What about a Secondary Character’s Point of View?

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

I had a lively conversation with a client this week about a secondary character’s point of view in the client’s book. This person wanted to know if there are hard and fast rules about their use. The answer is a qualified no, which is why POV decisions can be a stumbling block for authors. The issues at stake are purpose and balance.

A set of rules for point of view use would simplify things. Always follow this procedure for this genre, only one POV for that genre, and so on. But fortunately, there are no hard and fast rules. Novels would become formulaic. Narrative non-fiction would be boring. There is room for trends in writing to evolve. For example, when a few romance writers risked including the hero’s POV along with the heroine’s, publishers were amazed at the positive reader response. Today that evolving trend is standard procedure. The point is: don’t restrict yourself to some assumed rule.Downton Abbey_mrspatmore

Authors need to look for creative ways to make their books stand out from the crowd in this tight publishing market. Inclusion of a subordinate character’s POV is one way to accomplish this goal. It isn’t a new innovation, but the technique can provide a unique effect in your book because your characters are different from those in anyone else’s book. Done well, this character’s viewpoint will add depth of understanding to your main characters and tension to your story.

That’s the trick. It must be done flawlessly.

Two questions to ask yourself while you’re in the process of incorporating a secondary character POV: Am I accomplishing the purpose for using it? and Am I maintaining a proper balance between the main character’s POV and the subordinate character’s POV?

Using those questions as a guiding force, I listed five possible reasons to use a secondary character’s POV. Perhaps they will help you too.

1.     To further engage readers. This involves specific planning when you map out your book. A common mistake, especially for new writers, is to switch to the secondary character’s POV in the middle of a main character POV moment. Avoid this at all costs. It confuses the reader and distracts from the flow. Ask your critique partners to read the particular scene and give feedback.

2.     To deepen the reader’s emotional connection with the main characters. Sometimes the best way to reveal something about a main character, which may or may not be known by him or her, is through another character who knows something…the cook, the childhood friend, the enemy. In other words a character in the background of the story who is in a position to have knowledge or insight.

3.     To reveal something about the main character’s motivations. Use a secondary character POV to reveal why a main character does what he does or reacts the way she does when the main character aren’t aware of the whys themselves or when doing so better accomplishes the effect to keep the reader’s interest at a particular point in the story.

4.     To add to the tension. Use a secondary character POV to add mystery surrounding one of the main characters. This can be an especially helpful tool to avoid a sagging middle in the story.

5.     To help readers further understand the main characters’ struggles. Sometimes it would be awkward, impossible, or would slow the pace if the main character POV attempted to explain why a struggle is so hard for him. A secondary character’s more objective POV may be more effective in helping the reader to sympathize with and care about the main character’s struggles.

If you have secondary character POVs in your work, why are you using them? Having read these guidelines, do you think a secondary character POV might be more effective in accomplishing the effect you want?


When using secondary character’s point of view, purpose and balance are the guiding forces. Click to Tweet.

Five good reasons to use a secondary character’s viewpoint in your book. Click to Tweet.

57 Responses

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  1. Mary, thank you for all this great information. You’ve given me much to think on. I’m still learning, so I’m going to enjoy listening in today.

    And this makes me think of the movie Pollyanna … we learned so much about the main character (her Aunt Polly Harrington) from the kitchen help, etc!

  2. Jill Kemerer says:

    I appreciate you posting on this topic! My friends and I discuss multiple POV’s, so it’s great to hear from an expert. 🙂

    As a reader I get frustrated when there are more than three POV’s in a romance. It almost always detracts from the romance. I prefer to read only two POV’s in a romance–the hero and heroine.

    I like multiple POV’s in other genres, though. It depends on how the writer handles it.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      I agree on both counts, Jill. In a romance we want to concentrate on the romance. In other genres effective use of a secondary character POV seamlessly flows in a way that keeps the reader’s focus on a main character.

