How to Keep Multiple POVs Distinct

My thoughts on how to keep multiple POVs Distinct, so the reader knows who the POV belongs to, without relying on things like their names in title page headers


Ken Schafer

3/4/20242 min read

brown camel in front of white wooden fence during daytime
brown camel in front of white wooden fence during daytime

My thoughts on multiple Points of View (POVs)

I recently read the best-seller One of Us is Lying which is a YA story told in something like five different POVs with each chapter being told by a different character. While I generally enjoyed the book, I kept on finding myself having to go back to the beginning of each chapter to find out who was talking, as their voices were simply not distinct enough.

I had some additional problems with believability of several plot points, but as this post is on POV, I'll skip those at this time.

As a writer, there are many ways to ensure that each POV is unique, and I would always recommend that you have beta readers read it WITHOUT identifying which character is talking in the chapter heading to ensure that you've done your job in keeping them distinct.

In my view, they should differ by as many of the following as you can manage, without it getting forced.

  1. Voice (of course). Please don't rely on accents or forced vocabulary differences as they can get very annoying to read. Highlight the different ways they view the world, from what they care about, to what they notice and describe, and how they describe it. For example:

    Theresa: Jack was carrying a beautiful teal, book, with some kind of leather embossing on it, though his hand was covering it and I couldn't quite make out the image.

    James: Jack had this blue book in his hand, too effing bright for a dude to be carrying around. It's just effing embarrassing.

    Lisa: God, it always drives me crazy, every time I see Jack. He's so sweet, but so absolutely clueless. As always, the nerd had a book glued to his hand, this one a shocking shade of blue that clashed with his palm-tree infested red and yellow Hawaiian shirt. But what made it so typical-Jack pathetic, was the way he held it, front and center, as if he thought he were a bird and this book was his plumage, guaranteed to get him a mate.

  2. Circumstances and Knowledge; make me know who's talking through viewing it through each character's specific situation

    Theresa: The way James said libary without the initial "r" was fingernails across a chalkboard. It just drove me absolutely crazy.

    Jack: Effing James thought he was better than the rest of us, with his BMW and Rolexes, but he just had to open his mouth, and you knew he was white trash, through and through.

    Lisa: I still don't know how James ever became part of our group of friends, as on the face of it, he's basically a misogynist ass who thinks that just because his family has money, he can treat everyone else like crap. But I'm sure there's more to him, some core empathy, that buried deep under the thick scar tissue of his own emotional pain. There's a human in there somewhere, and I'm going to find it one of these days.

  3. Inner voice. One character might be filled with self-doubt, for example, while another is action first, thought later.

    James: They were always judging me. I could see it in their eyes, in the faces they made behind my back whenever I was talking. But screw 'em, particularly that bitch Lisa who's still trying to save me... like I'm the one who needs saving.

    Lisa: I hate watching that hurt little boy in James, as he lashes out at anything and everyone. Too afraid to deal with his own pain, he has to cause it in others as a way of distracting himself, of making himself feel not so alone.