How many POV Characters Is Too Many?

From Janet Reid’s blog, this question:

My wife and I have been discussing if there can be too many POVs 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?

I’m going to guess NO on the consensus, because I expect opinions are all over the place in general, plus even the most diehard “ONE IS ENOUGH” reader probably makes exceptions for novels that they especially like.

But let’s see. Here’s Janet’s response:

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.

Yep, that seems fair. However, Janet also says:

If you are using third person (he/she/they) that’s third person omniscient….It’s a whole lot easier to do write third person omniscient with multiple characters, than multiple points of view.

I skidded to a halt. I don’t think that’s the case at all! No way! There’s a big difference (HUGE) between a limited third person and an omniscient third person! (!!!).

I was all set to actually post a comment, but I don’t have to, because Janet corrects herself in the comments, acknowledging that close third is (basically, okay, I know not exactly) just like first, but with different pronouns.

Whew.

In that case I can go back to the original question: how many POVs is too many?

Now, I personally found it much easier to write a novel with multiple POV protagonists for a long time. Let me see. City, Islands, HoS, all three Griffin Mage novels, Black Dog — they all have at least two main points of view, plus mostly they have secondary POV characters on top of the main couple. Winter too. And the Death’s Lady trilogy, except that one is unusual in that Jenna doesn’t take the POV until halfway through.

Anyway, as far as I can tell, I didn’t become able to write a whole novel with just one POV protagonist until I’d written a lot that had more.

Why?

Well, of course I don’t know exactly. The single most obvious practical advantage is that, when you’ve only got one POV protagonist, the reader can’t ever see anything that the protagonist doesn’t see. This is frequently awkward. The author then creates magic mirrors or whatever, which of course can work, but it’s still awkward.

I expect the tendency to write a novel with multiple protagonists isn’t just practical, though. For a long time, I felt like it was just the natural way to write a book. I think when I started writing a new novel, when I got mildly stuck, I’d switch to a new protagonist. I think that used to help get me unstuck. (You may notice that I sound like I’m not sure. Well, I’m not. I think that might have been a contributing factor, but so much of writing happens underneath the level of conscious planning, at least for me.)

The published works with just one POV protagonist are White Road and Mist, both of which I wrote later. And Tuyo, more or less. I mean, yes, Tuyo, definitely. it’s just that Aras is such an important secondary protagonist even though he never takes the point of view. But fine, he never does. He never will (I’m almost one hundred percent sure), which I do think will cause some practical problems in Tasmakat, which I will then have to solve somehow. I’ll figure it out when I get there.

Anyway, as a writer, obviously I can go either way. I have an SF novel mostly finished, if I can just get back to it, that has a single POV protagonist. I have a fantasy novel barely started that has … at the moment … three POV protagonists.

As a reader, I can also go both ways with no problem. This is true for both first- and third-person narratives. I don’t mind switching POV in a first-person novel, as long as — Janet is right — as long as the voices are distinctive so I don’t have to keep checking to see whose POV I’m in.

HOWEVER. There are limits.

As a reader, if a novel switches from one POV to another too often or too fast, preventing me from sinking into the story, that will probably cause me to DNF the novel. For me, twenty or thirty pages is about right before the POV switches. More is fine. Fewer is iffy. A lot fewer is very iffy.

Also, if a novel has ten POV characters and I only care about one or two, that will cause me to start skimming and then (probably) DNF the novel. It doesn’t really matter how exciting the events may be. It doesn’t matter how well-written the novel may be. I really need to like at least most of the characters, most of the time.

Please Feel Free to Share:

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

8 thoughts on “How many POV Characters Is Too Many?”

  1. “acknowledging that close third is (basically, okay, I know not exactly) just like first, but with different pronouns.”

    Well, provided that the first person narrator is not at all conscious of telling the tale. You get first person narrators who are openly aware that they are telling a story for a purpose to a particular (fictional) audience, and you couldn’t change that to third with different pronouns.

    having introduced a complete tangent, she slithers off

  2. Single narrator increases identification with the narrator.

    Multi-narrator increases dramatic irony. (Assuming that the narrators are revealing things that the other narrators don’t know, or understand, and if not, you’ve got bigger problems.)

    Owing to confusion and the dread problem of liking some of the narrators, I think on the whole the fewer the better.

    But a point of view character does not actually have to be a protagonist. I once read a short story cycle in which every story was told by a new character, about the time the main character crashed through his life with interesting consequences. The overall arc was the main character’s.

  3. I’ve seen too many books with myriad POVs that ended up giving me the impression the writer was being lazy. It’s easier to throw in a new POV when things get slow. Keeps things feeling fresh. Each new POV character dilutes my interest in the book. If you* introduce a new POV character with each chapter, you’ll lose me in the first third of a book.
    Grrrr…
    Some writers say things like, “It’ll make sense when you get to the end.” I’ve noticed that I rarely get past the 50% mark in their books. Double grrr…. Give me a reason Now about all these POVs. Don’t ask me to wait until the end of the book.

    Hmmn. The subject really ticks off all the boxes on my Cranky Reader checklist.

    *No, not you in particular, the generic You.

  4. Mary, true, it makes a difference if the first person narrator is being arch and sly and deliberately concealing information from the reader. As a rule, I don’t care for that.

    Also,

    But a point of view character does not actually have to be a protagonist. I once read a short story cycle in which every story was told by a new character, about the time the main character crashed through his life with interesting consequences. The overall arc was the main character’s.

    Yes, and that is always a technique I admire.

    Evelyn, I basically agree. I want the author to cycle back to each protagonist pretty quickly. I’ll lose interest fast if we get to chapter four and see yet another new protagonist. That’s more true if I dislike any of the protagonists, but it’s still true if I like them. I mean, if I like them, I want to come back to them, not go to someone new again and again!

    Another thing that makes me dislike switching is if the author continually leaves one protagonist in a pickle and then spends the next fifty pages with other protagonists. I’ll tolerate that … sometimes … if it doesn’t happen too often. But this isn’t a type of tension that works well for me.

  5. I’ve put down several multi-POV samples recently, partly I’m sure because they changed too fast, and I couldn’t get invested. In some, even when the writer gives enough space to one character before switching, I can still feel yanked around and uninvested – Stiefvater’s Raven Boys hit me that way. And for the original question with ten POV characters I’d say it’s time to bring back omniscient which it sounds (from the extract) the person is more or less doing.

    OTOH, I recently finished J. Harris Honeycomb which is like Mary C’s example, the multiple short stories which eventually link to show a major continuing character has an arc. and all the elements in the other stories eventually feed in to it. I recommend the book, btw. There were a few characters who continued, and at least one surprise. Mostly, though, it was new bit, new characters, and not always with any obvious link to what went before.

    Another thing that makes me dislike switching is if the author continually leaves one protagonist in a pickle and then spends the next fifty pages with other protagonists. I’ll tolerate that … sometimes … if it doesn’t happen too often. But this isn’t a type of tension that works well for me. YES, THIS! if the fifty pages aren’t dealing with getting the other character out of said pickle I feel manipulated that the author is lazy and put the book down.

  6. P.S. I think the Harris book worked because there was enough interest in each short, and they were in different styles, some Aesopian, some fairy tale, some more slice of life. There was probably a pattern to their appearances but I stopped tracking it after a while.

  7. A character can be consciously telling a story without being arch and sly. Till We Have Faces, for instance. She is consciously trying to tell the truth — as she sees it.

  8. Sure, Mary, could be. The stories I immediately thought of had protagonists who were being sly and deliberately misleading.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top