ShipofMagic

The Biggest Danger of Multiple POVs

This week’s video cautions against the potential pitfall of having readers grow frustrated with multiple POVs as the result of liking one POV better than the other.

Video Transcript:

An author’s choice about which and how many characters to feature as point-of-view narrators is crucial to the story. The narrating characters will control the tone and flow of the story, and, in large part, decide whether or not the book works. There’s a lot to be said for multiple-narrator books. Not only do they allow us to delve into the heads and personalities of multiple people, they can also present a more rounded view of the story and give readers a look at scenes that would otherwise be off-limits.

However, for every benefit, we also have to avoid a potential pitfall. The pitfall I want to talk about today is the simple possibility of ending up with readers liking one POV dramatically more than they like the other. It’s understandable that readers aren’t likely to fall equally in love with all of our characters. Even as authors, we always have some characters we like better than others. This isn’t necessarily a problem except when this imbalance occurs between POV characters who are given equal amounts of time on the page.

As readers, we can probably all attest that what happens in this situation is that, as soon as we have to leave the POV of the character we like, in order to enter the POV of the character we don’t like so much, we grow restless and frustrated and maybe we even start skipping pages to get back to our favored POV. So as you’re selecting POVs for your story, consider how
they’re going to affect readers. You will never be able to perfectly foretell reader reactions. But keep in mind that readers are going to favor your main character. After that, they’re going to favor amusing or interesting minor characters. Bad guys usually come last. With that in mind, weigh the costs before implementing a POV that will force readers to spend long chunks of time away from their favorite characters.

Tell me your opinion: How many POVs does your story feature?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. right on the money, Katie. That’s the problem I find in many fantasy books especially The Wheel of Time series. I had to scan through many POVs of tertiary or boring characters to reach the juicy bits, I kept reading because I like the story and the concept, but I found the character development in the Robert Jordan’s series disappointing.

  2. I’m particularly reminded of Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin (in the Song of Ice and Fire series). Almost a quarter of the book is devoted to Cersei (who I hate), and a fifth to Brienne (who I dislike). That’s almost half the book that I’m going to just be wading through to get to the better chapters.

  3. Great post :)

    I don’t always have mulitple POVs, but when I do it’s no more than five max.
    As a kid I had this book where one chapter was dedicated to one character’s POV. I didn’t really like that much so I kept flipping to my fave parts.

  4. I have two main characters in my WIP. The protagonist is a female retired high school teacher, now small town librarian who tells her story from the first person. The other main character is a male renovation specialist whose story is told from the third person POV. My chapters are not alternating POVs but in a couple of chapters the POV changes between these two characters within the same setting. I have a blank line noting the change.
    I’m not happy with this, but the pace in those chapters is fast and I think it flows well, giving how the POV is chopped up.
    I agree with your comment, though, about liking one POV over the other. The character whose POV is in the third person is distant and harder to connect with, but I have my reason for making him so. If the WIP ever gets published, I hope the reader will agree.

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  6. So far, my YA fiction WIP has two POVs because the main character cannot be everywhere at once! I have readers following a secondary character, but we do not read her thoughts. We only go by her reactions, actions, and words.

    So far, it seems to be working! My editor likes it…so that’s a plus.

    Great reminder, though. It is tempting to put the reader into the mind of many characters, but it is also good to pull back and let the reader use their imagination, too.

  7. So far have written two points of views maximum for the two major characters in my WIP.They are buddy cops that have a love hate relationship as friends and partners who work together on the force. Perhaps there will be moments where the perspective is shifted and taken outside those characters by the villains and the setting of characters who they cross paths with through the course of the novel. Even then I am trying to reconcile them as “an angry married couple” of sorts that piss each other off and yet have a friendship and respect for each other. And then put in a situation beyond reckoning and having to work together to solve it. One character has a longer point of view that the other and it goes back and forth like a tennis match. Until I hit the net.