  3. Interesting topic. You’re absolutely right that secondary POV has to be very focused, and specific to an intended purpose.

    Wouk used this technique to a limited degree in “The Caine Mutiny”, and to a much greater degree in “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance”; the latter were epic in scale, and, like war, would have been incomprehensible from a single POV.

    Ruark also used some secondary POV in “Something of Value”, and achieved an interesting result. He describes the interrogation (using enhanced psychological methods) of a captured Mau Mau leader from that individual’s POV; he appears only in that scene.

    The modus operandi of the Mau Mau was to violently break the Kikuyu from their tribal traditions – “when everyone is outcast, no one will be outcast”. The interrogation was designed to allow the prisoner to reconnect with his heritage, and find honor and peace in betraying his erstwhile comrades in Mau Mau. It was a neat way of illustrating just how the insurgency worked, and the way it was ultimately put down. (By the way – the name Mau Mau has no significance – it was a nonsense phrase in keeping with the nihilistic nature of the insurgency.)

    I don’t personally use secondary POV, because I write for a smaller ‘stage’. Epics are fun to read, but not to write, and while I’ve considered it, I feel that secondary POV would be confusing – and could seem a bit manipulative to the reader.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Andrew, you always have such interesting contributions to our discussions. Your mention of the secondary POV appearing only in one scene is important to note here. It’s something I should have included in the post. A secondary character’s POV doesn’t need to extend through the book. A once or twice occurrence may be the best way to enhance the depth or tension the author wants to achieve.

      • Thanks for mentioning the sparse occurrence, Mary. When I read books where this happens, I wonder why if the rest of the book remains in the MC’s POV. You’ve given a great reason for the writer to use it.

      • If the secondary character is involved in most of the story, do you think it’s okay to only have their POV in a couple of scenes?

        Or if the secondary character is only in a couple of scenes it’s okay to write from their POV?

        Thanks for clarifying.

    • (Completely serious tone here, in case you’re tempted to think otherwise…)
      You have 100% retention of anything you’ve ever read or seen, don’t you? You absolutely blow my mind.

      The Mau Mau and Kikuyu? Amazing, Andrew, really. That struggle was decades ago, and yet entirely relevant today, and to this discussion.

  4. NLBHorton says:

    Good shot, Mary.

  5. I’ve used a subplot POV character in my stories, but I haven’t tried using a secondary character’s POV yet. I like to know my characters pretty well before I begin writing, so that means spending time with them. I think part of the reason I haven’t tried a secondary character’s POV yet is because I would want to take more time to figure out the character. I know, it sounds weak.

    Your five points are good. I think I’ll consider a secondary character POV (more limited) in a future story. Thanks for sharing this, Mary.

  6. This is a great post, Mary, thank you!
    I’ll be tattooing this on my arm for future reference. In teeny tiny font…or, ya know, I could bookmark it?!

    My first book begins in 1864 and ends in 1895. It involves two sisters, their husbands, their children, their distinctive struggles and their overuse of the word ‘their’.

    There is almost no way to NOT have secondary POV’s in a story spanning thirty years. Book two will have considerably fewer characters, but as is in book one, the secondaries move the events of the two main characters forward, and hopefully, add some relief to the mounting tensions between the MC’s.
    They add a perspective that the MC’s can’t, and a depth that builds the link from the reader to the story, like the third strand of a braid.
    I prefer to read a story with a warm, vibrant cast, not just one or two solitary cold souls who need more warmth and colour.

  7. One thing to consider is the description of secondary characters’ reactions as a kind of pseudo-POV. It goes a bit deeper than the usual narrative description, and should be used with care, but it can certainly be effective.

    It’s used in movies all the time, and sometimes very well.

    If you look at the scene in Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V” in which King Henry coldly rejects his old friend Falstaff – “I know thee not, old man” – the camera cuts to Falstaff’s face, and in the anguish of his being discarded there is the mirror of the young king – heartless and yet ultimately heroic, carrying the weight of rule and war.

