Does Your Story Really Need That Extra POV Character?

[I’m taking a quick break this week to deal with some personal stuff (no worries—everything’s good!), so decided to share a short post some of you may remember from the e-letter years ago.]

Sooner or later, most authors find the constraints of POV frustrating. It can be difficult to observe the strictures of a tight POV while still showing readers all of a scene’s necessary information. Seemingly, one of the easiest ways around this problem is to simply add a new POV from a character who is able to share the information you want to convey.

However, it’s always wise to think twice before adding another POV character.

Let me share an example.

A fantasy I recently read featured two 3rd-person POVs from its two major characters. But as the story neared the Climax, the author inserted several POVs from minor characters who never again appeared on stage once their brief moments in the POV limelight were complete. By adding these viewpoints, the author was able to give readers some inside information that his main characters couldn’t have shared. But he also lost the sense of cohesion that had carried his story so well up to this point.

Inserting one-time-wonder POVs, especially late in a story, and especially those that highlight a character readers are meeting for the first—and perhaps only—time isn’t a sin most readers will want to shoot you for. But writers need to be aware that POV is the glue that holds their stories together. If you dilute it, even to impart what may seem like vital information, you’re going to be distancing readers from your characters. You’re may also confuse readers, while loosening the tight weave of your narrative.

When you find yourself late in your story and tempted to add a heretofore unnecessary POV, ask yourself if the information this POV imparts is really as vital as you think. In many cases, you may discover the information might be more powerful and memorable if the readers learn the information at the same time as the main characters.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do you decide when to add a new POV character to your story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I have a pair of POV characters, 1 in the early and 2nd in the middle part of the book – partly to introduce them and partly to show sides of the main character. I was reluctant to add them for the very reasons you describe above, but was assured that I could do this. Are one-time POV characters ever acceptable?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Can you do it? Are they acceptable? Yes. But they don’t contribute to the tightest possible narrative if that’s what you’re trying to achieve.

  2. Do you recomend using the antagonist’s POV to demonstrate his character arc? In my story, the antagonist and protagonist don’t come into contact often enough for me to demonstrate my antagonist’s arc any other way, I think.

    • It sounds like you have converging plots. That is, you have two people that have their own paths that meet the story’s climax. As you said, their independent paths may cross, but the climax should be the point where the final stand takes place and it all comes together. That’s not an uncommon theme.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That depends on the nature of the story, its structure, and the antagonist himself. However, I will say that, in general, I’m not a big fan of antagonist POVs. They’re done poorly so often, in that the antagonist isn’t a truly well-developed character and therefore simply isn’t as interesting as the protagonist. For a POV to truly work, it needs to be legitimately as interesting as the protagonist’s.

      • Oh that makes total sense! Thank you; I had some idea in my head that giving the antagonist a POV would make him inherently more interesting to the reader, but now I realize that’s not true. Great post and advice, thanks!

  3. I’d like to know about this also!

  4. let the readers wait. Keep it interesting

  5. The mention of a late entering POV reminded me of one of my favorite books ever; `The Gammage Cup,’ by Carol Kendall. She adds extra POVs late in the story, but they are from major characters who have been around from the beginning, and the book, though mainly told from Muggle’s viewpoint, is technically an omniscient narrator. (The book’s biggest weakness is that the first chapter has so much world building at the beginning that the main character doesn’t come in for several pages. If you push past that, the book is excellent and well deserves its Newberry Award. It was written in the late fifties, which I think explains the somewhat slow beginning)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      No book is without it’s weaknesses. In the best books, that’s a charming thing. 🙂

      • Charming is exactly the word! It’s easy to forgive a few flaws when the book centers around a really strong character arc and a beautifully unfolding theme that ends in a way to make you feel like summer sunlight.

  6. Here is a question for you. I have a complex plot where the protagonist and antagonist are also not in direct contact with each other until near the end of the book.

    However, I wrote the beginning a little differently and I wonder if it is not a mistake.

