This is a question that has sort of bothered me ever since I began my WIP. The thing is I'm working on a sort of "epic" book similar to those done by Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson with his Stormlight Archives, etc. It's going to be long, over 500 pages and probably closer to six or seven hundred.
So the question is how many PoVs is too many? Right now my book has 5 different character stories, all of them different and all of them unique in their own way and connected. I can't see myself leaving out any of these characters based on what they add to the plot, world building, and meta-plot.
So if you were reading a story that focused on five different characters, provided all of them were presented well and had interesting and compelling story arcs, would you read it?
I suppose you could say it's a matter of "many characters, one story." Everything one particular POV characters is seeing / hearing / sensing / whatevering, the others will also be going through. If the aspects aren't different enough from different viewpoints, is there any point to using that many?
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Thanks for your replies . I suppose I should detail the five different characters based on their typical role. These are the five, broadly defined: the adventurer, the explorer, the scholar, the savage, and the assassin. It's a bit simplistic to say that they're confined to their roles, but that's essentially how I view them.
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As a reader I find that I don’t mind the POV shift with different threads of a story. IMHO the things to watch out for are POV shifts within a chapter, and even within a party of characters. If your five are all traveling together and you choose to shift between them anyway I think you will lose some readers. If they are each on their own journeys, and come together at the end then you must have the different POVs in order to show the whole story.
If your characters are traveling separately toward your ultimate climax you can have them cross paths unawares, this gives you the chance to show what one character thinks of another through that particular POV. The main trick to doing multiple story threads well is to leave your reader longing to come back to the character you just left even as you spin out the new portion of the tale. Jordan does this extremely well, but he also starts with a party that splits. He rarely starts a new character “cold.” If you have five separate characters each traveling toward the endgame, you will have to treat the introduction of each character as if it is the beginning of the story. It is, in the sense that it is the beginning of their story. Nonetheless, if you make the effort to “hook” your reader on each character, when you bring the party together your reader will find it extremely satisfying.
If your characters are traveling together however, I would recommend adding a “Percival” character. Each of your five sounds like a “champion” in his/her own right, adding an innocent who will experience each with wide eyed wonder gives you a central POV. I know the use of flashbacks is often decried but I have seen it used to great effect. In this case you would have one of your champions is filling the youngster in with a tale of past deeds, either regaling with heroics or debunking known embellished versions. Which one would depend on the nature and pride of the teller.
In any case it largely depends on how the story is laid out, and how well you tell it. Hope this is helpful, -Jo
For a book of that scale, five pov's is fine. I just finished one similar and it had five pov characters. They were together and apart at different times, so it was interesting to see an event with the different perspectives. Just make sure that the charcters are distinct and have individual voices. You always want someone to know who's head they're in instinctively.
Interesting note, the most powerful character, and the most mysterious until the end, was not a pov character. That allowed the author to keep secrets without making me feel like he was cheating.
I think every book belongs to one character. Robert Jordan follows Rand around in Eye of the World, and only splits when the group does, and then you have to know what happens to the other people.
I suggest figuring out who owns the story, then following their POV the closest.
Because even in ensembles, one person still owns the story. Like on Friends there are episodes that follow different characters closely, but the overarching story didn't end until Ross got Rachel.
But put in as many POV or subplots in as you want, or as you can keep juggling. There gets to be a point when it is to big for you to keep track of, then you know the story has gotten too large.
Does GRRM's epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, follow one character primarily? I couldn't tell you who. But yes, even War and Peace, with its 600 characters could probably list Pierre as the protagonist.
Natej11, there was a podcast of writing excuses where Brandon Sanderson talked about his failed attempts of writing epic fantasies at the beginning of his career. The more viewpoints you are juggling, the more difficult it is. In fact, in that podcast, they recommended beginning writers should have one or maybe two viewpoints (unless your heart is completely set on writing an epic fantasy).