  8. Mary, what great tips!

    I agree with Jill. In a romance, I want to know what’s going on with the hero and heroine primarily from their POV.

    In one of the books in my series, I’ve brought in a third POV at very brief intervals in keeping with #3 above. This character’s insight reveals the hero’s motivations without oversharing–which I think is key. We want the reader to continue growing right along with the hero/heroine. Giving away too much through another character’s POV makes a reader feel cheated, I think.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Indeed, Cynthia. Overdoing a secondary character’s POV is not only misuse of the technique, cheating the reader, but it also distracts the reader’s focus from the main character, which causes further problems.

  9. Lisa says:

    I have never tried this, but I can see where it might really set a work apart. Thanks for challenging us.

  10. I enjoy reading and writing the secondary character POV for your reasons #3 and #4, Mary. Andrew’s comment and your response above about a secondary POV appearing only once reminded me of my first ms (now in a drawer but hoping to emerge at some point in the future). The antagonist hired a student of his to act as thug and trash the main character’s apartment as a warning. But I didn’t want the only action to be the MC’s reaction when he sees that his apartment is trashed. So with one scene, I went into the thug’s POV as he was doing the trashing. The secondary character’s motivation enhanced the MC’s motivation. Like I said, that story is in a drawer now, so I can’t testify to any success with it. 🙂 But it was fun to write.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Once may be all that is needed from a secondary POV, as in your example, Meghan. But done well, it can add depth and insight to the main character that couldn’t be accomplished any other way.

  11. Lori Benton says:

    I used a secondary character’s POV in my upcoming release, The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn, in order to keep the antagonists front and center in the story without going inside their heads and deflating the tension and suspense. Having a more sympathetic character connected to them (but not privy to their thoughts), who has a decidedly different outlook on life than most people, also added humor and texture to the story. He has his own story arc as well.

  12. Sylvia M. says:

    As a reader I strongly dislike any secondary viewpoints; Particularly in novels of less than 500 pages. They take away from the main characters and interrupt the flow of the storyline. Something or someone always suffers. One gets no surprises. One book in particular of which I am thinking is 320 pages with FOUR viewpoints. It’s supposed to be a romance, but we got viewpoints of the heroine, hero, the supposed-to-be-other-love-interest, and the teenage niece of the heroine. If you’re writing any kind of romance, whether straight romance or romantic fiction, keep to the hero and heroine. If you want to write for teens and their issues write a novel for them. Please don’t mix the two. I don’t mind teen issues if the heroine is a widowed mother of teens. One would expect those things in her life. Just keep to the mom’s viewpoint. All in all the best books I have read have had only one viewpoint. That being the viewpoint of a female by a female author or a male by a male author. Whew! That was a mouthful.:) This is my opinion and I’m throwing it in here to express another view on the subject.:)

    • Sylvia M. says:

      Let me clarify something here. Lots of the books I own and enjoy do have secondary viewpoints, but I think they would have been loads better without them. When I re-read those books I usually skip all those scenes or skim-read.

      • Mary Keeley says:

        Thanks for sharing your viewpoint, Sylvia. It’s helpful for readers to know their POV preferences in the books they select. Choosing which books you want to invest time and money in is an easier process.

        Someone else commented about overuse of secondary character POV that you allude to as well. It points to ineffective use of the technique.

    • Don’t read my books when I’m published, Sylvia.

      I’m the opposite of you. I love reading romances with multiple POV’s, and that’s what I write. I hate books with one POV, because the author usually chooses the character I care the least about. (Yes, I’m odd 🙂

      I seem to be incapable of writing with any less than four POV’s. I have my hero and heroine, of course. Then I’ll have another character in a subplot that interacts with the main plot and is sometimes a close friend of the hero’s. The fourth will either be the villain, or in the case of my space opera one of the spy type people working behind the scenes of the main plot and providing crucial information about what’s going on that’s affecting the hero but he doesn’t know about it.

