characters / pov / Twenty-four Days / writers / writing

How Many POVs is Too Many?

point of viewI 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?

–Photo credit: Chraeker

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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50 thoughts on “How Many POVs is Too Many?

  1. Instead of “head hopping,” I like to call it “omniscient narrator.” 😉

    The Great Writers do it all the time. Look at Tolstoy, or Trollope.

    Also, I like to follow a character through his or her death and sometimes a few steps beyond. Maybe this is a just a quirk of mine, maybe it’s cheap drama, but I’ve done it several times. I’ve also killed off characters that were not POV at the time of their death.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi, this is a really interesting post, and exactly the sort of thing I’m needing to research. I have written a book that has 4 POVs, but I’ve devoted a whole “short story” to each … basically, the book is 100k words, split over seven “short stories”. Four of them are the POV of the main character, and then the other three are seperate individual characters, but they each have approx. 5 chapters dedicated to them and then I don’t go back to their POV.

    Feedback I received highlighted that I should only write from 1 POV or at most, 2, but quite alot of comments on here suggest more than 1 or 2 is fine! Appears that quite alot of editors seem to have the same opinion (less is more) but seems readers don’t particularly mind (as long as it’s not jumping POVs between paragraphs, etc).

    I’m not sure I can change the POV of the three individual ones, but I’m now worried that it makes the story choppy. I think I originally meant for it to be “seven short stories” but they combine into one bigger one? But apparently it’s hard to follow the story, and care for one main character.

    Quite alot of POVs seem to be close together as well (one chapter for one POV, the second for another, the third back to the first POV etc) but mine was quite different in that you’ll have say 5-8 chapters for one POV, then more on to 6-8 chapters for the next, etc).

    I think I’m just looking for any suggestions on this, I’m not sure if I need to change it? If I do, I don’t know what would work better. I like how it is at the moment, and the timelines of each short story work in comparison to the bigger picture, so it would take an awful lot of work to fix (practically rewriting a third of the book!)

    Any help and suggestions welcome 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I struggled with this too. Eventually, I wrote a book with 9 viewpoints. Guess what…nobody compliained about it. Nobody was confused. My book is ‘Seal Of The Sand Dweller’. Truth is… you can write anything you want, it just has to make sense.
      Here’s what I did:
      1-George Martin wrote a-plenty in Game Of Thrones. Whatever and how many ever viewpoints you write in, make sure they have something to lose. Everybody has a story and Charles Dickens leaves us with that impression about many of the characters we never get a backstory on in his work. But the main POV character of that chapter should have Goal Conflict and Disaster to keep the story pushing forward.
      2-Tag your characters with something unique. I had one character who always wore a choker, but it got broken, he still wore it. One had a habit of writing and smudging her fingers with soot. Various kinds of actions will belong to certain characters as well as looks and voice and personal habits. I needed this a lot because I had so many characters.
      3-Keep characters pouring into each other. They should talk about each other, help or plot against each other, think about each other. And they have the space to reflect on each other’s actions in their own viewpoint. Especially, if you can, have the characters talk about what the other one did in reference to the general story conflict.
      None of my readers got confused. But my book is really for the advanced reader and for those that couldn’t keep up with all the Egyptian character names, I pronounced everything for my readers on my website.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Personally, I don’t see a problem with your approach, done well, developing each character. You risk the reader becoming vested in a character who is then dropped but that can be fixed by tying them all together after they are all introduced. I’ve seen books done this way–some worked, some not. But the important information there is: Some worked.

      Good luck!


    • The thing that draws my concern about your particular style is that as a reader by the time I’m fully invested in the character, it might be hard to make that emotional and mental switch to another character for another chunk of chapters. . One way to keep a story moving forward despite multiple POV’s is to have different characters dropping in with their viewpoint from time to time.

      If the POV character in the first group of chapters never returns, it will probably feel like a short story for the reader. But if the various POV character can reappear then I can better imagine your story in one continuous flowing unit.

      You know, people also do very well just writing serials, and if that’s what you find you have, you can still do very well writing those. Ask yourself if that’s what your story is trying to do.


  3. Applying this advice has seriously increased my street credit. I love looking through your articles. I really do wish I was able to better understand the finer details of this problem but much of this is confusing to me. You might have just saved me a lot of hassle just now. After looking over a number of the blogs on your website, I really enjoy your way of writing.

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. The only reason I can imagine restricting is that is it doesn’t make sense to readers. My recently completed WIP has five POV characters, and so far it seems to be going fine. 🙂

    Lovely blog! Enjoying my stop!

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. Ok, panting hard. Ive got some nerve. Ive written a biblical fiction and find that I have no less than eleven Pov’s. So I took it to my critique group shaking in my boots expecting to get chewed out. Most people said the story was still easy to follow and interesting [phew!!!] My first editor handed my work back to me in two days and said If I’m doing chrisitan fiction, I’d better have just two pov’s if i want my work to do well. My second editor wants to take my eleven pov’s down to four. i told her I am willing to consider all that she asks me to do but I don’t feel that my work is broken. I asked her also to help me with where my story is right now, with all my point of views. I’m nervous.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very interesting. I tried to whittle down my POV characters, but failed. I still notice POVs in books I read–and like. They often have many. Surprisingly often, they are of a person that appears as a cameo and getting inside of their thoughts provides so much more meaning to the story.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Very interesting. I think that’s a great point. I think the anti-multiple POVs position is way overblown. But I think that about most writing rules. If you’re a poor writer, the rules might improve a book, but they’ll never make it great. If you’re a good writer, you don’t need all the rules.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. The omniscient narrative style is the classic style of novel writing. Just because many modern readers are not classically educated and aren’t used to it does not mean it is a wrong style. I say write as you feel you write your best, and you will find our audience, or at the very least, you will be at peace with yourself. That said, some genre are dominated by certain narrative styles, so if you want to go with the flow, you might have to adapt your writing style to what the readers of that genre are used to.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is so true! Tolkien and many of the greats used omniscient! My 95,000-word science fiction novel covers a whole planet, and has still received a lot of flak for having four POVs. There is an obvious main character, but two are his closest companions and the fourth POV is that of the nation that has been colonized by the enemies of the MC and his friends. Some stories struggle to fit into a single POV for the entire plot.We just have to market to those modern readers who actually still enjoy more than one POV.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks for writing an article on this. I’m writing my first novel and have rewritten the same chapter so many times from different perspectives and have them read by friends to see which one they enjoyed the most. They liked first person the best, but I worry that may have too many POV’s if I write each chapter in that way. Thanks for the help 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ultimately, you have to write it to suit yourself. If you’ve tried a wide variety, which felt most comfortable–shared your voice best?

      I’m thinking of rewriting a novel in 1st person, to make it more intimate. I think if I put the main character in 1st and a few others in 3rd person, it’ll work. I’m looking forward to trying it.


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  12. 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.

      Liked by 1 person

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  16. 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.


  17. 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.


  18. 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.


  19. 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.


    • 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.


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