went on to introduce me to the headswerving of Robert Jordan and GRRM(when do I learn the secret handshake?). I’ve always loved first person POV, but GRRM, especially, opened me to the possibilities as a reader.

    Now, as a writer? I am almost one-hundred pages into the beginnings of my first fantasy. At first, I was adamant I would only write single-book stories, but geesh, these fictional people won’t shut up. 😉

    Thanks for the insight and tips, Vaughn.

    Even typical first-person POV writers like myself walk around with various voices in our heads. Some are just far louder than others. 🙂


    • Vaughn Roycroft

      February 21, 2013 at 8:01 am

      Give your hubby a hug–he sounds like a man after my own heart. Wow, so cool about your new fantasy! Isn’t it funny how you can get swept away by these fantasy folks? 🙂 I believe that first-person types also have a variety of voices. They just have one main one to filter the others, and that could be useful. 😉

      Thanks for sharing your road to headswerving appreciation and your exciting news, my friend! When we get together for drinks to discuss your broadening series (it’ll happen), I’ll show you (and your husband) the secret handshake. Till then, Cheers!

  13. Ellen Oliver

    February 21, 2013 at 8:32 am

    Great Post – and timely for me, Thank You. I’ve been writing in 1st person because I find 3rd person – to read and to write – puts distance between the reader and the story – I do not like that. But I do all my drafts in what comes natural and that is “Headswerving!” Now it has a name. This is a richer world – more complex and certainly more like real life.

    The voices in in my head also tend to be more cooperative about letting me get to sleep when I’m on a roll because they know they will be heard. I know I’m in the right place when they start telling me “I wouldn’t do that! – I do this!”

    So if headswerving is a viable option – I switch heads at a chapter break and lead in the first few sentences with dialogue from the dominant “head.” One of my pet peeves is the “whose is talking now?” question that can spoil the flow and the fun. – I will write that way and be the happier for it.
    PS: Fantasy writers rock! Though I am not one.

    • Vaughn Roycroft

      February 21, 2013 at 9:29 am

      Hi Ellen. Love: “The voices in in my head also tend to be more cooperative about letting me get to sleep when I’m on a roll because they know they will be heard. I know I’m in the right place when they start telling me “I wouldn’t do that! – I do this!” ” So true!

      I try to keep my third very tight. There is no narrator or omni-presence in my work at all. The only thing the reader sees or experiences comes the head I’ve currently swerved to, no other source. But I do want to try first. I think it’d be pretty natural for me. (Who-the-heck-is-this is a pet peeve of mine, too.)

      So glad you found the post helpful, and have a name for what comes naturally! 🙂
      PS – I have to humbly agree, because I know a lot who do indeed rock. Thanks.

  14. M.L. Swift

    February 22, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    Great post, Vaughn. And I recognize MPD when I see it (Multiple Personality Disorder). One writes like Sybil. Or I guess I should say, “We” writes like Sybil.

  15. M.L. Swift

    February 22, 2013 at 6:15 pm

    I hope it took my other comment. I wasn’t logged in, and then there was no confirmation. Maybe I’m just being moderated. It was a great post, though, Vaughn.

    • Vaughn Roycroft

      February 22, 2013 at 8:23 pm

      🙂 I’ll moderate by saying it was very funny, Michael. I considered taking the MPD tack when I wrote, it, but I’ve already got a bit of a nutty rep, so I passed. 😉 Much appreciated!

  16. Lisa Ahn (@Lisa_Ahn)

    February 23, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    Love this! I’m a fan of multiple perspectives both in reading and in writing, for all the reasons you give here. I also love the “beware” tips you include, especially the advice against head-hopping. Aside from all of that, I enjoyed the sneak peak into your trilogy. Can’t wait to read more!

    • Vaughn Roycroft

      February 24, 2013 at 10:54 am

      Yay, another headswerver! Thanks, Lisa! I can’t wait to share my story, or to ready yours! Have a great weekend. 🙂


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