Monday, August 10, 2015

How Many POV Characters Should My Novel Have?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)

Last week, I talked about chapters two and three of your manuscript, and I briefly touched on the question many new writers ask, which is "When do I introduce new POV characters? How many should I have?"




In classics, you might notice that stories tend to be told from the point of view of someone outside the major characters. Maybe it's the author—Jane Austen, as well as many others, tended to do this—or sometimes authors used the "double narrator" technique. This happened in Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte where a man completely removed from the story winds up at Heathcliff's house and is told the story of Catherine and Heathcliff by one of the household servants. 

If you're writing for a modern audience, I wouldn't recommend this style of storytelling. It certainly isn't wrong, but most books are currently written in first person or what we call deep third. Some are omniscient, like Ally Carter's Heist Society, Anna Godbersen's Luxe series, or Magyk by Angie Sage. The omniscient point of view is different from what we call head-hopping, and it's a unique kind of beast. I've never written in it, so I won't pretend to be smart about it.

While many stories have multiple POV characters—by which I mean characters who tell us the story from their perspective—most modern stories have only one main character. But how do you know how many POV characters your story needs?


1. Consider your genre.

Many genres have their own unofficial rules when it comes to POV characters. For example, epic fantasy novels tend to have many, many point of view characters whereas "regular" fantasy (for lack of a better term) has significantly less. Romance novels usually have two—the hero and heroine—though sometimes a third is added. This is one of the reasons why it's smart to read a lot of books in your genre, because you'll naturally absorb storytelling techniques like this.


2. Consider the scope of the story.

Does your story span generations, or does it tell about a week in someone's life? Are we following a large group on a quest, a couple as they fall in love, or an individual as she navigates her parents' vicious divorce?

There's no right or wrong scope for a story, but before you can figure out how many POV characters are needed, you'll want to decide just how broad of a view you intend to show.

3. Consider what each potential POV character brings to the story.

After you have an idea of your genre and your scope, you'll need to ask, "Why do we need this particular character's perspective?" Each POV character should show the story from a unique angle, otherwise the story will have a cluttered, repetitive feel.

Sometimes figuring this out takes trial and error. With the most recent story I wrote, I thought I might need an additional POV character. I gave it a whirl but found that even though he showed us a different side of the story, this character wouldn't be involved in the climax of the novel, and because of that he only distracted from the story I wanted to tell.

How do you structure POV changes within your novel?

Going back to the question that was raised last week, when is it best to introduce new POV characters? This is something you have some artistic freedom in—yay!—though some ways tend to work better than others. 

As a reader, I like when authors start with the main character's point of view, and when we get to hang out with them for at least an entire chapter before we change. Again, that's a preference, not a rule. If it's a longer book, I like getting two chapters with the main character before we switch to someone new. Really, you just want to be sure you've provided your reader ample time to get attached to your character.

Changing point of view characters at a chapter break is a nice, natural transition. Especially if you're writing your story with multiple points of view, but all in first person (like in Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park, or Kathryn Stockett's The Help) because then you can label each chapter with the POV character's name. Very helpful, especially in the beginning.

If you want to change POV characters in the middle of a chapter, however, you do that by
inserting a scene break and then changing perspective with the next scene. Like this example from A Soft Breath of Wind by Roseanna M. White. (Scene break indicated with the # sign)

Dara slid her eyes shut and drew in a deep breath. Perhaps she should have felt some sorrow over the creature. Perhaps she should have felt some regret. But really, what choice did she have? She did not create the visions. She did not write the future.
If the master needed to blame anyone, he would have to take it up with Jehovah.
#
In her fortnight aboard this vessel, Tamar had never found herself so very alone. Two other families were traveling to Rome as well, and she had ended up sharing a chamber with four other females, happily.

See how clear it is that we're now viewing the story from another perspective?

Any other questions about POV that I can (attempt to) answer? How many point of view characters do your stories tend to have? Do you like to write in first, third, or omniscient?

Also, this month's Go Teen Writers monthly(ish) newsletter will have lots of tips for organizing your writing life. It'll be sent out later this week and you can sign up here.

35 comments:

  1. This post is super useful! I'm currently writing a fantasy/YA story, and I'm thinking three POVs just because it gets complicated later on.

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  2. I have one story with two POVs. The hero starts the book and carries the POV until he meets the heroine. Once she's introduced (chapter 4), they take turns with the POV.

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  3. I kind of stick at POVs. In my WIP I hop from the main character to a wizard to the villain to an antagonist named Servus Strife. (I just had to mention that name--I love it). However, I plan a total rewrite, and when the it's done nobody will recognise the first draft if they read it. This is a post I'll keep in mind for when that time comes!

