Monday, July 7, 2014

How many POVs?

Recently, I edited a novella by a young writer. In 40,000 words, he used six recurring POVs plus a couple walk-ins. Sometimes, he jumped from head to head inside the same paragraph, making me dizzy. As you can guess, I sent the story back for revisions. But that started me thinking. How many POVs are too many? How many does one story need?

The more POV characters you have in your story, the less time and page space you can devote to each character’s thoughts and emotions. And that inevitably leads to less involvement and larger emotional gaps between your reader and your POV characters.

If you want to get close to your character, to become intimate, consider one consistent POV throughout the story: first person or third person limited. Then you can spend the entire novel in one head. You get to know your hero on a personal level, and so does your reader.

On the other side of the equation are too many POVs, which often result in a cold, distant narrative, like some epic fantasy books. They have lots of subplots with their own POV characters, a world rich in details, gallons of blood on the pages, but no deep empathetic connection with anyone. It works the same way in fiction as in map making: the larger the scale the fewer nuances visible.

If you’re not writing epic fantasy, your best bet would be to stick to as few POVs as absolutely necessary to tell this particular story. In my fantasy novel Eagle en Garde, I used one POV throughout the story. Anything my protagonist didn’t see or hear was discarded. That’s how we all live and make our decisions after all: though our experience and our interactions with others.

Some genres have specific requirements for the number of POVs and their distribution. Romance traditionally uses two POVs, one for each lover. Thriller often utilizes a protagonist’s and an antagonist’s POVs, but you wouldn’t want to use an antagonist’s POV in a whodunit mystery—it would kill the suspense.

In my novel Almost Adept, I use two POVs for two protagonists. It’s not a conventional romance story, and the love subplot is secondary, but it’s a story about a man, a woman, and their interlinked goals. They like each other and explore their mutual attraction while they struggle to achieve their main objectives. I couldn’t tell either of their stories without involving the other, so I opted for one story with two POVs, alternating them one per chapter. 

Ask yourself: whose story are you telling? Do you need the extra POVs of every member of the goon squad or knitting club? Why? How do they affect the story and its central conflict? Could you combine them into one secondary character? If you can, do. If you can’t and still want to tell all their stories, maybe it’s better to divide them into separate books and write a series.

Another factor might influence your decision on the number of POVs—the length of your story. If you’re writing a 500 pages novel, with a bunch of subplots, it could support three or five POVs. If you’re writing a short story—one or maximum two POVs is the limit. 

After you decide on the number and identities of your POV characters, another question arises: how often to switch them? I’d suggest that one POV per chapter is good. One POV per scene is acceptable. But don’t do it more often than that—it would ruin your reader’s enjoyment.  If he becomes confused in his head-hopping and needs to make a chart of the POVs used, which happened to me and that novella I edited, he’ll chuck your book against the wall and never pick it up again.


Big Mike said...

Had that problem early in my career, though not on the same page. Then I got my knuckles whacked a dozen times by the editors, fixed me right up.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Nora Roberts is the only author I know of who can put two heads in the same paragraph and still be clear.

Gabriella Austen said...

I like first person POV, but also use third, especially when I want to get in the heads of two characters. I get confused with all the character jumping, besides I don't want readers to know everything all the time. A little mystery is good for the soul, or at least I think it is.