Last week, I wrote the first installment in this series of Writing Tips posts on point of view and voice. As I indicated in that post, writers trying to determine how to approach point of view for their particular projects face a number of choices, among them how many point of view characters to use, which characters are best suited to being POV characters, and whether to write in first and third person.
Today I continue our discussion by focusing on the questions of how many characters to use as POV narrators and which characters to choose for the role. Let’s take those two issues in order. And let me reiterate here that while we’ll be talking in part about using many different POV characters remember that you should only shift narrators with a new chapter or new section of a chapter. You do NOT want to jump around from character to character within a scene. The term for that is head-hopping, and it is not a good practice, particularly in today’s market.
Theoretically at least, there is no limit to how many point of view characters you can use. Writing as David B. Coe in my Winds of the Forelands series, I wound up using more than a dozen different POV characters. Winds of the Forelands was a sprawling, complex series that totaled five books and over 900,000 words. I needed all those perspective characters in order to tie together the various strands of my plot. Thieftaker and its sequels has but one point of view character, Ethan Kaille. In this case, each book stands alone, each storyline is fairly lean, and my subplots all revolve around Ethan’s life. Using additional point of view characters would merely confuse matters. I have another book (not yet published) that has two point of view characters, and the narrative bounces back and forth between the two. Their relationship defines the story and telling the story through the eyes of only one of them would have given that relationship short shrift. In short, there is no right way to do this, no correct number that you should shoot for.
So then how do you decide which approach is best for you? My advice would be to use the fewest number of point of view characters necessary to tell your story effectively. Yes, before I said that there is no limit to the number of POV characters you can use, and technically that’s true. But the more POV characters you have, the greater the danger of confusing your reader. I used a lot of POV characters in Winds of the Forelands — probably too many, thinking back on it — but I did so because I needed (almost) all of them to tell the story I was trying to tell.
Different approaches also have different advantages. Because Thieftaker is, in part, a mystery, I wanted my readers to experience the investigation as Ethan did, to feel that they were solving the mystery with him. Having just the one POV character served that aim quite nicely. The Winds of the Forelands books had lots of castle intrigue and military strategy — betrayals, feints within feints. By using many POV characters I could have my readers know more at any given moment than did any individual character. That way, readers could anticipate traps and gambits as they unfolded. They could see a character be duped; I like to imagine my readers trying to shout warnings to favorite characters as they read the books.
If your story is complex, if it takes place in several different settings, if there are lots of different subplots, you’re probably going to need lots of POV characters. If your story is more limited — an urban fantasy, say, with one lead character investigating a murder or hunting down demons, you might be better off with just a single narrator or maybe two (the hero and the villain, for instance).
There are variations on this approach, as you would expect. Nicola Griffith’s marvelous, award-winning novel, Slow River, uses three POV characters, or rather, one point of view character at three different times in her life. To differentiate these three voices (and I’ll discuss this more in future posts) Griffith uses first person past tense for one, third person past tense for another, and third person present tense for the third. It sounds confusing; it’s not. It’s brilliant. The thing to remember is that in telling your story you want to make the narrative as accessible to your readers as possible. Too many POV characters can create confusion. Then again, so can too few. Each story has different needs.
Okay, so maybe now you have a general idea of how many POV characters you need. Which ones should you choose? Well, again, this is up to you. Sometimes it’s pretty clear. It comes as no surprise that the main POV character in the Harry Potter books is Harry himself. On the other hand, a book like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is a bit odd in that the main character, Dean Moriarty, is NOT the POV character. Rather, Kerouac uses his POV character, Sal Paradise, to describe Dean, so that we can experience him as Sal does. Your POV characters can be the main protagonists of your story (this is certainly the most common approach) or they can be observers who take in the crucial action first hand by watching the protagonists (and antagonists) do their thing.
In my case, using Ethan Kaille as the POV character for Thieftaker was a no-brainer. Choosing my POV character for various scenes in the Forelands books was, at times, far harder. Occasionally I had to go back and rewrite the scene from a different character’s perspective in order to make it work. Again, as you work on your own book, these decisions will become clearer.
As with so many issues in writing, there is only so much I can say before I run into the “a-lot-will-depend-on-your-particular-book-or-story” caveat. This is particularly true in dealing with point of view. But in describing my own process for making these choices, I hope that I have at least given you ideas of things to think about with respect to your own work. Next time, we’ll talk about first and third person POV, as well as issues of voice.
Until then, keep writing!