How many Points of View?

The assistant to my agent who recently read my manuscript said,  “I think Peggy was perhaps making main characters out of every character … whilst this actually takes away from the main thrust of the book.” The comment, I believe, was directed to the fact that I tell the story from several points of view (POVs) which necessarily, I think, requires rounding out the characters a little.

One agent who read my manuscript suggested that books should be written from one main POV — maybe two or three other smaller characters — but no more than that. She said it could be jarring for the reader to have to switch from one POV to another.

The Beggar’s Opera has five POVs. The King’s Indian, which I hope will be the sequel, has a few more, but I’m trying to manage action in two countries, which means more bodies to move around.

Does it have too many POVs? I’m thinking about that now.

Donald Maass’s great book, Writing the Breakout Novel, suggests that multiple plot-lines and multiple points of view (POV) add layers and richness to a story. A novel like Shogun, he points out, or any of the historical epics, can have hundreds of characters with unique perspectives on the same events.

I’ve just finished reading all of the Stieg Larsson books, and it’s not the multiple POVs that I found jarring: it was that I couldn’t keep some of the characters straight.

The names Neimann and Neidermann (two different characters) had me confused a lot of time, and I really think some of the police officers/detectives in that book could have been merged together. The series needed a good editor — but I guess that’s the problem with trying to make changes after the author has died; it’s hard to negotiate content with an estate.

I had the same reaction to (Canadian lawyer) Richard Rotenberg’s book,  Old City Hall. It has six or seven POVs, maybe more.  I liked the characters, for the most part, and he writes very well, but I think he could have written the same novel, combining some of those characters together and had an even stronger storyline. Once again, for no particular reason that I could discern, there were two detectives doing the work of one.

The trick with POVs, I think, isn’t how many you have. It’s making sure that they’re not confusing. I don’t think you should have to refer to a family tree in order to understand a plot line. And that the characters are interesting enough that the reader doesn’t skip past one to get to the character they really like.

If you do that right:  I really wonder — two, ten, twelve — what difference does it make? Should we restrict ourselves to one main character, and only a few subsidiary POVs?

We watch television shows that move us from scene to scene through different POVs all the time. But at the end of a good book, like the end of a good TV program, we know who we liked and who we wanted to spend more time with. And maybe equally important, who we want to see again.

So I’m wondering: how many POVs are the right number? What do you think?

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One Response to How many Points of View?

  1. Marion says:

    I prefer fewer POV’s, not only because they are often confusingly written, but because if each chapter is written from a different POV, I find it intrusive. I live my life in the first person, from 1 POV, and I prefer novels that write from the same, or as similar as possible, a POV as my reality. I find books written from one POV have more continuity, making it easier to follow the action, visualize the scenes, and get in sync with the main character.

    That said, a deft author can certainly handle more than one POV – The Time Traveller’s Wife is one example where two POV’s are necessary to tell the story chronologically (or as chronologically as possible give the novel is about time travel). If using multiple POV’s, I think it best to limit to about 3 – any more and you risk needing a scorecard to follow the action.

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