Holly posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
In today’s market, how many viewpoint characters are allowed/considered acceptable? In my current WIP, I have 10. The story has an epic sweep: wars, genocide, heaven’s doors closing forever. It’s definitely not a quaint little romance story, but is the quantity of POV characters going to distance the reader too much, even if I employ a lot of deep POV in the respective scenes?
Randy sez: Ten POV characters are a lot, but in an epic kind of a story, it’s entirely appropriate. Think how many focal characters you see in THE LORD OF THE RINGS. I never counted how many POV characters were in THE GODFATHER, but it felt like about fifty. Romance novels tend to have only a few POV characters, and rightly so. Big-canvas novels with many characters on many stages have more, and rightly so.
In my own fiction, I usually have somewhere between 3 and 5 POV characters. I’ve done a novel once with 2, both of whom were told in first-person. (This novel is yet unpublished.) I’ve also done one with about 9 POV characters. (This one also needs a home.)
It’s important, when you have a lot of POV characters, to remember that one of them needs to be the most important one. In THE LORD OF THE RINGS, the main character is Frodo. Of course, there was a long stretch in THE TWO TOWERS where we didn’t see Frodo. However, we had a stand-in there for him — his two young hobbit friends, Merrie and Pippin. Frodo was never far from their thoughts, and therefore never far from ours.
What do my loyal blog readers think? What’s your favorite novel? How many POV characters does it have? And in your current work-in-progress, how many POV characters do you have?
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Richard W says
This is an interesting topic. My current WIP is a novel, and I’m about 35k (out of 100k) words into the first draft. So far, I have 5 POV characters but focus on the 2 primary heros.
1. The protagonist dominates the page with over 50% of the POV time,
2. The co-protagonist had POV for about half as much in an alternate storyline until the two characters met,
3. A secondary character who has POV when neither of the protagonists are in the scene,
4. The antagonist’s assistant,
5. And finally the antagonist himself when his assistant isn’t present.
Typically, the last 3 receive little page time for themselves and collectivly steal around 10% by volume.
Ironically, my recent writing dilemma has centered on POV characters and the adjustment from writing in a “flip/flop” scene style while the lead characters were apart — one scene for toon 1… one scene for toon 2… rinse repeat — to a (more or less) single POV once all the lead characters are together.
I am just popping by to say that I am totally adoring my sudden influx of Advanced Fiction Writing posts! I get all excited every time I see one appear in my reader. Thanks Randy 🙂
Val Clark says
I still rank The Time Traveller’s Wife as my fav novel – two POV characters. I tend to get lost reading books with multiple POV characters. I become engaged with one or two and skim over events that happen in the lives of the other POV characters. In my YA fantasy fiction I have 2 POV characters. One male and one female although the primary POV character is the female – the challenge for me then is to make their stories equally engaging so that lazy readers like me don’t skip pages. 🙂
Davalynn Spencer says
My favorite novel changes from time to time, but currently I am rereading Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. Aside from sprinklings of dialogue, it is one long narrative from a single POV character, the protagonist, whose name the reader never learns. (This is one of the reasons I love this book: how amazing that the author could write an entire novel without mentioning the protagonist’s name!) Of course I may have forgotten something over the last 20 years since I read it the first time.
I would say the total # of POV for a story has no limits, but each one needs to be justified. If they don’t have a part in the overall story then they shouldn’t be a POV. That is my view.
One of my personal favorites is the “Song of Ice and Fire” series by G.R.R. Martin. It has LOTS of POV chars, every chapter another, some of them die over the course of the series(nobody seems to be save), but it’s written so that you cling for nearly all off them, even the bad guys.
Another favorite of mine are the first five books of Farmers Amber Chronicles, one POV, first person narrative.
POV characters must serve your story, so it depends on the story and its scope, how many of them can/have to be there.
On the other hand keep an eye on your readers. I think younger readers may be overwhelmed by to many POV, so in youth books and YA less is more
I really agree with the person above. I love the Song of Ice and Fire series, and it has tons and tons of POV characters. But the book is great example of how to have to have so many characters and still keep your reader invested and interested in all of them.
