Tuesday, September 14, 2021

How many is too many?

My wife and I have been discussing if there can be too many POVs (technically PsOV but let's all relax about that) in a novel.  I've read a lot of opinions on the subject online, but I haven't seen any steadfast rules, which makes me happy. 

I myself tend to write in a larger number of POVs than what makes some people comfortable.  The novel I'm currently working on has ten, but I haven't received any negative feedback from my beta readers.  

To be clear, when I say ten POVs, that doesn't mean each of the ten get their own chapters.  I will just show different POVs within section breaks.

 Is there a consensus on how many POVs are too many from agents and editors?


 Well, there isn't a consensus on the number of points of view you can have.

There is a consensus that all the characters need to be distinct, and the reader has to be able to follow the narrative.

 Ten points of view would give me great pause.

 Multiple points of view in a chapter would give me agita.


Now, let's make sure you understand what you're saying here.

Points of view, as I understand you are using it here, means ten different first person-points of view. 

I am Spartacus kinds of thing.


An example of that is Chum by Jeff Somers All the chapters are in first person I.  The reason I love this book, and signed Jeff on the basis of this book, is that the reader is never confused about who is speaking.  Jeff is a truly brilliant writer and Chum is a masterful book.

If you are using third person (he/she/they) that's third person omniscient.

An example of this would be Crashers by Dana Haynes which follows multiple characters, but always in third person.


It's a whole lot easier to do write third person omniscient with multiple characters, than multiple points of view.

Don't bite off more than you can chew with your mouth closed lest that apple pie fall on your crisp white shirt and your dinner companion think you a slob.


Ellen said...

I'm confused by "close third person omniscient." I think of those as mutually exclusive. Either it's close, i.e., limited to one character's POV (almost exactly like first person, except for the pronouns), or it's omniscient, where the narrator knows what every character is thinking. Unless you mean it becomes virtually omniscient when there are so many POVs?

Steve Forti said...

Echoing that a change in POV character MUST mean a change in chapter. It's maddening when that doesn't happen. Changing too quickly bothers me, too. I don't mind multiple (or even many if done well) POV characters, but give me space to breathe with them, and their own chapters to do so.

Leslie said...

As a nonfiction writer, I'm not sure how relevant/accurate my take is.

That said, I recently read "To Die For" by Joyce Maynard, which was made into a movie in the 1990s (starring Nicole Kidman, Joaquin Phoenix, Matt Dillon). Each chapter was a different character's take on events, each chapter was titled with the character's name (no description - that came from the context), and most characters had multiple chapters throughout the book. Some chapters were only a few short paragraphs (less than a page) and others were 10 or so pages

Craig F said...

In the recesses of my lizard brain there is a refrain. That refrain is "Write, write, write"' not that other recess of that lizard brain.

One of the directional writing floating around says that every character will have a POV.

I strive for that, I just don't tell the world about it. A query is about the story arc, not the voices in my head.

Janet Reid said...

Editing error on close third person: Ellen is correct.
I goofed.

Post edited for clarity.

Timothy Lowe said...

I'll share my experience FWIW:

I wrote a book with 13 different POV characters. This wasn't first person, but rather third person. I worked hard to differentiate them (they're quite a bunch). Labeled chapter names by character, and tried to alternate in a way that made sense using strategies such as planting a "reminder" at the end of the preceding chapter ("Garcia said, wondering what the hell happened to Micky and Ash") and having the chapters build in a logical way.

It was hell to write. But I'm proud of it. Each character is distinct, unique, and has a role in the narrative. Submitted to several agents, one of whom upgraded the partial to a full (he was obviously enjoying it). Ultimately, he passed with the note: "this has potential, but it's too all-over-the-place." So alternate POVs is a legitimate concern. I knew that going in, but the book wouldn't really work any other way, and some of my favorite crime writers use alternate POVs religiously (I'm looking at you Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey) and successfully. Unfortunately, my book's narrative is too inextricably wound together to address the issue in a rewrite, so in the meantime I'll just have to hope that those who read partials or fulls are ultimately wrong.

That, and write something else. Yeah, now about that . . .

