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.
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.
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.