Handling Multiple Viewpoints

When you’re writing a novel, you will find that if you stick to only one point of view, it can be rather stifling.  The problem becomes that your protagonist must always be doing something interesting—fighting the good fight, running from villains, solving crimes, falling in and out of love, and so on.  Not only does this make it difficult to plot a novel, but you as an author run the risk of creating a character that feels . . . manipulative, unrealistic.

So what do you do?  You write a story from multiple points of view so that you can focus on the most gripping moments of each protagonist.  If you’re hoping to attract a wide audience, both males and females, you might consider using two point-of-view (POV) characters—one of each sex.

But I got a question yesterday from an author who asked, “Is there any particular order that you should introduce those multiple protagonists in?”

There may be an answer to that.  Studies find that many young men don’t like reading stories either by or about women.  About 32 percent of them will put down a book that has a female protagonist.  The men just don’t feel that the book was written “for” them.  The same thing happens with women. About 14 percent of them will put down a book that features a male protagonist.  In both cases, the readers simply feel that people of the opposite sex are just hard to relate to, that books written by or about those people just “aren’t for me.”

Some research shows that readers with high levels of oxytocin in their systems are able to relate to people of the opposite sex more easily.  Oxytocin is a neuropeptide created in the hypothalamus that influences just how much care and compassion a person has for another.  It’s released by the body in women who are lactating and in both sexes during lovemaking, but typically women have an 18 percent higher level of oxytocin in their bloodstream than men do—and that 18 percent is a significant number.  If you take the 32 percent of men who can’t cross the POV line and then subtract the 14 percent of women who find it difficult to read across POV lines, you come up with 18 percent.

So what does that tell you?

First it tells me that a person’s ability to feel compassion may have more to do with hormone levels than moral superiority, but let’s put the sociological implications aside for a moment and just think about the economics.

Look at it this way: let’s say that a young man picks up a book that opens with a female protagonist.  There’s a 32 percent chance that he will put it down eventually, within about three chapters, unless there is a viewpoint change.

A woman who picks up a book that opens with a scene about a male, on the other hand, is 18 percent more likely to read on—especially if both a male and a female are featured predominantly on the cover.

So books that open with male protagonists tend to fare a little better than those with female protagonists.  Sure, you can have a huge bestseller if you’re writing about a female protagonist. (Just look at something like Twilight or The Hunger Games.) But if you are trying to entice readers of both sexes, consider your opening carefully.  I suspect that just the order of introduction can raise your sales profile by a dozen or more percentage points.

But let me be honest: the order of introduction isn’t the only important factor.  You still have to have an extraordinary hook for each or your protagonists—an opening that promises a great story for all audiences.  I think that if I were writing a novel where I hoped to hook a wide audience, I’d write my opening for each protagonist and focus on writing a gripping opening regardless of the sex of the reader and I would focus on introducing both protagonists in the opening scene so that I signaled to my reader that this is a book that everyone can enjoy.


Oz Reimagined is available for $0.99 right now, and I have a short story in it.


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