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    1. Ahem...that's *stink*, not stick. OOPS.

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    2. POV is a surprisingly tricky thing. Handling it in the rewrite sounds like the way to go.

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  4. I used to write in deep third. I really liked it and deep third worked well for the type of stories I was writing at the time--but now several of my stories have wanted to come out in first person, with one POV character.

    Thanks for the post, Mrs. Morrill, and I'll be looking forward to the newsletter!

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    1. I definitely think it's a story-to-story decision.

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  5. This was extremely helpful. I write short stories in that Jane Austen style, but I don't know if I could handle it over a whole novel. The novel I'm working on started out in 1st person, but I changed it (as is rewrote what I had) to third person limited about three chapters in. I love first person, but for me I get too caught up in my characters head and the story suffers, but that's just me. I love reading 1st person, though! I haven't attempted two POVs yet either because I want to do it in such a way that each character has his or her own voice and I have yet to master that. So... One POV it is for this girl! At least for now. :)

    Ashley

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    1. Sounds like a great plan, Ashley. I agree that they need their own unique voices, and that's definitely something we grow into as writers.

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  6. I wrote in deep third for a long time--in my first few stories I had just one or two narrators, but during my fourth NaNo I used eight narrators, which I liked at first but quickly found wasn't so easy. I can't handle juggling that many balls at once, and the POVs were completely indistinct--I could literally take a chapter from one character's POV and switch to a different viewpoint simply by swapping the names and pronouns out. The first version of my WIP had five third-person narrators, but as it turned out I hadn't gotten any better with multiple POVs. I finally switched to first person with one narrator last summer, and love it.

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    1. Wow! You took on a lot early. I love multiple POVs, but it's hard to juggle them. Not for everyone, and life is easier without them. I'm glad you like first person, I wrote deep third first too:)

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    2. Ellie, I have often bitten off more than I can chew with a storytelling technique! If you have the interest to write stories like that, I bet you'll grow into it. It's important to keep pushing ourselves and trying new things.

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  7. I wrote in deep third, it was the most natural for me, for my first project, but as I moved on to other ideas I jumped straight into first person with multiple main characters without much transition between the two different types of POV.

    I tend to have multiple main characters instead of having a set main character, and I've only had one project since my original one with only one POV (my attempt at 2nd person, which I love ... never going to publish, but soooo glad I did). I'm the kind of person who loves a large cast, and multiple POVs have come to me easy.

    My current WIP has five first person POVs, which has its ups and downs, but I'm totally in love, having written my best POV characters into the story. I kind of feel like all my POVs before now have been trying to find what I love or hate, and now I know enough to write better and better characters.

    I really like point five. Even with multiple main characters, spending two or three chapters with each POV before moving on has worked well for me (unless you have a POV with LONG chapters then one may be enough). I've read a book where they introduced POV characters within too short a time, and I ended up liking two characters so much the others felt like a big waste of time.

    Thanks for the amazing post, I'll keep it in mind as I continue to work with my POVs.

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    1. Sounds like you've done a lot of experimenting! How great!

      Yes, that's the danger/stumbling block with multiple POVs. If a reader doesn't connect to one or two of them, they might start skipping those chapters - yikes!

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  8. Great tips! My fantasy series that I've been poring over off and on (mostly on) the last seven-ish years has two main POVs. Both experience the journey differently, and at times they're separated, so having both perspectives is good.

    I do have a question, though. What are your thoughts on using 'extra' POVs? By that I mean, I have several scenes told from side characters' POVs. These are scattered throughout the novel. Some of those minor POVs get used multiple times, but not often enough to feel like a main character. I've tried to use these only when necessary, but do you find that sort of thing distracting?

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    1. Tracey, that's a great question. I've never done it myself, but I've seen it work well in books. I think so long as you're being intentional about the POV characters you use, you're probably fine.

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    2. That's good to know. =) Thanks for the reply!

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  9. Hi, thanks for writing this post. It really helped my writing. However, I have a question: do you have any advice for plotting multiple character arcs for multiple POVs? I'm working on a trilogy with four POVS, and I want them each to have their own distinct character arcs but working it all out is getting a little messy. Any advice? Thanks again for writing this amazing post.

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    1. I think it's bound to get a little messy, honestly. You would plot the character arcs the same as you would the main characters (without requiring as much stage time), do your best writing it, and then fix what's rushed or too slow in your edits.

