Stories change radically depending on the number of point of view characters. A novel with a single viewpoint deals with one character’s experience of the story, whereas one with multiple points of view allows different perspectives on the same events or on multiple related events.
Some authors choose an approach to point of view that works well for them and stick to it throughout all their books. This is especially true of novels in a series – readers would find it strange if the next Song of Ice and Fire novel only had Tyrion’s point of view or if the last Harry Potter novel had thrown in the perspectives of a great many characters.
Other authors experiment with different quantities of point of view in different novels depending on the needs of the story. These authors usually write in a variety of different styles and write novels which are quite different from each other. Once such writer is Scottish author Iain M. Banks who penned 13 sci-fi novels between 1987 and 2012. No two of his books are really alike and throughout his career he experimented with different numbers of point of view characters. I am going to look at four examples now show how the different number of point of view characters shaped the novels.
The Player of Games
Banks’s second sci-fi novel focuses on a single point of view character. Gurgeh, the eponymous player of games, lives in the utopian future human society known as the Culture, which appears in many of Banks’s sci-fi novels. Gurgeh is recruited to establish contact with a new alien society whose social structure is entirely based around the playing of a complex board game.
We follow him and only him through his recruitment and his attempts to play the game. This is an effective way to introduce an alien society to both the protagonist and the reader. As Gurgeh learns more about the game and the world he is in, so does the reader and we keep pace with him throughout the story. Because the narrative of The Player of Games focuses on Gurgeh’s experience of the trials of playing Azad, the only important events in the book are those which concern him. Having more than one point of view character would detract from the novel’s focus.
A later novel which takes place within the Culture universe without featuring the Culture itself, Inversions consists of alternating chapters from two different point of view characters: Oelph, a doctor’s apprentice and DeWar, a military dictator’s bodyguard. Oelph and DeWar live in different countries on the same planet and the only connection between the two of them is a war between their two nations.
Both characters have separate stories of court politics which are only tangentially related to one another. By having two point of view characters Banks allows the novel to explore two sets of related, but not directly connected events. The result is that it builds a larger picture of the wider context of both stories in the reader’s mind.
Against a Dark Background
A standalone novel outside of Banks’ long-running Culture series, Against a Dark Background follows Sharrow and her former combat team as they go in search of the last Lazy Gun, an ancient weapon which kills its targets ironically. The novel switches between Sharrow’s point of view and that of the rest of her team, often during scenes. The perspective moves to where it can best describe the events currently happening, but the team are never split up and all experience the same events.
The plot remains focuses on the linear narrative of the adventure Sharrow and her team go on. Events outside what the team are currently experiencing have little effect on the story, so Banks uses POV changes to show different characters’ perspectives of the same events.
Taking place on a galactic scale, Excessioncharts the Culture’s response to what it describes as an Outside Context Problem, a threat outside of its knowledge. The arrival of the titular Excession, a strange artefact from another universe, triggers a struggle for its control between the Culture and another race known as Affront.
The novel has many point of view characters; some only appear in a couple of scenes and some have a story running the entire course of the book. They all experience different aspects of the struggle for control of the Excession.
This novel is so expansive that it cannot be told from a single point of view, as no one person sees all that is important to the narrative. It needs a great number of point of view characters with their own self-contained stories, all of which affect one another and contribute to the wider plot. Only a point of view structure like this can tell a story that is set on such a large scale.
The four models of POV structure outlined above can also be seen in works by other authors. The Player of Games reveals its world to the protagonist and the reader in the same way the Harry Potter novels do; Excession’s wide focus is similar to that of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire; China Miéville uses the two protagonists experiencing different but related stories in Perdido Street Station; and Sheri S. Tepper shows different characters experiencing the same events in Grass.
Most authors keep to one approach to point of view which suits all their novels; it is rare to find an author like Iain M. Banks who experiments with the all four different approaches.