May 11, 2012

How Many POVs is Too Many?

I received another round of edits on my WIP Twenty Four Days from my wonderful agent–this time from one of the agency editors. Again–as with previous suggestions–many are spot-on, but one in particular caught my attention because I had spent a good bit of time musing over this very issue when I began the story.

POV characters, also called ‘viewpoint characters’. Specifically, how many is too many? The editor suggests I crossed that line, and worse, several die so are they even important?

I have eight (three die). I like the power of narrating through the heart and brain of the involved character rather than a flashback or some other device that brings off-scene action to the main character’s attention.

When I was drafting this novel, I wondered if I had too many, or if using POV characters was a cop out from effectively showing events through the eyes of the protagonist. I had a subconcious sense that Real Writers didn’t have many viewpoint characters, that Successful Writers were skilled enough to infuse drama through the key people. Consider first person–that’s told completely through one person’s eyes. I researched my library of how-to-write epistles. Here’s Donald Maass’ opinion as relayed in his seminal book Writing the Breakout Novel:

Authors who want to convince me of the breakout potential of their novels almost invariably assure me, ‘Of course, it has multiple points of view.’ …I must admit there is something satisfying about reading novels with multiple points of view. These views provide diversion from, and contrast to, the protagonist’s perspective. They can deepen conflict, enlarge a story’s scope and add to a novel the rich texture of real life.”

But Evan Marshall in his Marshall Plan for Novel Writing suggests four POV characters are sufficient based on my page count (104,000-ish). He allows up to six for a book in excess of 150,000 pages.

And Albert Zuckerman in Writing the Blockbuster Novel opines that great novels benefit from “…the ‘elimination of unnecessary characters, or at the very least eliminating them as point-of-view characters…”

Was I taking the easy way out by telling the story from the perspective of multiple characters. Worse, did I telegraph my lack of skill to potential agents and publishers when I jumped heads?

To be clear, I don’t ‘jump heads’ per se. I devote full scenes–sometimes chapters–to each POV character. I don’t switch mid-paragraph or mid scene, and none of my POV characters appear in only one scene. Each time, they provide critical insight into a game-changing part of the action.

I decided to see what some of today’s popular thriller writers were doing. Their technique must be right if they found agents and publishers–right?

What I found is a lot of POV characters. It seems to be a popular method of conveying the drama and crises so important to a plot. Let’s take Ben Coes’ latest Dewey Andreas thriller, The Last Refuge. For those who haven’t yet discovered Coes, check out my review of the previous Andreas novel. By page 121 (less than half way through the novel), Coes had fourteen POV characters–four of whom died. Despite that, I never felt confused by the volume of narrators or disappointed to have invested emotion in a character who died.

What do you think? Do you limit yours? Do you feel multiple/fewer viewpoint characters clarify the story? Have you had feedback on cutting back on these characters?

Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-sixth grade, creator of two technology training books for middle school and three ebooks on technology in education. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco blogger, IMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s editing a thriller for her agent that should be out to publishers this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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