When I started reading romance novels, oh, more than thirty years ago now, it seemed like they were all M/F stories, told solely from the female point of view.
But, somewhere along the way, readers decided they liked the idea of getting some insight into the male perspective, and the tide turned in favour of dual POV.
Nowadays, depending on the sub-genre you’re working in, either single or dual POV can be acceptable. I’d say the vast majority of romances are written from dual perspectives, but that doesn’t mean single POV is dead.
So, if anything goes, how do writers choose which approach to use? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each? And, is dual POV actually better than single POV??
The upside of single POV
There is one main advantage to using a single POV in a romance novel: TENSION.
What creates tension in a romance — in any book, really?
Often, it’s the unknown. Something the reader wants to know, that they don’t know. Or, something one character knows that another doesn’t.
Not knowing exactly what one protagonist is thinking can be an excellent source of tension.
Take Sally Thorne’s best-selling novel, The Hating Game, which uses the first-person, single POV of its heroine, Lucy.
Lucy ‘hates’ her colleague Josh, who’s up for the same promotion as her. But it quickly becomes clear to the reader that she’s deceiving herself. And, even through her biased perspective, it’s clear that Josh doesn’t really hate her, either.
Lucy’s very limited POV is critical for creating tension: the reader can guess how these two feel, but we never really know. It’s more like having a hunch, and desperately wanting and needing confirmation — that’s what creates tension and keeps the reader interested.
If Sally Thorne had chosen to include Josh’s perspective, if throughout the book he thought things like, “OMG, I love Lucy,’ and ‘I wonder if she’ll ever love me,” most of the story’s tension would have been lost.
Advantages of using dual POV
The downside of dual POV can be loss of tension in a story. So why do writers use it?
An obvious reason is, to broaden the scope and possibilities in the story. Showing two POVs opens up all sorts of new options in what can happen in a book. You can have scenes from one protagonist’s POV without the other one present. And, with two brains to delve into, you might have twice as much to write about.
But, I think there’s another important reason: To create a bond between the reader and the couple.
Getting into someone’s head is hugely intimate. Getting to experience life through someone else’s eyes (even someone fictitious) is one of the great wonders of reading.
If you keep one protagonist blank, you might gain tension, but you may lose that sense of intimate connection with that character. And if the reader feels a real connection to both protagonists, it can make the romance deeper and more affecting.
And the opposite is true, too. If you leave out one POV, it can make the reader feel distanced from that character.
That was my experience reading Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston.
Don’t get me wrong, I love this book — it’s absorbing, brilliantly written, and has a truly great premise. But, I found the single POV limiting.
The book is written solely from the POV of Alex, the cool and brilliant ‘first-son’ of the U.S. president, who falls for the ‘prince of England’, Harry.
Alex is shiny, charismatic, and boldly-drawn; next to him, as the plot turns to dealing with Alex’s mother’s reelection campaign in the second half of the book, Harry practically fades to the status of a secondary character.
It’s still a great book, but for me, since I didn’t feel like I knew Harry that well, the romance didn’t have as much impact as it might have.
Contrasting dual and single POV
I recently re-watched the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, and it got me thinking about its POV, versus the 1995 mini-series’. POV in movies is obviously a bit different from POV in books, but this example may help illustrate the advantages and disadvantages of the different approaches.
In both versions, we follow the POV of Elizabeth Bennet. But, in the 1995 mini-series, we also get a few scenes from Darcy’s POV, that don’t include Elizabeth — resulting in a kind of dual POV.
We see him watching her play with a dog, him defending her to his snobby friends, him fencing to work off his passionate emotions, and that memorable scene of him diving into a pond while all hot and bothered by thoughts of her.
I don’t know about you, but these are some of my favourite moments in the series, where we see how he’s noticing her, and how he’s shaken by his feelings. Those scenes help deepen the romance, and contribute to the feeling that Elizabeth and Darcy belong together.
Contrast that with the 2005 film version, which is more of a ‘single POV’ retelling, where we never really see Darcy alone; 2005 Darcy is much more distant, and harder to read.
But…. that distance creates tension, and makes the ending — when he strides across the field toward Elizabeth, cloaked in dawn sunshine, and declares that he couldn’t sleep for thinking about her — so much more effective.
So, with each approach, you gain something and you lose something.
Which approach to choose?
My first two books were initially drafted solely from the heroine’s POV, but I later added some of the hero’s perspective to both. I found using that second POV added a new depth to the story. Plus, I always like my heroes better once I’ve written their POV.
But that doesn’t mean you should follow my example. Both single and dual POV have their advantages and drawbacks. So, you should use the approach that works best for your particular book.
Maybe your story is like The Hating Game and requires a limited POV to work, or maybe you need to show what the hero’s thinking for the plot to make sense.
And remember that character perspectives don’t (usually) have to be balanced. So you could give just a glimpse into one character’s thoughts, but not reveal so much that it ruins the tension.
And if you’re still not sure, don’t be afraid to experiment. Try writing some scenes from the secondary lead’s POV: Do you like their voice? Do you have enough to say from that perspective? Does it add something to the story?
The world may think writing romance is ‘formulaic’, but actually, to write a good romance, a writer needs to pay close attention to all kinds of things that can’t be determined using a formula — like the level of tension, and whether readers will feel connected to their characters.
POV is one of the elements that determines tension and connection. So, when working with POV, pay less attention to what’s trendy, and more attention to what works and doesn’t work in your book.