How many viewpoint characters should you have in your novel? Is it okay to just have one? Is there such a thing as too many? How do you decide?
Moriah posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I’m writing a novel with 6 main characters. I’m having trouble with head hopping and what POV and how many POV’s I should use for the story to work and flow properly. It’s a fantasy book. 3 of the characters are friends in the beginning and are in most science together and it mainly follows them, but the other 3 characters don’t appear till later and aren’t there for every scene but they are still hugely important to the story. There’s one character I could write from first person and make the protagonist but the other characters input are to important. How do you think I should write this without messing it up.
Randy sez: It sounds like you have a choice of anywhere from 1 to 6 viewpoint characters in your novel. I don’t think 1 is too few. I don’t think 6 is too many. I typically have 3 or 4 viewpoint characters in my novels, but I’ve gone up to 5, and my current work in progress has more.
Review of Viewpoint Characters
It won’t hurt to do a little review here, to make sure we’re all talking about the same thing. Typically, a novel has one primary character (the protagonist) that the main story is about. (Yes, you can have more than one protagonist, but most novels don’t.)
But your novel is made up of many scenes, and each scene should work as a story in its own right. Therefore, each scene will typically have one main character that the scene is about. And that main character isn’t necessarily the protagonist of the novel. The main character for each scene is usually called the “viewpoint character” (or the “point-of-view character” or the “POV character”).
For more on viewpoint characters and why you need them, see chapter 4 of my book How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method.
Choosing the Viewpoint Character
So how do you choose the viewpoint character for each scene?
That depends. You may decide that your novel is only going to have one viewpoint character. In that case, there’s no decision to make for the scenes. You’ll use the same one every time. This has some advantages in giving your reader a consistent experience. But the disadvantage is that every scene has to have that viewpoint character, which means he or she really has to get around.
Most novels have multiple viewpoint characters. These will typically include the protagonist, friends of the protagonist, enemies of the protagonist, and possibly others.
A good rule of thumb for each scene is to choose the viewpoint character to be the person with the most to lose in the scene. This is a rule of thumb. It’s not always the best choice, but it’s often a very good choice. So consider that character first. Then ask if there’s a better choice.
My guiding principle is to try to give the reader a powerful emotional experience in every scene. So the critical issue is which viewpoint character will do that best.
But How Many Viewpoint Characters?
Now we can circle back to Moriah’s question. How many viewpoint characters should you have in your novel?
That’s really up to you. It’s almost inevitable that you’ll give one of your viewpoint characters more air-time than anyone else. (Usually, this is the protagonist, but sometimes the protagonist of a novel isn’t a viewpoint character. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, the protagonist is Holmes and the viewpoint character is usually Watson.) Whoever you choose to get the most air-time, they need to have a strong voice.
Usually there will be a couple of other characters who also get a lot of air-time, but less than the leader. If you have three viewpoint characters, for example, you might give one 40% of the scenes and the other two 30%. That’s a nice, balanced split, but there’s nothing magical about it.
If you have a largish number of viewpoint characters (5 or more), then some of them are not going to get many scenes. At least one of them will get no more than 20% of the scenes.
And if you have a LOT of viewpoint characters (15 or more), then some of them might be walk-on characters who only star in one scene. That’s okay. That can work. If you need that many to make the novel work, then do it.
My opinion is that the number of viewpoint characters you choose is probably not going to mess up your novel. What makes or breaks your novel is the quality of the viewpoint characters—how well each scene works. If you make sure that every scene has a really solid viewpoint character, and if your main story has a solid protagonist, then the count of viewpoint characters is not a major issue.
Don’t get carried away, of course. If your novel has 100 scenes and 100 viewpoint characters, that’s going to take some extra skill to make sure that the main story hangs together as a story.
But for practical purposes, 1 viewpoint character is as good as 3, which is as good as 6.
It’s not something to sweat too much over.
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