      Yes, I like complicated. And epic.

  13. Great points, and definitely a post to consider as I’m starting my third story. In my first two stories (as you know), I had three POVs, but the only reason I had three is because there were secondary love interests for the heroines. The secondary love interests didn’t get many POV scenes, but just enough to give the reader more understanding. Since I write romances, I agree with Jill and Cindy that the story should be about the hero and heroine and shouldn’t focus on a secondary character–however, when the secondary character is part of the love triangle, sometimes it’s necessary. In my current WIP I believe there will only be two POVs. I agree with you, there shouldn’t be a “formula” for POVs–each story is unique and you should do what needs to be done to move the story along and keep the tension high–sometimes that includes the secondary POV.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Gabrielle, that is an interesting exception to the unspoken standard. It supports the theory that writers shouldn’t feel they have to rigidly adhere to a formula, but can create outside the lines when it is the best way to achieve a purposeful effect.

  14. Mary, this post really got me thinking—what fun it would be to use a secondary character POV. You focus on using the secondary POV to illuminate the main character, but the picture of Mrs. Patmore was an interesting choice. I love it when we see the fullness of her character, as in her sweet moments “mothering” Daisy. But Mrs. P. doesn’t really tell us much about the main characters, except in her frenzy to please them, and therefore keep her job—which is certainly important. “Downton Abbey” has two major spheres of plot twisting around each other—who are the main characters really? and whose POV would I use when if I were writing the novel? That’s a fun knot to think of untying.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      I love your observation, Cristine. Yes, Downton Abbey is more complicated. Mrs. Patmore is a secondary character within the staff sphere. Of course Julian Fellowes has surprised us many times. He has a bevy of minor characters he can tap into if there is purpose in their viewpoint.

  15. Secondary POV was on my mind today, so this is much appreciated. When I first began work on this middle grade historical, I included three points of view: the female MC, the male MC, and that of the town gossip. Early comments from critiques stated the adult POV of the town gossip was good and it also helped to reinforce why the female MC didn’t like her very much.

    As I’ve gotten back into it, I really think I need to drop that POV. I’ve actually been trying to stick simply to the female MC’s POV, but I feel that’s a shame since this is set during Reconstruction and the male MC is an African American stable hand. By using his POV the reader could gain a great deal about what it was like to be him during this time period, but honestly, I’m not certain that needs to be any type of focus, since the main story isn’t about that. Decisions. Decisions.

  16. Some very helpful advice here. I have a group of writer friends I’ll be sharing this with.

    I’ve yet to find it necessary to use a secondary POV in this manner, but I do subplots with other POV characters regularly. I seem to be incapable of writing without two plots, but that’s okay with me because I love it.

    I love reading multiple POV books. If it’s one POV I come away feeling like part of the story is missing.

  17. Christine Dorman says:

    Thank you, Mary, for this interesting topic. It’s got me thinking about adding a secondary character’s point of view in my next draft. One of my main character’s friends is a water sprite who has lived for many ages and who has told the main character that she knows a great deal about what’s going on in the Five Magical Lands even though she never leaves her brook. Because she is so tiny, people say and do things in front of her without even noticing she’s there. So, she might be able to offer some insights and perspective on occasion.

    Thank you for the idea!


    • Mary Keeley says:

      Christine, the water sprite is good example of a secondary character who might seem to be almost inconsequential but who sees and hears much from the background. At some point her POV could be the best tool to achieve a desired effect.

      Blessings to you too.

  18. Love the wealth of information here today. Thank you for starting the conversation Mary.

  19. Aeon says:

    I’ve recently been writing stories with only two POVs. But I just went back and picked up a series I wrote in 2008, thinking of reworking the three books, and saw that I had written four POVs in each story.

    On thinking about it after this blog, I realized that I used the other POVs for a combination of humor and world building. A lot of the time the leads don’t think what they are going through is particularly funny, but it will be hilarious to a third party.

