Single Spy to a Teeming Horde:

Point of view, part two

First person or third person? Past or present tense? Just one POV character, or a teeming horde? A writer has to make all these choices for every piece of fiction they produce—but which is best?

It depends on the story you want to tell, but all these choices have benefits and drawbacks, which you need to consider before making your decisions. In part 1 we discussed whether to use first or third person, and past or present tense. Now, we need to consider how many POV character you need to tell your story.

Single POV is when you have one protagonist, and the entire story, either in first or third person, is told through his eyes, mind and heart. Most stories for middlegrade and younger are single POV. Frankly, it’s an easier format for younger kids, who tend to think more concretely—but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for an older audience. Almost all mystery series, for instance, have a single POV protagonist.

Benefits: In either first or third person, you get a huge benefit from the reader’s connection to your protagonist. So if you’re telling an intimate story that’s really one person’s adventure/emotional journey, don’t succumb to the temptation to view this story through someone else’s eyes. If there’s only one POV character, the reader will form a really close bond with him.

Drawbacks: If you’ve got only one POV character, your story will necessarily be smaller in scope. (That doesn’t mean less emotional impact, by the way.) But if you want to tell the story of…say a war, from both sides of the conflict, you either have to have two (or more) POV characters, or your protagonist has go and find out about the other side himself. And depending on your plot, that might not be possible.

Used: For any story that’s primarily the protagonist’s story; for all series with a single protagonist; for any story in which you really need the reader to care about your protagonist; and for any story with a fairly linear plot, single POV is usually the right choice.

Teeming Horde POV, also known as multiple POV, is when your POV chanters range from “quite a few” to “cast of thousands.” OK, maybe not thousands—but if you have more than half a dozen POV characters, the reader feels like it’s a cast of thousand—even if, when you count them, there might be only fourteen.

Benefits: You can tell a really big story, seeing many different events, from different points of view, in a way that a single protagonist can’t. The “different points of view” part can be particularly compelling if you want to explore different sides of a controversy, or bring out ideas that your protagonist just isn’t capable of understanding. Multiple POVs can also let you give the reader information that you don’t want the protagonist to have—but try not to create POV character for that reason alone. Giving the reader information your protagonist doesn’t have is frequently either a suspense destroyer (the reader now knows whatever, so all the suspense of figuring it out is lost) or it’s an author’s cheat to build fake suspense (little does the hapless protagonist know it, but the villain is plotting against him.) This is a devise on the author’s part to try to overcome weak plotting, and fool the reader into not noticing that the protagonist hasn’t done anything interesting for the last three chapters…and it seldom works.

Drawbacks: Every POV character you add to the story lessens your reader’s bond with the other POV characters. And that bond is what makes readers engage with your story. It’s really simple—the more pages in character A’s POV, the more the reader cares about character A. Every time you move out of A’s viewpoint, you force the reader to switch gears and start trying to care about someone else—if you do this with too many characters, the reader doesn’t get deeply invested in any of them.

Used: Teeming Hordes are the only way a big sprawling saga can be told—James Michener’s books, which cover the history of an area from the creation to modern time, come to mind. These big-canvas stories can be terrifically popular and sell millions of copies—but in the lists of “favorite characters” or “great characters” or even “the book I loved so much I’ll never forget it” you hardly ever see sprawling sagas. If you want a giant canvas, you’re going to pay a big price.

*A brief note on Omniscient POV. You seldom see true omniscient POV in novels, because it puts a lot of distance between the reader and the characters. In short stories it works better, and you see it used more often. A lot of people mistake multiple POV for omniscient, but true omniscient isn’t moving back and forth between different POV characters, it’s a story told by a narrator who dips in and out of all his characters’ heads at will. The mysterious box sat just inside the door. I wonder what’s in it, Janet thought. She wished they didn’t have to wait for their mother to open it. Bobby knew it just had to be the super-max video game he wanted for his birthday. Little Caroline was too young to speculate much, but she picked up on the others’ tension and began to bounce from one foot to the other. Inside the box, the bomb’s timer slowly ticked down. In omniscient POV, it’s the all-seeing, all-knowing narrator who tells the story—which means the narrator better have a really interesting voice, or tell a really compelling story, or both!

*Another brief note on POV drift. POV drift isn’t a choice, it’s the mistake beginning writers make when they throw thoughts and knowledge from non-POV characters into the POV character’s scene. The scene starts and runs for two pages in Bob’s POV, then the author suddenly tells you what Janice is thinking. And how Ralph burns with jealously when he sees Bob and Janice kiss. And then we hop right back into Bob’s head and stay there for the rest of the scene. The best way to avoid this kind of accidental drift is to write your scene (all your scenes) in really close third person. If you’re fully experiencing the scene through the POV character, you’re much less likely to wander into other people’s heads—and your writing will draw the reader in more deeply. The only time POV shift works to a writer’s advantage is in the intricate dance romance writers perform when they show a love scene from the POV of both lovers. That deliberate, delicate POV shift (not random drift!) is a specialty of the romance genre, and it only works because both characters are so very focused on the same set of actions and each other.

Limited POV characters, is a compromise between the teeming horde and the single viewpoint. Usually this means two or three POV characters dividing up a novel between them. (Three is a crowd, but manageable, four is nearly a horde, and five or more is a horde.) Like most compromises, this solution limits both the benefits and drawbacks of the extremes.

Benefits: You aren’t as limited in the size of the story you can tell. You can look at your story problem through two or three different perspectives, and thus illuminate aspects of the story you couldn’t examine with a single POV.

Drawbacks: Every POV character you add takes time/engagement away from the other characters. And if one of your POV characters is significantly less central and engaging than the others, then you need to either cut him or make him significant. Most of the time those “lesser POV characters” are nothing more than an easy way for the author to tell the reader something the protagonist doesn’t know—and that’s lazy writing.

Used: Having two or three POV characters can give you lots of advantages—but bear in mind that all of your POV characters need to have a nearly equal share in the story, and their own strong character arc. Limited POV isn’t a protagonist and two sidekicks—it’s two or three full-fledged, nearly equal protagonists. This multiplicity can add depth and dimension to your story…but it’s also quite a juggling act.

What’s the best number of POV characters? The right tense? Is first or third person better?

In the two sets of books I have coming out now, I’ve got one trilogy in which each book is single POV (close third person) and the protagonists from the other two books are secondary characters in the books where they’re not the protagonist.

In the other series that’s coming out currently I’ve got two POV characters (first person, both of them) who take alternating chapters throughout all three books.

And in the series I’m writing now… Well, they’re all in close third person, but in the first book Character A and Character B have three consecutive chapters in their viewpoint at the beginning, and then take alternate chapters through the rest of that book. In the second book in that series, Character C, who is a non-POV character in book one, has every chapter in his viewpoint, but there are short scenes between each of the chapters in either A or B’s POV. And in book three, A, B and C will all be POV characters with alternating chapters. And in all these books—first or third person, one, two or three viewpoint characters, in whatever arrangement of chapters—I’m convinced I made a the best choice to tell that particular story. What’s the best choice for you? It depends on what kind of story you want to tell.

Spring 2010

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