In one of my novels, there are four pov characters, who have all got nearly 1/4th of the novel. And because they are at the same place and their stories overlap, they remain in your mind all the time.
Personally, I think as many as you need to write your story – as long as they’re all real characters we can root for and not just a pair of eyes to see the action.
Mary Hawkins says
I believe the kind of book dictates the POV number. I write inspirational romance -with some suspense/mystery. Although there may be any reasonable POV numbers as mentioned, it is much easier to ‘satisfy’ romance readers by keeping the focus on the hero and heroine’s romance if they are the only POV characters. The number of words in these romance novels is also an important factor. After writing about thirteen 50,000-55,000 novels, my last three have been the 90,000-100,000 size. I have been tempted to use other POV characters but while being able to have more sub-plots and more characters in the longer manuscripts, keeping the focus on both faith journeys as well as their relationship was still too much of a challenge – for me anyway at this stage!
I think Val’s right, if you’re going to use multiple POV characters, you need to make them all interesting enough so the reader does not skip over their portion of the book (yeah, I’m guilty, I’ve done that before).
Another thought, when transitioning from one character’s POV to another (by changing to the next scene… not head hopping), you need to immediately establish that character’s POV. Obviously one way is to have their name, but maybe a few reminders to cue in the reader that they are now reading from Sally’s POV, not Joe’s.
Personally, I prefer stories that only have 1 or 2 point of view characters, and if there are any more than that, it is brief and for a specific reason. In my opinion, the more time spent outside of the main character’s POV, the less deeply the reader can connect with him or her.
That being said, however, there are stories where 5-10 POV characters is completely justified. However, these usually seem to be stories that are primarily plot-driven and personally I prefer a primarily character-driven story (or plot and character in equal balance) and I think anything with more than 1-3 POV characters detracts from character development and the reader’s connection with that character. But to each his/her own! 🙂
A J Hawke says
The number of POVs is not the question for me in my writing but the need for the POV of that character. If it’s not needed, don’t use it. If it is needed, use it.
Wolfhardt’s comment about YA readers being overwhelmed if there are too many POVs applies to a lot of people. They may not be epic novels but the quaint little romance stories with fewer POVs do seem to be selling. Could the number of POVs be a factor? Wonder if anyone has ever done any research on it?
When I look at sells and continued popularity, I’m intrigued about what was/is the appeal of Dick Francis’ novels. In all of his works I don’t remember him ever having more the one POV and all are in the first person.
For my own personal reading I prefer only one or two deep POVs.
Yes, it’s good to have you back, Randy.
A J Hawke
Michael Winskie says
By far, my favorite novel is Frank Peretti’s novel, “Piercing the darkness”. It has, if I remember correctly, 7 to 10 POV characters, 2 of which are much more prominent, 1 of which is the one the whole story revolves around. It’s a fantastic read that I highly recommend.
The WIP I started today has, so far, 1 main character, 2 very prevalent characters, and 3 minor characters (with more possibly on the way) Of those, 4 are probably the POV characters (1 of which is the one the story revolves around).
Though it’s formulaic, the book The Marshall Plan (for writing a novel; by Evan Marshall, an author and literary agent himself) has suggestions for word length and number of POV characters.
Completely unrelated to the topic, but I would really appreciate an advise:
I followed the Writing Fiction for Dummies book to the letter after I wrote my novel, all except the part about a scene list. I thought it would take too much effort. I realized yesterday that I need to shift the scenes around, and I so regret not writing that list.
I’m going mad with trying to figure out how it all connects if I move two of my scenes earlier (so that the REAL story question of the book is in the first quarter, and not closer to the middle). There’s ton of things happening in the first 1/3’d to keep the reader occupied, and I’ve been dropping clues left and right, all carefully concealed to the best of my ability.
The real story question is basically if the kids should choose between good or evil, but up until then the reader will have thought that the story question is “how to get home”, since that’s what the kids have been doing up until about 1/3’d of the story.