Unknown said...

I'm the writer of the original question and I'm so glad I asked because I completely misunderstood pov. As Janet recommended in her reply, I actually am writing 3rd person omniscient with multiple characters. I just had the terminology wrong. What I thought were separate pov's, were actually just instances of the narrator getting into the mind of different characters. I assume that means I only have one pov, that of the narrator.

Katja said...

Oooh, this is interesting.

I have 4 POVs in my current wip, hopefully all totally different (I believe yes), and ALL first person. I'm so glad you say that Jeff wrote all POVs in first person, too, because I have heard of the rule that there should be one in first person and the others in third.

But I was going to break this rule and told a beta reader about it the other day who said my way wasn't the one how it's done.
But we all know that Jeff is a rule breaker, right, and that that is OK.

OP, I have read a book with maybe 8 POVs, all third person. That one wasn't confusing to me. It was a whodunit. But the characters were maybe not drawn particularly in depth, I'm not sure.

I love first person because it's easier to really be in each character's head, I find.

Also, what is agita? In italic?
Is it posh for anxiety or posh for haemorrhoids? 🤔

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I immediately think of Game of Thrones when I think of multiple POV characters. That was a lot and GRRM named his chapters according to who we would be hearing from. I think I counted 27 POV characters? Anyway, its hard to pull off, and at times, I was confused even if GRRM is very good at what he does.

I tried multiple POVs and then a simple 3rd person omniscient in my last few books. It takes quite a mastery of craft to do well, and I believe I fall short. Reading lots and lots helps. For my current WIP, I installed a narrator. One narrator, multiple timelines. Lots of characters. Only not as many as it might appear. Multiple timelines is a whole other can of worms. Ask N.K. Jemisin.

Brent Salish said...

There, There, by Tommy Orange, violates every rule ever on POV, and yet the book is amazing and unforgettable and brilliant.

Which mostly confirms what Brecht said about rewriting the Bard: You can amend Shakespeare if you can amend Shakespeare. There is a small group of authors who can make anything work. But for the rest of us, we should be careful about setting barriers before our (potential) readers.

Ash Complin said...

I read Nine Perfect Strangers which tells the story by alternating among all the viewpoints of every character. Every time the book switched POV, it was a new chapter with a heading of which character it would be. It was very easy to read.

I think it was easy because time continued through switching viewpoints. There was no backtracking in the timeline to show the same event from a different POV.

There were one or two one-page chapters near the end of the book. I would have been worried about that if I had written like that, but it turned out to not be a big deal.

KDJames said...

Some random thoughts (not advice, because do whatever works for your story). For brevity/laziness, character is abbreviated as char.

Ask yourself, "Whose story is it? Does getting into the heads of all these other chars enhance or detract from that?" Also, are you writing one book or several in a series? Focus.

I've heard* it's a VERY common mistake of new-ish writers to create a new side char every time they write a new scene, rather than developing and involving the ones they already have. How many of yours appear in just one or two scenes? Can you consolidate them?

The POV chars are the ones the reader is supposed to care about and root for, or against. The more you have, the more the reader's attention becomes scattered/confused and diluted.

Be careful of switching to the POV of a different char when things become "too emotional" for the main char. It's a neat trick to avoid writing the hard parts (maybe that's just me). Don't do this. Readers want to experience all those tough emotions in the POV of the char to whom it matters. Or they'll stop caring.

On that note, ask yourself who is affected most by what happens in the scene. That should, generally, be the POV char in the scene.

*All of this is advice/observation I've learned from other writers over the years; none of it is original to me. Wish I could remember who said what so I could credit them.

Note: POV can be either first person (I) or third person (he/she/they). Alternating third person limited POVs are very common in romance, for example. Third person limited (you're in one head at a time) is not the same as third person omniscient (the narrator is in all heads at once). Here's a short article that discusses the differences. https://medium.com/the-1000-day-mfa/the-difference-between-third-person-and-omniscient-pov-de2cb2004753

Colin Smith said...