    I started the scene with the protagonist’s POV, stopping at a cliffhanger (about 1000 words). Then I wrote the scene from the antagonist’s POV, starting shortly after the protagonist’s version, but ending with a murder (that takes place just after the cliffhanger above (about 1600 words)).

    Both versions ratchet up the suspense and conflict and they do complement each other with information (you see the protagonist caught in a web of mystery and the antagonist that is spinning the mystery).

    What I am wondering is if the starting points for each POV would seem confusing to the reader. I could ditch the antagonist’s version, but I think it would leave out some essential clues that the protagonist could not see. Cutting the protagonist’s POV would do the same or worse and I want to start the story with the protagonist.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m a big fan of consistency in POVs–of using them to create a consistent pattern for the entire narrative.

      Introducing the antagonist’s POV that early offers a subliminal signal to readers that his POV will be recurring and will feature prominently–even every other chapter. If that’s not true, then the early inclusion signals an importance to the POV itself that doesn’t hold out over the story.

      Even though most readers probably won’t consciously think twice about it, it still creates that subtle disorientation of an unspoken expectation that was never realized.

      • Thank you. This will need further thought. While the antagonist does figure prominently in the story, I don’t think he can claim 50% of story.

        The problem is that the actual event of the person’s murder reveals something important to the story and that scene is essentially unwitnessed. So it is hard to give the reader someone’s post mortem POV. This is not something that the antagonist is going to reveal.

        I don’t that it means the the first chapter can’t be rewritten in just the protagonist’s POV. I will explore the possibility of an alternative method and see if that doesn’t tighten up the story.

      • Inspired by your blog and replies I spent the evening rewriting the first chapter, basically ditching the antagonist’s POV scene altogether and embellishing the protagonist’s version to create a single POV.

        I believe you are right that the consistency improves the book and the way it reads.

        Thank you!

  7. I’ve done it. With a giant caveat. The character I do it with happens to be the character the series is named after. He was the main POV in the first three books and I’m about to start writing #8. I have zero issues dropping him in as POV for a chapter to further another of the series plot lines or let readers see what’s going on in his head and life.

    It’s a common device in my genre when there’s one particular character who shows up all the time and is one of the driving forces of the series. Devoted readers can never get enough of this one character.

  8. Colleen Janik says

    I cannot believe the timing of this post! Just YESTERDAY I started to write a chapter with a different POV thinking that that insight, this mysterious man watching the Main Character from a distance might be so intriguing. But honestly I had serious doubts and that was the one question I wanted to ask you. One of my favorite books, have two different point of views. Actually I liked one so much better than the other, so I was always anxious to get back the preferred POV.
    Deciding on a POV is always so difficult for me anyway. I’ve written several chapters of a novel in third person, then went BACK and switched to first person. Now I’m writing my current novel in first person and there are times when I question that decision.
    Is it always easy for you to decide on POV???
    .

  9. This article is perfectly timed for my current dilemma. I have 5 POVs in my romantic suspense and am trying to figure out how to take that number down. I think I can get it down to 4–the male and female leads, the sheriff, and the antagonist. To be honest, I’m enjoying writing from inside the sheriff and the antagonist’s head way more than I should. I have already made two people into one in the antagonist to cut down on the cast, but I’m happy with that. The blended personality combining them created doesn’t seem quite as sinister or interesting now that he’s trying to play two roles. Anyone have any good resources to recommend studying for a better understanding of when I’ve got too many or too few?

  10. Casandra Merritt says

    For my story, I thought it was an obvious choice to use a single POV, because the characters are mostly together the whole time, and besides, I usually find that I am irritated by stories that use multiple POVs. And getting into other character’s heads sounds hard. I seriously don’t think I could do it. I would probably get their voices mixed up all the time.

  11. Casandra Merritt says

    Using multiple POVs sounds hard. I seriously don’t think I could do it. I would probably get the voices mixed up all the time.

    • I use Scrivener as a writing tool and can put the POV character and other things in the NOTES pane for each section where it is always visible.

      Just remember to keep the POV constant for the scene or chapter.

