Multiple POVs – good idea or not?

What are POVs?
4 people representing characters

Point of view (POV) characters are those through whose eyes the story of our novel is told. We are in their heads, seeing what they see, hearing what they hear and so on.  (And to find out about Deep POV, have a read here.)The question is: how many such characters should we have, and how should we ‘share’ their points of view across the book?

My own POVs

I’d never given a great deal of thought to how many POV characters I should have in my books, until River Witch. My fantasy trilogy, Guardians of the Forest, and the prequel, Legend of the Winged Lion, have several POV characters. The action takes place in various locations with different groups of people having their own adventures which all come together at the end, so multiple POVs was natural and necessary. Keepers has three, but River Witch has six.

By this time, I had finally come across the view one should limit POVs so I thought long and hard about whether to throw one or two out. Doing so, however, would have meant ditching two sub-plots which were essential to the main plot, and there was no realistic way I didn’t need separate POVs for the sub-plots. My gamble appears to have paid off as the only comments I’ve had on the topic are that the ‘characters are distinct’, ‘the characters develop right along with the story’ and similar.

No right or wrongs

In fact, there are of course no right or wrongs about the number of POV characters you can have. But certainly there are dangers in having multiple POVs:

Too many personalities to come to grips with might make it harder for the reader to invest fully in each character. Their empathy is spread too thinly, or they simply don’t care about certain ones, which reduces their enjoyment of the novel.

In a similar vein, too many POVs with their own issues/stories can weaken the main plot and reduce the ‘page turning’ tension as the reader jumps from one to the other.

Guidelines to help you decide

To avoid these issues, here are a few guidelines which will help you decide whether a character needs a POV, is present without one, or can be ditched altogether.

  • Most importantly, each POV character should contribute to the main plot, and should have a bearing on the outcome of the story. They don’t need to be present at the climactic ending, but they should have influenced it in some way. Otherwise, why are they there?
  • All POV characters should have their own character arc and be interesting. You don’t want the reader glazing over when a particular character comes into the tale.
  • Bring your secondary POV characters into the story on a regular basis, so the reader keeps in touch with them (even more reason to ensure they are interesting).
  • Be clear about whose POV we are in at any one time. Usually, this is done by having a POV per chapter or scene. Some writers use the character names in chapter headings, which certainly does the trick. Personally, I prefer to make it clear in the first couple of lines of the chapter or scene whose head we are in. (Which leads to a separate discussion about being able to identify who it is by how the character speaks/acts/thinks, without using their name – see this post.)
  • Avoid late in the tale POV characters, often thrown in to give the reader information the main characters don’t have. A POV character used for this purpose and then abandoned, can throw the reader right out of the story when they ask: Who on earth was that?
In summary

The rule of thumb for deciding whether to add a POV or not can be boiled down to one question:

What essential element does this character add to the plot that would be missing otherwise?

If you can answer that, give them their own POV! And make them very very interesting.

A Postscript. If you want a great example of multiple POVs being skilfully handled, read Maggie O’Farrell’s The Distance Between Us. Theoretically, she only needed two, but the addition of a cast of characters adds richness, without losing sight of who the two protagonists are. Deftly done!

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2 thoughts on “Multiple POVs – good idea or not?”

  1. Interesting view of multiple POV characters. I prefer to keep to just one, but sometimes the plot screams for more, certainly Roots of Rookeri wouldn’t work without the four POVs, nor would the two stories I’m now working on.

    1. Roots is like Guardians and River Witch in that there are various storylines which then come together for the climax. Not possible with one POV!

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