  8. So far I have…pardon the typo. It is a very exciting time.

  9. Like Sam, this was the major failing of ASOIAF for me. By the third book I just couldn’t stand the back and forth and there were certain POVs that I just didn’t want to read.

    Personally, I can’t see myself ever having more than 3 POV characters and I tend to stick to 1 or 2 depending on the nature of the work.

  10. I had this happen with one of my novels that had only two perspectives, but that was also an issue with the character too.

  11. One question I have though.. when switching different point of view should there be section breaks. How do you from your experience define who is speaking at that point in time ? For example in the novels in the saga “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin each character get a chapter or multiple chapters in which they are the main POV. And the background characters have their own dialogue and interact with them but the chapter is titled Jon Snow for example. Do you use section breaks ? Do you put the character’s name in bold over the paragraph in question ? What do you use so that the flow is not broken and yet the reader can pick that this is a different character with a different voice telling their perspective of the story and setting up more of the plot ?

  12. @Grigory: As a matter of fact, this post was inspired by a fantasy I read recently. How’d you guess? ;)

    @Sam: I love big, complicated, complex books. But, at the end of the day, it’s hard to go wrong with simplicity. I would much rather spend more time digging into a character I like, rather than being stretched to read a little about a lot of characters toward whom I’m either ambivalent or antagonistic.

    @Aimee: All of my own books feature multiple POVs (sometimes as many as six), but one or two of the main characters get the vast majority of the chapters. That’s the way I like to read it, and that’s the way I like to write it!

    @Richard: If you can’t engage the reader emotionally, just make sure you’re engaging him intellectually. So long as we’re engaged, we’re invested.

    @Ruth: The fact that our modern society is so inundated with the omniscient storytelling of movies and TV seems to incline us toward wanting to show everything from every character’s POV. It’s a tendency we all have to guard against.

    @Chris: Having both of your POV characters are present in most of the scenes (even scenes told from the other character’s POV) goes a long way toward pacifying any potential problems readers may have with the shifts (not that the the shifts should be an issue with only two POV characters). It’s time spent in scenes that don’t feature favorite characters that becomes problematic.

    @Sarah: Not only are we less likely to annoy readers when we stick to only two or three POVs, we’re also making our jobs much easier. Two POVs are a far sight easier for the author to keep track of than half a dozen!

    @Galadriel: At the end of the day, any problem with POV is ultimately a problem with the character. If readers dislike a POV, it’s almost always nothing more or less than a dislike for the featured character.

    @Chris: Usually, a change in POV is indicated by either a scene or a chapter break. The character’s name isn’t usually used as a header, unless the book features multiple 1st-person narrators. Otherwise, POV is indicated by having the POV character’s name mentioned within the narrative at the first possible moment.

  13. Very pertinent thoughts as I prepare to jump into rewriting/editing a project with 5 POV’s currently. :) I know I’ll keep this in mind as I structure where I want to go with it. Currently, my antagonist gets a very small, but crucial, amount of time in his POV, but I’ve been contemplating getting rid of it altogether. (My draft is over 100K–I’d like to trim it by at least 10 – 15K.) And, I want to try to balance out the time my two protagonists get… some sections of the book lean heavily towards one, then other sections have too much of the other.

    @Chris: I’ve found since I like switching things up and going between not only POV’s but between 1st & 3rd person, making it clear up front whose POV we’re going to be in for a chapter has not only helped *me* but my beta readers as well. It’s not a requirement to be sure, but it’s something I’ve found helps (at least in the drafting stage.) In one project, I have many, many chapters in a row from one POV, so I don’t announce it at the beginning of a chapter, only when I’m switching.

  14. I just recently chopped *all* of my bad guy’s POV scenes. I’ve clung to them tenaciously throughout many rewrites, but letting them go felt very right. Now that they’re gone, I can clearly see they added nothing to the story – and probably would have only served to distract the reader from the characters they really wanted to be reading about.