I'm not sure where you are in your career and how many novels you've written. I've finished one (and only a first draft) and I am now stuck completely rewriting it because of my huge learning curve on the first goaround.
GRRM would laugh at the thought of five being too many. Of course it's not. But do you have the writing experience to pull it off? From a reader's point of view, five viewpoints works in epic fantasies.
I read somewhere (maybe it was Sanderson) that one of the biggest rookie mistakes is trying to juggle too many (more than one or two) viewpoint characters. Sure, some of the masters can handle it, but many tried and true published authors cannot. Supposedly it gets exponentially harder to get published as you increase the number of POVs.
I've heard it likened to page count. Sure, you CAN get published with a 300,000 word first novel. But it's going to be much more difficult. Same for multiple POVs (or dream sequences, etc).
quote:I read somewhere (maybe it was Sanderson) that one of the biggest rookie mistakes is trying to juggle too many (more than one or two) viewpoint characters. Sure, some of the masters can handle it, but many tried and true published authors cannot. Supposedly it gets exponentially harder to get published as you increase the number of POVs.
Probably true. My first two novels (awaiting complete rewrites) had a virtual cast of thousands. Well, not quite. But way too many characters.
I'm about to start revisions on BLOOD WILL TELL. I may reduce by a couple of POV characters in the process.
Oh, and the first three chapters (will be four after the revisions) are entirely in the MC's POV.
In my experience, I have found that there can be as many POVs in a book as is necessary. Necessary is the key word here. Yes, sometimes it is easier to write a story by jumping from one viewpoint to another (hopefully in separate chapters!). This is why a lot of newish writers tend to have more viewpoints in their novels. But it is not always the correct thing to do, and can indeed be seen by editors as a sign of laziness or lack of writing know-how. Ask yourself WHY you are changing viewpoints so often. Would it be impossible for that aspect of the story to be told from the MC's point of view? Why does that POV need to be shown? Can you show how that character is dealing with something while still being in the MC's head? etc. Really evaluate the reasons you are doing it.
Another question I would ask is this: Do the viewpoints, if they are completely separate, come together toward the end for a common event? For me, it really doesn't work if there are five viewpoints, and then by the end of the book SOMETHING isn't resolved between them. Obviously the whole story doesn't have to be, if it is a series, but I want to know WHY I am following all these people around, what they have to do with each other and the story.
The most important thing is this: When people read, they want to have a character they can sympathize with, someone they can root for. When the POVs change too often, readers will find that they don't know who to cheer for; they might not feel a strong connection to a character, any character. And if that happens, well, they will put the book down. I think that may be key: make sure you are writing in a way that, no matter what is going on, how many povs there are, etc, the reader can form a connection with the characters.
mrmeadors makes a good point. I identified with a major character in Game of Thrones, who then died. I was flabbergasted. Moreover, the book just ENDED. No resolution; just a last page. The story picks up in part two of the series where it left off in part one.
GRRM got away with it, with me, because (a) the book was 900 pages, so I felt I'd gotten a "good read" despite the non-ending; (b) he writes well. But I'm not sure I'll continue reading past book two (which I've just finished): he's on book five of a seven-book series; there's no guarantee it will actually end. I do want closure to the stories I read.
[This message has been edited by Grayson Morris (edited March 16, 2011).]
The thing about "A Game of Thrones" is that he starts out very closely with one event and only a handful of characters all in the same place. Then as the story unfolds he spreads the characters out naturally.
My characters are pretty much spread all over the continent at the beginning, and while their stories are connected they don't do any bumping into each other at first. At the beginning the story focuses more on one, and then the focus shifts from him a bit as he's traveling, but all 5 PoVs get their fair time.
I guess a good way to explain it is that I'm telling five interconnected stories through the characters in a fully developed world, all leading up to a major event.
My main worry is that I'm trying to tell too many stories at the same time. I think I can do it well, but I'm not sure how it'll be received.
[This message has been edited by Natej11 (edited March 16, 2011).]
