Tolstoy was a master of point of view. When Anna Karenina begins, we learn about events from the perspective of Steva, Anna’s brother. His way of deflecting responsibility for the chaos he causes—“[My] stupid smile is responsible for everything”—gives us insights into not only his personality but his morality.
Several scenes later we are at a ball where 18-year-old Kitty watches as her suitor, Count Vronsky, the man she expects to propose at any moment, is captivated by the dazzling Anna. We could be seeing this scene through the eyes of Count Vronsky, hearing why he finds Anna so captivating. Or we could see it through Anna’s eyes, as she relishes her sexual power over Vronsky.
But Tolstoy lets us see the scene as one of betrayal through the eyes of unsophisticated Kitty. She enters the scene as the belle of the ball, literally. She sees Anna and admires her, like everyone else, only gradually realizing that Vronsky has been swept off his feet by Anna. Kitty’s hopes and dreams are shattered as Vronsky ignores her. Her night of triumph turns into a night of horror. And we, the readers, perceive all this through the mind of Kitty.
Both scenes offer emotional appeal, but because of the point of view Tolstoy chooses, that emotional appeal is intensified.
Are there any rules for changing point of view? I’ve read that using more than two points of view in a novel is confusing for the reader, and that deciding on one point of view and sticking to it is better. But as Tolstoy shows, multiple points of view can work, especially in a long novel written by a master.
So how do you decide?
- If your piece of writing is short, probably one point of view is better. The reader doesn’t have time to switch back and forth in perspectives. The writing can feel disjointed with more than one point of view.
- If your writing is longer than a short story, two or more points of view can work, but usually the writer focuses on one protagonist and that protagonist determines the primary point of view. Usually that point of view is either first person or third person limited (limited to that one character’s point of view). I have read novels in which the point of view goes back and forth between two main characters–alternating with chapters–but it feels gimmicky to me unless there are two or three story lines.
- Should you change point of view in a single work? Unless you are an accomplished writer who presents a second character with a unique perspective that enriches the work or acts as a foil to your protagonist, you should probably stick to a single point of view. A novel is a biased form of writing, biased in favor of the protagonist. Through speech or actions we can hear or see the perspective of other characters without interrupting the flow of one character’s point of view.