  15. My novels all have multiple POVs…I wouldn’t be able to tell the stories without them.

  16. So do mine. Nothing wrong with multiple POVs. It’s only when we’re forcing readers to slog through lengthy scenes without their favorite characters that we’re in trouble.

  17. Great post. In my WIP, I have two POV characters. I consider them both protagonists, but one (a father) is slightly more important and gets slightly more pages than the other (his son). However, the balance between the two varies across the story. In the first half of the story, there’s roughly an equal balance. In the 3rd quarter, the son gets about twice as many words as the father, while in the final quarter, the father gets about three times as many words as the son, as he resolves the overall story problem.

    Do you think that imbalance poses any inherent problems?

  18. As always, everything is dependent on how it is handled, but, at a glance, I would say you should be able to work out that balance just fine, particularly since both characters are given basically even weight by the end of the narrative.

  19. I generally do one POV per story. Though, one time, I presented the story from the protagonist’s AND Antagonist’s POVs. I haven’t yet tried presenting the story from the POV of some more minor character (i.e. Dr. Watson).. But I really wanna try it sometime. :D

    Thanks for some insightful paragraphs. :D

  20. I’m all for narrative experimentation. We should always be pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones – and that absolutely goes for POVs as well. The idea of trying to create a compelling narrative from the antagonist’s POV has me from the word go!

  21. Your commentary on the risks was spot on, Katie. Like you and Grigory, the last multi-POV book I read was fantasy. It was a disaster because it had one good POV character, a sympathetic one, several loathsome ones and one almost intolerable POV character. The first book in the trilogy was fascinating enough from a world-building point of view and politics-of-power perspective that I trudged through the diminishing returns of the second novel. However, by the time I got to the third, I started skimming for parts with the character I liked. By the end, I was curious enough to see how it ended, but hated the book so I’d sample every 50 pages or so to see if it was worth continuing. To this day, I think I’m a bit embarrassed to be writing anything that might be connected to that book, even if the only connection is that both the spited trilogy and my novel have magic.

    My first novel had three POVs and, from a POV perspective, worked fairly well. However, I’ve never been tempted to go back. I find that when thinking about extra POVs, the cost in intimacy and in what I want to call honesty—although that’s poorly reflects what I’m getting at—is too great. With a single perspective, you’re in the middle of the narrator’s misperceptions and biases. Those “errors” are at the foundation of being human, so skirting them feels like a cheat to me. I also like the challenge of coming up with ways of communicating things the protagonist isn’t aware of. In my current novel, my protagonist is a poor, overly optimistic observer of emotions and social meaning. Working around her lack of insight is usually enjoyable (although sometimes jams me up for days).

  22. I have three POV characters, and have decided to limit the story to just those three. I’m trying to make each one likable, but I understand readers won’t love all of them as much as I do. :)

  23. Great Post!

  24. One — but I’m also writing in omniscient, which just has one narrator who can look at other characters.

  25. Great advice. I’m currently editing a book with my two main characters (male and female)with both of them having a pov. It seems to be working well. I’m also writing another with 3 povs (one the main, the second the villain, and the third a small part by a minor character). It is a challenge but I feel the need for things happening outside of the main’s viewpoint need to be seen by the reader to help them understand what’s going on. I give my villain smaller amounts of time as well as who wants to be stuck in that pov forever? When I pull this one together for editing later, I will be able to see whether it works or not. LOVE your blog!!

  26. @London: With every book I write, I find myself narrowing my POVs more. I enjoy the “movie feel” of multiple POVs, but I totally get what you’re saying about narrator “honesty.” Ultimately, our choice of multiple or single narrators depends on what we’re trying to accomplish. In a very general sense, multiple POVs put the emphasis on plot, while a single POV puts it on character.

    @Lorna: The last book I wrote (The Deepest Breath) featured three POVs. Dividing the story equally among them was what turned out to be the biggest challenge.

    @Helping Hands: Thanks for reading!