Late to the party so I daresay this comment will be missed. But I just wanted to add that CHUM is also interesting because as well as having multiple POVs, it's also non-linear. The story jumps around the timeline. You'd think that would be confusing, but actually, I managed to follow it without too much difficulty. In fact, it added to the intrigue. The story comes together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Also, I think "POVs" is correct in the way that "AGs" would be correct. In long-form, sure you would say Points of View. Just as you would say Attorneys General. But abbreviated, I believe it's okay to make plural with an s on the end. But that may just be me and my old addled brain. :)

Colin Smith said...

And here's KD's link linkified:


JEN Garrett said...

OK, questions: what's the POV called when the narrator is in nobody's head? Where the reader never knows anybody's thoughts, just what they do and say?

Also, "The Girl Who Could Fly" by Victoria Forester has some excellent examples of switching POV within the chapter.

KDJames said...

Thank you, Colin. I need to resolve not to be so lazy.

JEN, that's a good question. I'm not sure I know the answer. I'm tempted to say, "Well, that's a history textbook." But that feels like lazy thinking (trying to quit that, see above).

It seems the whole point of storytelling is that we're sharing the experience from at least *one* person's viewpoint, so it's not just a recitation of events. That implies knowing the character's thoughts and feelings about the journey. Thereby engaging the reader's empathy and curiosity, evoking their own thoughts and feelings in response.

Perhaps fables and some fairytales are like that? Especially the ones with animals? It's not like we get deep into the POV of the Little Red Hen or the Tortoise and the Hare. Those aren't really about the characters' thoughts or emotions, more the consequences of words and actions. They're stories with a pointed lesson to learn, usually about survival. But I'm far from an expert on that topic, just trying to remember the ones I've read. As to what that's called, I have no idea.

KDJames said...

OK, this was bugging me so I googled and see that apparently fables are told in third person omniscient. Not sure I agree with that, but whatever.

I also discovered there's something called Objective POV, and I think that's what you're talking about, JEN. I'd never heard of it before now. Here's a link (I hope!) to an article that I think does a good job describing all of the various POVs: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/different-points-of-view-tips/

Karen McCoy said...

Yep, and just remember that the more POVs you add, the more plot points you have to wrap up at the end. See: MICE Quotient.

Julie Weathers said...

Late to the party, but I have been without internet for days and on pain meds which make me sleep. I'm catching up on my beauty sleep, which means I should be drop-dead gorgeous shortly. I had my knee replaced last week.

I asked my doctor if I'd be able to dance after he did this.

"I don't know. Could you dance before?"

"Like Ginger Rogers, sir."

Anyway, back to the original question. I have two povs in The Rain Crow. Lorena, who is the main character, is first person. Captain Callahan, her true love, is close third.

Far Rider has five. Kaelyn the mc is first person and the others are close third.

Just a Gigolo has two. Sarah the MC first person and her lover Jack close third.

Cowgirls has three, two first persons and one third so far.

I don't really worry about having more than one pov character because people have no difficulty keeping my characters straight.

Someone posted some comments on the Lit Forum today on The Rain Crow in the Workshop in a later chapter I hadn't taken down. He hadn't read anything from that in months and said this.

"It’s quite a while since I read any of this story and while I admit to losing track of some of the characters I do remember most of them, so that’s a positive towards your writing. In fact, I don’t know how you do it, but you make all your characters, even the minor ones, feel real."

That is always a major concern. I have a lot of characters, but are they real and are they unique?

Like E.M., the first thing that comes to mind is Game of Thrones. G.R.R. Martin does a masterful job of keeping his characters straight and unique.

Cyn said...

I know I'm very late with my comment, but thanks to Janet and everyone else for clearing this up.

RebeccaB said...

Late comment, but I'm in the middle of dealing with this issue now, so I would be very grateful if someone could clarify. I'm writing in what I thought was Third Person Omniscient, generally offering peeks into only one character's inner narrative at a time. I had a scene where my main character walked away and others kept talking about her after she was gone. A freelance editor said I couldn't do this because my character wouldn't be privy to their words after she walked off. But I am confused because I thought an Omniscient Narrator would still be privy to it because he is...omniscient. What am I missing?