characters / thrillers / writers / writing

How Many POVs is Too Many?

point of view

Through your character’s eyes–photo credit:Chraeker

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 word count (104,000-ish). He allows up to six for a book in excess of 150,000 words.

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 Examiner.com, 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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20 thoughts on “How Many POVs is Too Many?

  1. I couldn’t get those mouths out of my head… Kudos on your effort. I don’t see the need for a limit on edits. Just my two cents. :-)

  2. My latest novel has 4 different POVs. I devote entire chapters to each character and never give the same character 2 sequential chapters (hope that makes sense!).

    • I like writers who give me an entire chapter with a POV character. The only exception: I’ve noticed when they have multiple scenes each with different POVs, it tends to speed up the action. That’s an effective method of increasing the pace for the climax.

      I’m reading another new thriller–Lincoln Child’s Third Gate. He starts with just a few POVs, but adds new ones for each major action. That ends up a lot of POVs.

  3. The issue of POV is one that I feel very strongly about. Generally, I think less is better. The writer should really think about how and why they use multiple POVs. It is annoying when you get into the character and all of a sudden you have to do it all over again with another character. What I really dislike is when the POV changes back and forth in a paragraph. To me that is just sloppy. The author could probably find a way to tell the story without doing this.

    That said, sometimes you have to change POVs to tell the story “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a good example.

    I write children’s books with my niece. She is always changing the POV. I am always editing it. Children especially don’t like changing POVs. In the last book, there were three places where it was really tricky telling the story without changing the POV. But we found ways.

    • That IS sloppy–to change within a paragraph. I see published authors do that, but I can’t imagine a new author getting by an agent with that approach. My editor complained (rightly so) that in switching POVs, I was forced to repeat information so I could show the new POV character knew it. That slowed the pace, deadly in a thriller.

  4. Interesting. I began by trying to limit POVs, but felt a need to add a couple. My editor suggested more. But when I count, I think I’m only up to maybe 5. (Cut one along the way as well.) In The Terror, Dan Simmons introduces a couple POVs very late in a long story. It startled me, but they were necessary and beautiful. I think of all rules as guidelines, which may keep us safe; but safe isn’t really a high priority for me.

  5. I’d go with a maximum of 4 as a guideline. Personally, I prefer them limited to 3. I like having a strong connection to one or two main characters and the more POV’s you get then more that’s diluted. It can be a lazy way to get the subtleties of a story across, but sometimes it can also be the only way. That’s the question I’d look at.

    When I wrote my first novel, it improved a lot when I cut out 2 POV’s. I wouldn’t give the POV of a character that died, that makes it hard for the reader to keep liking the book – I liked that guy, how dare she kill him off!!!

    I wouldn’t go too much on what else is published either, being published even by a non-indie press is no guarantee of quality writing these days.

    • Several of my POV characters are only for a few scenes, only to put the reader into the action where my main character can’t go (on a highjacked sub). I tried to deal with that from a distance–speculating by the main characters–but it was not effective. My agent actually encouraged me to add the POV character.

      Maybe those are OK and others I have should be dumped. I just don’t know. That’s why we have editors–right? To help us through these quandries.

      • That sounds ok to me. If the main character isn’t there, you certainly need another POV. For the other ones, I’d ask myself if I really need their POV or could I get what I want across from one of the main character’s POV. If you really need them, you need them, even if there are 8 of them.

  6. In my wip, I have one main POV. I thought I might add a second, and by far, secondary POV but since it’s a cop, and since I don’t really know much about how a cop works, AND since I can’t get much info on time-line issues, I’m thinking of removing that part, and perhaps another part. My idea was to add a chapter per section to show an ongoing investigation, but the more I think about it, it’s not all that important to the rest of the story. I’m rather jealous of all the personal help you’re getting, but comments and posts like this are a tremendous help to me. Thanks for being in my world.

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  10. Very thought provoking post. And very honest too!
    The best multiple-POV novel I have read is The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, which has eight different POV characters, each with their own section. No one POV is ever revisited. I found it really enjoyable because although I didn’t really like most of the characters, they were flawed and believable and the POV switches progressed the story in a really dynamic way. Some incidents you didn’t hear about at the time that they happened, instead they were only relayed later by a character that actually knew about them, so the story wasn’t strictly linear, which I like. It kind of made it feel more realistic, like you would hear about things from friends or family after the fact, which really worked for the style of novel that it is.
    I think that multiple viewpoints aren’t really a problem, even if you have lots, particularly in a thriller to show part of the action – its almost like a film in that it doesn’t matter if its a throwaway character, their purpose is to get you in on the action, so as a reader you don’t mind.

    • This topic still bugs me, even almost a year later. I still notice how many POV characters are in the books I read (and I read 1-2 books a week–part of that Amazon Vine gig obligations). Lots of books have lots of POVs so I am forced to still conclude 1) the agent’s advice is wrong, or 2) I did it poorly. Well, there’s a third option: Both.

      Love your blog, BTW. I just subscribed to it. Great pictures.

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