    @Garridon: Omniscient is, IMO, the trickiest of the POVs to write, but when done well it can bring width, as well as depth, to the story.

    @Traci: In the first draft, I will often write POVs that don’t make it past the editing process. I loathe having to rewrite scenes into different POVs, but being able to tweak to find the narrator that’s right for each scene is crucial.

  27. I have “two” POV’s in the story: the main character’s POV, and everyone else’s. That is, there are chapters where you get to see things through the eyes of the main character (though still third person), and chapters [or just scenes] where it’s more like a movie camera and you’re seeing what all the characters are saying/doing without being in their heads, usually if and/or when the main character is absent/missing for some reason.

  28. Makes me think of what Dickens did in Bleak House.

  29. If I continue with my outline as it stands, I have altogether 7 POV characters! (Do I win?) :D

    By far the most scenes are from my heroine’s POV, and I make sure we’re not away from her for too long. But the hero has a few scenes, as do some other important characters, including the villain (but his scenes are short).

    I’ve tried to cut the number of POV characters down, but I’m torn because I really feel that the scenes work best with those POVs. And I (currently) believe that all the scenes are necessary to build the story – although nothing’s carved in stone until the final edit. :D

  30. I’ve read many stories with seven (or even more!) POVs that worked well. I think I had six in Behold the Dawn. The trick isn’t in the number itself, but in how we manage them.

  31. I think it’s reasonable to limit the number of scenes featuring a non-protagonist POV on her own. It only works in scenes in which one or two of the main characters are also present, or new, unexpected things are happening. Like in Anna Karenina, I don’t like single character scenes, but the POV character scenes featuring other characters are more enjoyable. Plus, i like the confident omnipotent narrator’s POV butting in from time to time, only with Tolstoy it’s a bit heavy on moralising and telling

  32. As a general rule, scenes with two or more characters interacting are almost always more interesting. Conflict’s easier to brew up when people with conflicting interests are in the same room.

  33. Sooo true… There always seems to be one POV in a book that I REALLY like, and one that I really don’t care for as much – and when the writer insists on going back to the one I don’t like as much right when something serious is happening to the one I love, it can get really annoying. Yet I usually have at least 2 POVs when I’m writing. Odd how that works… *sigh* And it’s really funny when I’m wanting to get back to the POV of my favorite character when I’m writing – only the story depends on the other one. *headdesk*
    It is definitely easier to have few, though! I had at least 7 once – and it had like 7 story lines going on. Tying it up in the end was a nightmare. :D Unfortunately, my latest POV is about 4 brothers, so 4 POVs… only interwoven through the story is an old journal about 4 other brothers, which gives me 8 POVs. It’s going to be interesting. :)

  34. Our own feelings are always our best guide for how our readers will react. If we’re bored, are readers will probably be bored. If we like one POV better, our readers will probably feel the same way. We can use our own reactions to see where our stories need shoring up.

  35. Very timely coming across this, as I am just starting to develop a story idea that came to me as a dual POV story. I’ve always had a single protagonist in my stories, even in ones where I had multiple POVs, but ths is the first one in which it’s feeling like both characters will e protagonists–they’ve both got “lessons” they’ll learn by the end of the story and will both have character arcs.

    My question is: if I have two protagonists, does that also mean I’ll need two inciting incidents, two climaxes, etc.? One for each protagonist, essentially? As mentioned above, I’ve always had only one protagonist, so it was always easy to plot the inciting incident and climax and ultimate character arc. Now I’m at a loss as to whether to duplicate my efforts between the two protagonists.

  36. No, you won’t need twice as many inciting events. You’ll just need the major plot points you do have to effect both characters’ arcs.

  37. Whew! That’s a relief :). Outlining/plotting is a complicated enough process without making it even more complicated!

  38. So long as all your scenes, regardless of POV character, are influencing the scenes to come, like that row of dominoes, everything will come together just fine. The handy thing about structure is that it remains the same no matter what craziness is going on within the story.

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