How many point of view characters is too many? That is a question I return to regularly, and unfortunately I find that the appropriate number of POVs depends. It depends on the length of the story. It depends on how frequently POV jumps occur. It depends on what the POVs add to the plot. It depends on how distinct the POVs are.
It’s no secret that my current novel incorporates multiple POVs – in fact, it features enough of them that I recently had to cull one from a draft – but just because I use several POV characters doesn’t mean that I am blind to the problems that they can cause for a story.
In order to make sure that all of my POV characters are not only acceptable but necessary, I’ve created the following rough guidelines.
Make sure each POV has a distinct voice – There is very little worse then reading a book and being confused about which POV character is leading a specific chapter. I have several ways to minimize this issue. First I try to use a slightly different writing style for each POV. I also try to incorporate the character’s thought and speech patterns into the text. Paying close attention to setting and emphasizing details that one character but not another might notice can also help differentiate between POVs.
Have a distinct story arc for each POV character – No POV character should just exist in the story; he or she should develop and grow. In multiple POV stories, there tends to be a lead character that emerges, but even the supporting POV characters should have storylines that matter to the overarching plot.
Evaluate how much of a story each POV character should have – As the previous point suggests, not all point of view characters are created equally. This means that POVs do not need to have the same number of chapters dedicated to them. At the same time, the reader needs to spend enough time with the characters to maintain a connection to their trials. Unless there is a very good reason for it – the reader thinks a character is dead for example – the story should loop around to each of the POVs regularly. This is a delicate balancing act that requires a lot of attention during the editing process.
Use each POV character to move the plot forward – In general, I am not a fan of telling the same scene from multiple POVs. Even in less action oriented stories, each POV section should propel the plot somehow. If a POV is just repeating information that the reader already knows, then it probably shouldn’t exist.
Maintain focus – The more POVs a writer uses the more difficult it is to focus on the story’s endgame. In a mystery, that may be solving the crime. In a romance, it may be the climax of a love story. As more POV characters are added, however, it can be easy to drift away from these main plot goals. It is tempting to develop a POV character by writing pages and pages about his passion for horticulture, but unless that interest is relevant to the larger story, those pages probably shouldn’t be included.
There are other facets to keep an eye on when writing using multiple POVs, but these guidelines are enough to get me started.
I suspect that I am not alone in having mixed feelings about POVs. How do you feel about multiple POVs? When you are reading a book, are they the love of your life or the bane of your existence? If you are a writer, I’d love to hear about how you make the decision to use multiple or single POVs in your own writing.
Image Attribution: Cornelia Trefflich’s ‘Viele Gesichter’