    I also used it to world build; for example, showing the King’s POV about his son’s (an alien prince) marriage to a human allows the reader to understand more about their society and the cultural, political and legal ramifications for their society if the marriage takes place. These are issues that the prince either doesn’t see or would be strange and awkward for him to think to himself or say to the heroine during their romance.

    These may not be POVs that are needed during a contemporary romance where the heroine is smart and sassy and we all know the cultural context. But for the type of story I was writing, a sweeping science fiction romance about the slow acceptance of humans by an alien society, I found it really necessary.

  20. The trick to creating secondary POV characters is to create the secondary character’s own story to explicate a “corollary” of the main theme of the book. This works for any number of points of view, but each POV character has to be living their own story that resonates with the main character’s story. Theme is the binding force.

  21. donnie says:

    . . . . does the POV of a dog count?

    I bet you knew I was going to ask that?

  22. Darby Kern says:

    This is a subject I’m certainly interested in. In the past I’ve written stories from single POVs and it’s been okay, but constraining. If the story is about what one person learns or becomes it can be very strong. But if I’m telling a larger story how can you possibly stick to one person’s POV, especially when (a) there are events that the MC has not witnessed but are needed to build up suspense- Hitchcock’s bomb under the table- or (b) the story covers multiple generations or long spans of time?

    A quick glance around my room makes me ask, who is the main character in:
    The Lord Of The Rings?
    Les Miserables?
    The Stand?
    Vienna Prelude? (The whole Zion series for that matter)
    The Godfather?
    Next (Michael Crichton)?
    Most Elmore Leonard books?
    And who is the main character on Downton Abbey? Or for that matter, The Simpsons?

    Of course some books it’s easy to figure out: John Watson tells his stories about Sherlock Holmes, making it clear who the subject is. Len Deighton has used FP in every book of his I’ve read. Jack Reacher tells his stories and is in every scene. Sam Spade doesn’t tell his own story but never leaves the stage. Same with Richard Sharpe. And John LeCarre is so clever that 200 pages of The Russia House zip by before you even know it’s a first person narrative.

    But Tom Clancy uses lots of POVs. Don’t believe me? Look at The Hunt For Red October. Who is the main character? Jack Ryan or Marko Ramius? The same could be asked of my favorite of his books, Cardinal of the Kremlin. In both cases the story lines don’t cross until hundreds of pages have passed. In Clear and Present Danger Ryan doesn’t step onstage for over 300 pages. Whose book is it?

    I would defy anyone to make a water-tight case that Frodo is the main character of Tolkien’s trilogy. I could destroy it in seconds.

    I won’t try to make a case that all of the books I’ve mentioned are great literature (Who is that Vic Hugo guy anyway?) but they all seem to have struck a chord with the readers. I believe there are valid reasons for using multiple POVs, and it sounds like some of the writers here have done it. My question is, is there virtue in NOT knowing who your MC is when you set out or can you let the story decide that as you write?

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Darby, you built up a strong case before you asked your intriguing question. It is a rare author who can write a novel without first determining the main characters and their struggles (inner journey) and then mapping out the plot that moves the main character or characters’ story(ies) along to the desired ending (outer journey).

  23. Alda Dyal Chand says:

    I love your e-mails. I learn more from you and you colleagues than I did at the University.

  24. Anna Labno says:

    For me it’s voice, every character to have a distinctive voice. What they’re thinking is not what they’re actually saying.

  25. Monique says:

    As an avid reader of all genres, but primarily romance, I enjoy books that offer POVs outside of the hero and heroine. In fact, all of my favorites have them! Not only do these POVs provide insight into the hero/heroine, I enjoy the bolstering of the story’s theme, plus the addition of a subplot. This subplot aspect seems to always add further tension and intrigue! With that being said, I always include more than 2 POVs in my romantic suspense manuscripts. Hero, heroine, villain, and sometimes a 4th depending on the story. I think difference sub-genres have different reader expectations.