Marie Brennan, author of The Onyx Court series, has a really articulate post examining fat fantasy series and the pitfalls of writing them. Maybe pitfalls isn’t the right word. It’s really what to avoid. She uses a number of examples, including GRRM and Robert Jordan. It’s a really good essay and I recommend that you read it.
One of the things that she discusses is POV characters and the way they can multiply and breed like termites and suddenly you have a POV cast of thousands. If they are all doing disparate things, then pretty soon the reader ends up skipping endlessly from head to head without much progress getting made and without a way to really sink into the story. I have to admit here that I haven’t read the Wheel of Time series, and I haven’t made it far into Song of Ice and Fire either, so I can’t tell you how successful or not successful their POV habits are. Maybe you can offer opinions. I’d like to know.
Nevertheless, I’m really concerned about the issue of POV characters for a fat fantasy I’m working on right now. At this juncture, I have four POV characters. Very manageable. However. I believe I’m going to need three more for certain, possibly more. I think. The question is, how do you know if you *need* to be in a character’s point of view? And how many Points of view are too many?
The answer to the second one is, I don’t know. Or it depends. But let’s answer the first question first. One of the reasons to be in a character’s POV is because they are experiencing things or doing things that can’t be brought into the story in any other way, and which is fundamental to the story. For instance, you could say that King Boilerbutt is insane and making crazy decisions and deliver that as news or rumors, or you could show this by either being his POV or someone who is present while it’s happening. Someone who is effected by those decisions, and who has impact on the rest of the plot. It just depends on how important it is to really show how crazy the king is and how his behavior is impacting real people. If you can summarize what’s happening off stage easy enough, if having someone there isn’t really important to the story, then summarize and go on.
Another reason to include a POV is because that character is central to what’s happening in the story, and of course, his or her story is important. How they feel, how they think, how they react–those things matter. These are the things that a reader connects to. Of course, if you have mystery in your story, you have to worry about being in someone’s head and giving away the mystery–so being in the murderer’s head or the villain’s head can be dangerous to your story, or rather, to its suspense.
The question is, what’s the tradeoff for adding a character’s POV? What is gained? What is lost? Do you muddy up the waters and make it more difficult for the reader to follow the story? Or are you adding to the story by creating complexity, depth, and interest? There’s only so much spotlight time in the book and you can really dilute a story by having too many POV characters. I don’t think there’s any clear and solid determining criteria that says only this many points of view and no more. So much depends on the story.
Now back to the second question. How many are too many? well, that’s a matter of taste, sometimes. Some people hate to read a story in more than one head. Some people hate only one head and want a broader, more sprawling story. But it isn’t about the reader; it’s about the story. It’s about telling it in the best way possible and developing the characters in a way that makes them compelling and interesting and engaging.
The nice thing is that there’s no hard and fast rule. The bad thing is that there’s no hard and fast rule. It means you have to figure it out for yourself, and let’s face it, writers like to second guess themselves and worry about whether this is too much or too little or you name it. Which is where I’m at. How many points of view are too many for this book? Do I really need to be in these heads? Can I delay some points of view until later books in the series? I won’t really know until I write more and get to the editing stage I think. Until then, I’ve got to risk and take chances and trust the story and my instincts. It may turn out to be a lot of trial and error. Welcome to the profession of writing.
Next time, I’m hoping to talk about another point Marie brings up in her article, and that is developing a long series. Or how to plan a set of books in advance when you haven’t even started it yet.