“How to get home” is the ultimate goal, and the story question of the whole trilogy (this is book one).
How important is it to have the true story question of the book in the first quarter as opposed to nearer to 1/3’d of the book?
Thanks in advance. I’ll appreciate any comments.
I submitted my question to Randy the right way. I’m hoping that he’ll turn into a topic.
So Jane Austen still has a thing or two to learn about POV? (read the ezine for more of Randy’s thoughts on multiple POV. And his mean comments about Jane Austen.);-)
What Jane lacked in understanding POV, she made up for in irony and a chaste yet worldy-wise perception of human character. We could learn a thing or two from Jane and those blood-letting Victorians. Why waste a perfectly good Black Hawk when you can explode a vain little vicar’s condescension with one elegant, ladylike refusal, eh?
There is no limit to how many POV characters you can use, but you should make sure that each one you use is vital to the storyline. My WIP has three POV characters, the male and female leads and the villain. I have read books with more than 5 POV characters which have worked well.
One of my favourite writers has a very epic fantasy story where there are a lot of characters and it is even difficult to define who’s the main character. However, pretty all of this lot are very appealing to the reader and I never felt an urge to skip some parts of the book while reading.
You may have guessed that this series of novels has quite a lot of POV characters and once in a while the events of the story are described by way of a long monologue of one or the other character written in his/her own unique voice. It is never specified at the beginning who’s doing the talking and whatever the other cheracter’s reaction is, but it’s all perfectly clear. I find it a rather interesting technique and it works pretty well.
My Christian romantic suspense WIP contains 3 main POVs. The main POV characters are not in the same chapters. I rotate chapters for each main character, like a large cast novel, devoting entire chapters to each main character in their setting. They all connect, in various ways, at the ending.
I think this technique is less common, but should add a unique flavor to my novel.
Frank Connolly says
I, too, am enjoying the influx of comments / questions.
I would think Jane Austen is pre-Victorian. And I do admire the elegant irony and perfect story world of her novels.
In my own WIP – on 3rd draft, and much improved thanks to Randy and Snowflake, I have two POV characters, the main character and a disapproving narrator (Among other things, novel aims at satire).
I’m a reader, not a writer, so feel free to take this contribution with the proverbial grain of salt…
Personally, I prefer fewer POV in a novel. Up to three is fine, after that it can get a bit difficult to follow who is speaking. Tolkein and Peretti can get away with multiple POV, but for many authors, it adds confusion. So if in doubt, leave the extra POV out.
Also, consider how your book is going to be consumed (i.e. book or audio download). I recently borrowed an audiobook by one of my favourite Christian authors. It was awful. There were three POV, but the narrator was so bad, it took me half of each chapter to work out whose POV I was hearing. This destroyed the pace of the story, and I couldn’t finish it. If it had been one POV or all in third person, it might have been easier, but it alternated between first-person male, first-person female and third person.
Hi there. This post gives me so much hope. My teeth are chattering and I could really use some encouragement if you’ve got it. I’m writing a biblical fiction that I mean to be epic and I have eleven points of view.
Now before your eyes bulge out of your head in protest, let me tell you that I took it to my critique group and expected to get in big trouble. I didn’t. They loved it. I was so relieve. Granted, my work isn’t perfect but I was told the story still moved well.
So. I sent the work to one editor and they kept it for about three days and sent it back with advice that if I didn’t have two main romance type POV’s running throughout the story that I might want to get a developmental editor. Ok. I get a developmental editor and they want to take my POV’s down to four. I don’t know if I want to do that.
I feel in my gut I should keep my story the way it is. I’ve tagged my characters with looks, voice, devices. I’ve kept them talking about the same events and about the main character. And to clarify, each POV constitutes a chapter that is titled with the POV character name. Again I want my story to have an epic feel as the first in a series of books.
Hoping Im not crazy and then again, hoping I am crazy enough to pull it off.
Aqsa Abdullah says
I’m reading Love fiction and want to be a writer, suggest me how can i?