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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and 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. 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!!

  2. @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.

  3. 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.

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

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

    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. 😀

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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. 😀 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. 🙂

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

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

  14. 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.

  15. It seems I’m late to comment, but still. I often use two POVs who have very different personalities and/or abilities for the contrast.
    Though I have to disagree that the bad guy isn’t interesting. I think they sometimes are too interesting, more than the protagonist.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Granted, that statement totally depends on the bad guy. But I generally find villainous bad guys very one-dimensional and uninteresting.

  16. Rob Jackson says:

    Thanks for this post, and for keeping up your responses.

    7 povs in my mystery/thriller. Never more than 4 chapters between the main protagonist though. Each chapter is averaging about 4/5 pages which allows me to pace things vigorously. I have all the POV’s converging at mid-point and then splitting off, accomplishing the various tasks that need to solve the external problem before converging again at climax. The main protagonist is clearly the fulcrum of each POV. So Im relatively happy that I’ve avoided many of the issues commonly associated with POV’s.
    Here’s the question: in terms of pacing, do I concentrate on pacing the chapters as they appear to the reader ie: scene; sequel (action; reaction) regardless of the POV for the benefit of the reader, or should each POV get their own scene; sequel sequence (so A gets chased by B in ch 1 but we only see them emotionally reflect on that when we see them again in ch 5).

    Any thoughts are much appreciated.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Scene/sequel is more about logical coherence and emotional pacing than it is actual “physical” pacing within the story. As such, you’ll want to maintain the scene/sequel dynamic within the linearity of each POV character’s plotline. It’s fine to have multiple “scenes” from different POVs all in a row, followed by multiple follow-up sequels.

      • Rob Jackson says:

        Thanks. Although I was wondering whether it was important for the reader to have that physical pacing as well? I was thinking that I have to ensure that the topography of the whole story structure needs to be balanced so that the reader feels the dynamic of light and shade. I’m concerned it could feel top-heavy if there are (for example) 5 action chapters followed by 5 reaction chapters.

        Am I over-complicating things?!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          That’s ultimately going to be something that depends both on the rhythm and pacing of your novel as a whole and these particular scenes. Sequel scenes can actually be some of the most interesting and gripping scenes in a book (and if they’re not, they probably need work). But I would just feel it out. If it feels like it’s dragging to you, then mix up those scenes and see if you can find an order that makes sense and feels right.

  17. Timothy Burbage says:

    Hi. A great article as I have 3 main characters in my story. I go through each of their POV (in 3rd person) in each chapter. I was thinking I was making it too complicated, but it’s nice to see it is doable!

    For the first half of my WIP the group of 3 are together, then the mid-point happens and they are separated. They then get back together at the beginning of the third act.

    The question I have is what little tricks do you use to distinguish the different voices of each POV? They are all similar kids of the same age and background, so how can I make the reader notice their differences?

    Thanks

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      One very simple trick is to assign specific words to each character. I’m not necessarily talking catchphrases, since those can easily be overused. But you can subtly distinguish each voice by allowing it to use only certain words. Slang is a particularly good area for this.

  18. Brittany Williams says:

    Do you think there’s a time when the new point of view needs to be established? I’m outlining a novel (thanks to your amazing books Kim), and I’m trying to decide which chapter needs to be told from which POV. Honestly, the story doesn’t need the shift until about the midway point. Is that too late to start shifting POVs? I’m hoping it will be natural because it’s fantasy and that is when the characters split, hence needing the POV shifts.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The only real rule is: if it works, it works. But I’m always hesitant to greenlight POVs that are introduced late in the book. Optimally, to create the most seamless and powerful experience, you want to introduce all the important POVs in the First Act. If they’re going to be important in the second half, then they deserve to be set up in the first half.

Trackbacks

  1. […] In my fiction novel, I’m trying to use multiple POVs, but it’s not that simple! Have you tried that approach before? Did you succeed? This week, Jane Friedman talks about Using Multiple Points of View: When and How Is It Most Effective? If you’re just starting and still wonder about POVs, check the Complete Guide to Point Of View. Next, watch a video on The Biggest Danger of Multiple POVs. […]

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