Fat Fantasy plans


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.




16 comments to Fat Fantasy plans

  • […] on Magical Words, Diana Pharaoh Francis talked about Fat Fantasy Plans, based on another post from writer, Marie Brennan, and discusses the pitfalls of POV switches and […]

  • This got weighty, and still is here (sorry), so if anyone wants to bother reading the rest, head to my blog for it.

    I do actually have a bit of an opinion on this because much of the fantasy I’ve read in the past, and sometimes write, is epic fantasy with multiple POV. I didn’t mind Robert Jordan’s POV shifts. I felt they were well done. And I didn’t have a problem with all the minor shifts. Terry Brooks had problems with his POV shifts in The Sword of Shannara, but learned from the experience and got better and better in each subsequent book. I haven’t read GRRM, but we started listening to the first on audio a while back and I think I’m much better at reading off the page because the audio was difficult to follow for me. Of course, it could be that I just have to invest my full attention to an epic fantasy. And David B. Coe’s Winds of the Forelands were good on the POV shifts, though there was a time or two I ground my teeth, wanting to get back to one of the other characters. 😉

    When I’m writing epic fantasy, it almost feels instinctual to me when I switch to another POV, though I know it’s really not, in the end. It usually involves four main criteria that I subconsciously think about, which some are the normal criteria for writing scenes in general and you’ve already hit ‘em, but here they are anyway.

    1. Does the switch to another character advance the plot?
    2. Does it give the reader crucial information they would not get from another character?
    3. Does it give insight into the POV character that they would not get from another character?
    4. Does the switch make sense in that particular place in the story or are there better ways to get the information to the reader?

    There’s technically a fifth, which is more along the lines of making the reader feel for that character as much as another POV character does. Emotional impact. Like finding out that the character is in the middle of a tense battle and wounded while the main POV character is worrying about them. Usually number five in and of itself isn’t quite enough on its own, so I like to make sure one of the other previous apply somehow.

    As to the question of how many POVs is too many? No answer for ya. I think it depends on how well it’s treated and how well the reader is able to keep track of it all. Some readers just aren’t good with having to keep track of more than a few POVs while others can keep the whole roster of GRRMs Ice and Fire books straight in their heads. On the flipside, I don’t feel an epic fantasy really needs mass amounts of minor POVs for one or two scenes each. It’s just not necessary to tell a sweeping scope story, regardless of whether it’s world encompassing. There should be better ways to receive the information. My personal preference when writing them is to keep to around 10-15 max, depending on whether they fit my criteria above.

  • I’ve used very limited POVs in my writing — no more than three, in any one volume of the Glasswrights Series (although probably a half dozen across the whole series), only two in my category romances (per the demands of the genre), and only one in most of my other writing (which is almost all in the first person.) As a reader, I get *really* grumpy when narration from a new POV character continues for a long time without my having any idea who s/he is. Otherwise, I’m pretty content to be slammed from one POV to another… (For one of the most brilliant treatments of multiple POV that I’ve ever read, see the non-genre book POISONWOOD BIBLE, by Barbara Kingsolver. She uses a handful of POVs, each of which is so clear that you know within one sentence who is speaking. Sigh…)

  • sagablessed

    My current WIP has 5 POV’s. I think it depends on how you use them. I will not go beyond this, as I am not GRRM ot RJ. I would get confused, nevermind the reader.
    But each charater adds to plot and story line, from a different angle. \
    Will it jive with readers or an agent? I cannot say.

  • Ken

    Nice Post Diana. Thanks, additionally, for the link to Marie’s post. Its been a long time since I dove into a WoT book and I’m getting the itch again, now that the thing is finally done. The only problem I remember having with Jordan’s massive POV list is that he’d give characters similar names (Elayne and Egwene were the ones that leap to mind) and then seperate their appearances by tens of thousands of words. I started mixing them up.

    As someone that has yet to try his hand at a multiple POV work (First and close third for me so far) I think that the answer to “How many POV characters is too many?” is as many as you, the Author, can handle well. I think that the answer comes at the editing stage and it’s something that only the Author can answer. The trick, I think, is in answering it honestly, which can be difficult.

    Turning to whether or not a POV change is “Needful”…I think that the story answers that for itself and the trick is in keeping the Author from showing up and exerting influence. We all want (and for good reason) to show off our characters, but there’s a difference between a want and a need.

    I’m probably going to steal Dan’s list above when I dip my toes into the multiple POV waters.

  • I agree with others here who’ve said “how many is too many” depends on the needs of the story and the author’s skill at juggling the POVs. As a reader, I’m pretty willing to go along with as many as the author can throw at me as long as they seem necessary to the story.

    As a writer, however, I’ve mainly stuck with either 1st person or close 3rd. In fact, for my WIP I’m currently struggling with whether or not to add a second POV. I’m going to use all the advice here and in Marie’s blog to help make my decision, so I appreciate everyone’s thoughts!