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  10. I have so much trouble writing in third person, so it's almost always first for me! I'm working on two books right now; one is a dystopian trilogy, with two POVs-- they're brothers. I was thinking of adding one of the love interests, too, because she's on the opposite political side, but decided against it.
    My other one is a fantasy (I think that one will be a trilogy, too) with five POVs. They are all super different, and I have no trouble writing them (thank goodness!). Four aren't even human, but the last one is. The first two are brothers, the second two are brothers, and then the last one is on his own. They each have their own quests in the books, and it would be impossible to understand the story without knowing what's happening in different places at the same time--hence five POVs! I was worried it would still be difficult to follow, but it's working out really well so far.
    Thanks for the post! I really needed it.

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    1. Lil, it sounds like you're being intentional with the POV characters you've chosen, so I bet it turns out great :)

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  11. This post was incredibly helpful. Thank you, Mrs. Morrill!
    I write in first person POV. My dystopian/sci-fi WIP has two POV characters, and I love working with them. Both face different challenges within the same setting, and give unique perspectives on the events. I have a few questions about POV:
    1) How should one plot for multiple POVs? Each character needs his or her own arc, but how should I time the elements of plot (inciting incident, midpoint twist, dark night of the soul, climax and such) for each POV so they form a smooth progression?
    2) Is there a "better" place for the POV characters to officially meet (and be given a reason to stick together) over the course of the book? Mine collide around the climax of Act Two. Is that too late in the story, and would this bore the reader?
    Again, thank you so much for this post (this entire series, too)!

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  12. Choosing a POV for a story is sometimes hard for me. I still haven't exactly chosen what POV I will use in my current WIP. As of right now, there are two main characters (both girls) in that story, and I'm considering writing it in first person, having the chapters switch between the two girls. One question that I have, how do you make a character's voice recognizable enough that, even if a name wasn't mentioned, you would know which girl you're with? Hopefully that all made sense :). ~Savannah

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  13. Another thing to consider: make sure each POV character has his/her own struggle and role in the story. I and others have made that mistake before, and it generally doesn't end well.

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  14. I'm realizing now, like 5 drafts in, how fun it would be to add a bunch of chapters from another character's perspective. I could really fatten up backstory and storyworld. And it would really change the whole...essence of the series. But it's such a big change that I don't think I'd make it without an agent or editor telling me they think it really needs it.

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  15. Thank you for this post! It was very useful to me at the moment! My WIP is a fantasy novel and it's taken me a long while to figure out what style to write in. My first draft was written in three characters' POV changing each chapter. In the end I decided not to use that technique since it was hard to make the story flow and keep the chapters consistent with just those three. I kept going like that for the first draft, though, and I ended up with over 2000 pages (that's quite a lot, I know, but I'm certainly going to chop it into several books).

    Now I'm completely rewriting my WIP for several reasons (one being that the beginning of th plot changed completely). However one of the main reasons I'm rewriting is that style. Now, I'm telling the story through the eyes of a character who almost acts like the story teller called Morath Morlarnus. He isn't particularly involved in the story until the very end where his true identity is revealed. Morlarnus tells the story in deep third person, though, so I'm hoping that will help the reader become more attached to the main characters.

    One question: would you say that writing the occasional chapter in the antagonist's point of view is a bad thing? I'd like to show what he's up to, but I'm worried abou giving too much of the plot away and backtracking from the main characters.

    Again, thank you very much for this post! Helped me a lot!

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  16. Hi, thanks for writing this post, really amazing post, keep sharing

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  17. Great post! I've been struggling with this for awhile, so thanks!

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  18. I have a story with four main characters and I like to think they all bring something unique to the story. Each girl has a chapter in the beginning of the story, but after four chapters, I character hop in the remaining as scenes change.
    Is this smart or is there a tip to make it work? I think I handle it pretty well, but do you have any advice about this?
    To Charlotte Feechan: Cassandra Clare wrote her novel (City of Heavenly Fire) with the occasional villain POV and it spiced up the story tons. I was anxious to see the big picture of his secret plan and also, there is added tension when you read if you know what the villain is up to and you see the heroes are falling into the trap.
    Thanks for the post!!!

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  19. I usually stick with one or two POVs. Usually third person, though I've done a few things with first person. I don't switch POVs when I'm doing it in first person, though. :-P

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  20. I have done something where I had the villain in first person as the main character, but I switched back and forth between him and the hero. The hero was in third person would this be confusing?

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  21. I love first person. I feel as though we get into the character's head better. And though I've read many books in third that disprove that, I still think it.
    So I usually write in first. My current work has two POVs, the two main characters. Though I sometimes add in a short chapter in third revealing a plan or to add suspense.

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