  12. In the story I have been writing, I have been battling the challenge of a big cast of characters (the plot requires it–otherwise I would have given up on the size of the cast). Because of this, I often split my cast into smaller groups to make it easier to swallow (for me and probably for the reader as well). However, the problem I keep coming across is if I limit the point of view to only one or two of the characters, the readers will be missing out on what happens with the other group(s). In light of this problem, I find myself slipping into more point of views than I originally intended. But I am continually bothered by some of these one-time point of views and the logicality of why some of them have the point of view while the others do not.
    Therefore, I have been trying to decide how I can limit the point of views while also keeping the audience tuned in to what is happening in multiple places. I’ve been thinking of choosing a select number of them to follow and making sure at least one of them is in each important group. That way, I have consistency in point of views and keeping the readers in on what they need to know.
    I have also been dancing around the idea of finding a way to inform the readers what is going on with the other groups without actually following someone in the group. Any advice?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The guideline I always recommend for choosing POV characters is to first examine the structural throughline. POV characters should ideally be those who consistently show up at and/or influence the major plot points. If they do *not* answer to these functions, then I would have to question whether the info they’re providing in ancillary subplots is truly important enough to include by adding random POV scenes. This is not to say, the info they provide *isn’t* important enough to include, but it’s worth a double look.

  13. Dennis Strack says

    KM, then I have a question. I have 4 major characters in a fantasty/horror/police procedural novel I’m writing. The detective is the main character, the 1st major character. The heavenly angel that ends up assisting the detective is the 2nd major character, the detective’s ex-wife is the 3rd, and the demon that is committing a series of murders that the detective and the angel are trying to solve is the 4th. The murders victims are descendants of ancestors that cursed him. The demon’s goal is murder all of the descendants, or bloodlines of the ancestors that cursed him. All the victims have spiritual connections to their ancestors, whether they realize it or not. There are times in my story when the angel and the demon have to communicate with the victims telepathically and read their thoughts. Now, my question: How do I not confuse my readers as to knowing what character/characters this story belongs and, at the same time, not making the victims merely flat throwaway characters? The first victim is the detective and his ex-wife’s daughter, so that helps with one. But, with the others, do you have any ideas?

  14. I don’t write from a character’s POV unless they have a story arc, no matter how small. That means a minimum of three POV scenes for that character (for beginning, middle, end.)

    This way I can break up monotony and still have cohesion in a story.

  15. Kristy Werner says

    Hi, KM! I love your articles!. Thank you so much for all the great information. I’m writing my first Christian Fantasy novel and sometimes I feel like I’m scrounging around in the dark. My question is this … would it be ok to have my prologue in the POV of someone who is not my main character and then the rest of the novel in my protagonist’s POV? My prologue is the story of why my protagonist is in the situation he’s in/why he does what he does and occurs years before he is born. The character in the prologue ends up being the trainer of my protagonist warrior.

  16. Nic Gash says

    Hi. Could you develop your answer more fully to Dennis Attacks question. It’s a really good question and it would be useful to see a fuller answer. Thanks.

  17. I was laughing whilst I read this not because it is rubbish but rather because, I had realized this sometime ago. So with the aim of not having such a thing occur, when writing an historical fiction I inserted a single (fictional) character right at the start who is able to see the deeds of the known (historical) characters. This seemed like a good idea at the time.In fact it was a terrible idea. I had to keep inventing scenarios to include this fellow when each of the major characters appeared even when on opposing sides. To achieve this I had to play around with the “real” historical timeline and jump through hoops time after time to keep the tale plausible. The book consequently took longer to write than any of my other novels and involved a huge amount of re-plotting. It was painful work and truth be told (thankfully no one has noticed) there is a particular scene that this character describes where to get there for the previous chapter in the time allowed he would have had to have jumped on a very fast airplane. Such a thing was not that easy in 350 BC.
    I will never try that again. I look back on it now with a smile, the book sold reasonably well, but I remember the work involved. It is not often that an editor sacks the writer but it came close.

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