  • When I wrote the Winds of the Forelands and Blood of the Southlands books I used a lot of POV characters and felt strongly that each POV change was vital because specific characters could tell my readers things that others couldn’t, and I still believe that to be the case to some degree. But I’ve now written several books (the Thieftaker books as well as a couple of contemporary UFs that I’m trying to sell) that have only one POV character, and I’ve learned that conveying information might be more difficult with limited numbers of POV characters, but it’s never impossible. If and when I go back to epic fantasy, I will probably far more choosy with my POV characters and will limit the number to one or maybe two for any given story venue. Very interesting post and topic, Di. Thanks.

  • Di, I’ve never written in multiple POVs, so I can’t speak as a writer. However, as a reader, I weigh in on the *no more than 5* side, simply because I get tired of keeping track of names. I find it so difficult to follow that I’ll often stop reading because I get frustrated. Also, as Mindy said, a unique voice is needed by each character and a lot of writers don’t do that well. All the characters often sound alike, and that adds to my confusion and frustration. Just my 2 cents worth, and it’s worth just that. 🙂

  • In my MS I tried for NaNo, I was working my way through six POV’s. All necessary for the story but for some reason, the more I found out I knew my other characters, who started out as background noise on my very first draft, better than I knew my MC. I liked going into all of their heads but there were so many people inside the story, who, just didn’t know whether or not they kept their feet on the good side or the bad side.
    What i’m trying to say is, the intrigue makes it better to have multiple POV’s. GRRM’s series is wonderful at it, to me. I cared about every character, some more than others, whose head I was allowed a peak into. It kept me wondering what would happen next, who would die, will they escape. I think that does take some genius and a pinch of subtlety to pull off. I recently read a James P book, where he tried it with two POV’s and was terribly disappointing in it. It wasn’t a bad book; I read it from beginning to end wanting to see the finale. It was just predictable because of the POV’s, who said everything about everything, in every chapter you took. Like you said Diana, he “gave away the mystery”. And I think I did the same thing with my old MS, so I need to go back and see who can I cut.

  • Razziecat

    I have five main POV characters in my WIP, and two other characters that could be considered very important, if not exactly major, whose POV occurs from time to time. The two main characters get most of the “action”, but there are scenes in other characters’ POV; these various switches from one POV to another are necessary to the advancement of the plot, as well as development of the characters, but there’s no question it’s tricky to do. I may rethink this in revisions.

  • I wrote Mad Kestrel from one POV, and it was much harder than I expected it to be. I couldn’t tell anything that Kestrel didn’t see, hear or know about, and it forced me to find more creative ways to share all the information I needed to. And since the first book was a singular POV, I feel the rest need to be, as well. I don’t know if my editor would hold me to it. Those of you who have done this more than I have, any thoughts?

  • ARGH! I totally wrote replies to all of you and my dog decided he was done waiting for dinner and flopped across the keyboard and everything vanished. This is corgi war. I will attempt to reconstruct shortly.

  • Vyton

    Diana, this is an interesting post. My WIP has three POV characters pursuing different paths parallel in time. In Act 3, the three characters are rejoined and it shifts back to one POV character. My beta readers have not had a problem with keeping them straight, so maybe I have it nearly right. I like Daniel’s contributions to the discussion. I agree with Ken regarding RJ’s POV characters with the qualifier that in some of the later books what some of those POV characters seem to be accomplishing is no more than cutting do-nuts in the snow. Thank you.

  • Nathan Elberg

    I gave up on Wheel of Time at the penultimate volume. I simply got fed up because it was too complex. I also prefer the Game of Thrones TV series to the books, because it’s easier to follow.
    I truly admire authors such as Jacqueline Carey who can write first person POV and yet portray such rich and detailed worlds.

  • ajp88

    I find ASOIAF to have a perfectly acceptable number of POV characters. With a story as sprawling and detailed as his, it’s almost a requirement. Things vary quite well, themes are explored through more than one person’s moral compass or side of the story. I truly love it.

    @David. A bit off topic, but I’m eagerly anticipating your return to epic fantasy whenever it comes. I really enjoyed Thieftaker and I’ll be reading the rest certainly, but the spines of Winds of the Forelands are second in wear and tear only to Martin’s epic.

  • TwilightHero

    ‘Fat fantasy?’ 😀 I like that.

    Count me as one of those who find single-POV stories too narrow in scope. I liked the varied perspectives of the Wheel of Time and ASOIAF because of the diversity of the characters and their backgrounds, their desires and motivations; it felt natural, given the scale of these series. I never had any trouble telling characters apart. But as others have noted, this does depend on how well the author can pull off differing voices. And though I am a huge WoT fan, it did annoy me how much time was spent with other people and not the main characters. Multiple POVs are good, but not too many. I definitely believe in keeping the main characters front and center.

    Also, what Daniel said. Though when writing, I think five to ten POVs would be enough for me. My first WIP, finished at last – I hope – has seven POVs (five main, two with one scene each). The second in the series, what I’m working on now, removes four and adds three, so six overall, and I think the third will remove two of those, bring back two from the first book and add one more, so that’s seven… Excellent post. Looking forward to your next one, about planning a long series, since I’m doing exactly that 🙂