One option could be to just write it and see how it works. It's not like the writing will be "wasted" or anything because a) at the worst, it's good practice, and b) at best, you'll just be able to use that writing later. Play with it while you write it and see how it goes.
Is it possible to do something like one POV per book, or per part or something like that? The danger with that though is sometimes people get attached to one character, so they will like book 1, but then they won't like character 2 as much, etc., so book 2 won't be as well received.
The novel I'm working on has multiple pov characters, but two main ones. I've written practice scenes from both pov's. The thing is, whichever one I use will inform the other. I will know better what the other character is thinking and then I can portray it in their response and even their gestures. So I agree that no writing is ever wasted.
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As with many writing ideas I think it depends on the writer and the story.
I have read novels with more than one POV, more than two even. Sometimes the characters will start at different locations and each one will move to where they all meet. So the writer will go back and forth telling each set of adventures that lead that character to the meeting. But even when they all get together the writer doesn't stop the going back and forth even though he may cut down on how many he does. So the reader may get to see one scene repeated through the eyes of two or three different people.
There could be one character that is the Main Character and the others are supporting roles but that doesn't stop the writer from changing POVs.
I don't think I have ever read a novel with eight POVs but three and four, maybe five.
It seemed to me that David Brin had something like 16 different point of view characters in STARTIDE RISING, and he spent one chapter at a time introducing each of them. It took me half the book before I knew anyone well enough to care about any of them, and I told him so.
It's to his credit that he listened to me politely, even though that book was up for the Hugo (and won it that very night). When he wrote the sequel, UPLIFT WAR, he introduced the characters more gradually, and whether he did that because of what I said or not, I liked it much better.
So just be careful how you introduce and move among your different points of view. Please consider giving the reader time to get to know each of them and become involved with them before moving on to a different character.
quote:But I'm not sure I'll continue reading [Song if Ice and Fire] past book two (which I've just finished)
Your loss. Book four was a bit slow for me but I think book five will make up for that. Other than that, I'm never sorry I picked up those books, apart from that I find reading other fantasy pieces hard now.
Well, I had a scare a week or so ago, when a friend who's an avid fantasy and sci-fi reader told me GRRM had died in late 2010. So I spent a while thinking, "oh, no, the series isn't ever going to be finished." Found out GRRM is still alive and kicking after all, so I may reconsider.
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Ha, ha! George is very much alive. He got married a month ago. Though with the rate he currently writes I sometimes wonder if he will live long enough to write this saga to the end.
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Of course, you have to assess whether you have the multiple viewpoint characters to keep the story moving, or whether they're there just to pad out a sixty-page novelette into a four-volume trilogy...
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Sounds like the drawback with Brin's book is that he actually forced the issue one chapter at a time, rather than letting POV devolve unto whomever naturally.
I'm with MartinV, GRRM kinda ruined me for other fantasy. He's a hard act to follow.
As to how many POVs is too many... any that don't belong. I don't have a problem with however many there are so long as they're not muddled (each needs to be a distinct person) and have some reason for existing.
I don't worry about it myself. Either the only character in sight gets to be POV, *or* some character stands up and says "Let me!!" and off they go. I don't make the decision in advance, it arrives as the scene is written. As a general rule tho, it seems that whoever has the "most to learn" winds up as the POV, that being more interesting than whoever has the "most to do".
I've always said I'd read George Railroad's series when it was complete, not before---before he (1) went Hollywood, and (2) started writing this series, I was a big fan of his work. But I can't stand waiting for parts of series that get published years apart.
(On the other hand, I said I'd read Harry Potter if it was complete---and it is, and I still haven't.)
I have just given up reading Steven Erikson's book called Bauchelain and Korbal Broach. I found the constant shift of POV in every chapter irritating. The chapters are not too long so I don't have time to like anyone. And if I find something amusing and would like to spend time with it I still don't get it because we have moved to another scene.
Question: If so many characters get almost equal page time then who is the person that I have to pay special attention to?
The other problems were more specific to the form of this novel and therefore probably not relevant to you. I think it is humorous horror. And given the multiple POVs as well as the fact that there is no moral center, no racing to an end(good or bad doesn't matter I now realise I like things to end) I just didn't see any point in picking up the book. What is the point of trying to find out how it ends when there is no real end?
When I really like a series, like GRRM's, or Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman series (which is taking even longer to get finished) .... a long wait between books gives me an excuse to reread the whole thing from the beginning, because by then I totally cannot remember the previous books.
As to POV changes and scene shifts... what does irritate me is the "cliffhanger" technique. FINISH the damned scene BEFORE jerking me off to some other person or events. Yeah, sometimes it's important that things are seen to happen simultaneously; that's not what I'm complaining about. Rather, using a switch to another POV as a means of supposedly keeping us "interested" in what happens next, by stopping at some crisis point and jumping elsewhere. No, it doesn't "keep me on the edge of my seat", it just annoys me.
quote:As to POV changes and scene shifts... what does irritate me is the "cliffhanger" technique. FINISH the damned scene BEFORE jerking me off to some other person or events. Yeah, sometimes it's important that things are seen to happen simultaneously; that's not what I'm complaining about. Rather, using a switch to another POV as a means of supposedly keeping us "interested" in what happens next, by stopping at some crisis point and jumping elsewhere. No, it doesn't "keep me on the edge of my seat", it just annoys me.
What do you take me for, a monster? I would never use a cheap trick like cliffhangers to keep people interested in each PoV.
*Hurriedly opens his word document and begins copy/pasting furiously to complete each chapter*
On a serious note, since I have so many PoVs and the story takes place over the space of a few months, I make sure the action is complete for each one for their place in the timeline before I move on to the next character's story. I've always felt that if a part of the story isn't interesting I should try to find a way to make it interesting, or if some of the information and action is vital to the plot summarize it during a later part that IS interesting.
Not always possible, I know, but I've never liked reading books where something is thrown in because it's necessary but not treated to the space and thought it deserves because the writer wanted to get to some later part.
Soap operas routinely have many plot lines with many characters and seem to have an avid following. I asked a non-fantasy reader who was reading GRRM what she thought. She said it was like a soap opera. Heroes was like this as well. I broke a few episodes down and I think they had something like 5-8 plot lines in each episode. You might want to look at those examples to see if there's anything useful for your project.
I will say this, however: separate story lines, if you're not careful, will affect the narrative momentum. Narrative momentum being how strongly the story compels the reader to move forward.
Also, it's not necessarily the number of points of view that you have that bloat stories and make it a complex juggle and affect narrative momentum--it's the number of separate plot lines.
If you have one main plot line and four or five points of view all around that plot line, each one can push the story forward and get the reader rolling like a locomotive. In a relatively short thing like THE INCREDIBLES, you have the story arcs of Bored Bob, Syndrome, Violet, and Dash. You have points of view from Bob, Syndrome, Elastagirl, Violet, Dash, Mirage. But everything all ties into the one main plot of Syndrome.
However, take THE INCREDIBLES and separate all the points of view into separate stories and it probably wouldn't have gone anywhere in the time given. By the 30 minute mark people would have been groaning--when is this going to start!
Even if you have only two stories, they can stop and jerk the reader all the way through if the events in one don't have an _immediate_ affect on the other plot line or you don't use other techniques to tie them.
So narrative momentum is what you're trying to manage (a reader effect). I'd ID some stories with multiple plot lines and pov's that do it well for you and see if you can't ID what they're doing to make it work.
BTW, I wouldn't take Robert Jordan's books 4-7 as models. The plot ground to a halt in those books, and that's where he lost many readers. He did still kept quite a few. But those readers stayed for things other than narrative momentum.
[This message has been edited by johnbrown (edited April 06, 2011).]