How many POV characters is too many (as a writer and as a reader)?

#1
I recently got a comment that got me thinking, how many POV characters is too many? A Song of Ice and Fire has numerous POV characters every book, with many rotating in and out of the cast. Then there are other novels that spend the entirety behind the eyes of just one character. I've read blog posts that say only two, maybe three maximum should be allowed, or else the reader will get overwhelmed.

However, I personally like the ASOIAF style as it keeps the story fresh. Each chapter feels like an episode for that character, and I feel that the format lent itself well to TV syndication. Do you know/have you read any other works with more POV characters than that? I know there must be a limit at a certain point, like you couldn't have 15 characters in a single average-length novel. That would be impossible, unless it was the gimmick of the book itself, but even then it'd be a very hard sell.

What are your thoughts? Are you unwilling to read a book with too many POV characters? At what point do you get overwhelmed?

Re: How many POV characters is too many (as a writer and as a reader)?

#2

razscrivens Wrote: I recently got a comment that got me thinking, how many POV characters is too many? A Song of Ice and Fire has numerous POV characters every book, with many rotating in and out of the cast. Then there are other novels that spend the entirety behind the eyes of just one character. I've read blog posts that say only two, maybe three maximum should be allowed, or else the reader will get overwhelmed.

However, I personally like the ASOIAF style as it keeps the story fresh. Each chapter feels like an episode for that character, and I feel that the format lent itself well to TV syndication. Do you know/have you read any other works with more POV characters than that? I know there must be a limit at a certain point, like you couldn't have 15 characters in a single average-length novel. That would be impossible, unless it was the gimmick of the book itself, but even then it'd be a very hard sell.

What are your thoughts? Are you unwilling to read a book with too many POV characters? At what point do you get overwhelmed?
If the story does not establish a single POV as leading, this can become an immediate problem. If the book contains multiple POV’s at varying points. This can be okay in itself, however, if it is shifting between five or six constantly. This can break immersion and immediately lead to a drop. I should know, I dropped a game after I got incredibly pissed off with all of the POV changes, making everyone flat as a board. Not establishing who is leading, etc.

Remember, if everyone is important, then everyone is equally unimportant. Viewers need a single POV to connect to, knowing who the story is revolving around. Then the other POV’s can further strengthen this. Though, do not have so much, that it breaks the immersion. Honestly, if I was a bit more unreasonable, I’d go into review mode and completely tear apart the story, justifying the review. Fortunately, I am not crazy.

Re: How many POV characters is too many (as a writer and as a reader)?

#5
I had this problem when I was starting because I have 5 POV. However, I took advice from early readers and am keeping up with them for a few chapters at a time, rather than alternating every chapter. I think that helps to address the issues of not seeing the story progress between chapters. Hell, I was originally going to have 6 or more, but thankfully I stopped at 5. I think as the story continues and some characters get wrapped up or whatever, I might way down the line bring in more, but I will probably wait until I've finished the first book to bring in different characters. 

I agree with the argument that they're just as unimportant as each other then, and makes it difficult when writing a blurb to know what to focus on. It's tricky, but I still believe multiple POV can be really fun and engaging. Just gotta learn to be a really effective juggler. 

Re: How many POV characters is too many (as a writer and as a reader)?

#6
I don't think it's a problem to have a lot of side characters. What it really hinges on is there being a clear MC - as long as the side characters are doing something that is relevant to the MC, and the MC has most of the 'screen time', it's fine. Ice and Fire also works despite not really having a clear main character, IMO because 1) there are 'main character candidates' so to speak, and often that candidacy lasts right up until they die and then someone else gets the temporary spotlight. And 2) because it's all clearly the same story. We don't have John Snow participating in the whole throne debacle while Daenerys is having a completely disconnected slice of life. 

It becomes a problem when it's not the same story anymore. Something that usuallt bugs me is when side-characters are introduced BEFORE encountering the MC and there's no obvious way to tell how these people are connected. Then it's like I'm reading two stories even though I just came for the first one. 

Re: How many POV characters is too many (as a writer and as a reader)?

#7
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Hello everyone. My name is EnhancedBeing and I too have multiple characters in my series. 




So I had a look through your chapters to find the comments coz I'm a nosey bugger like that and you also had someone who was just as vocal saying how much they enjoyed it and your writing of the different characters. 

And that will essentially be the point I try to make here- I do feel a waffle coming on so remember that if you get lost. Someone out there will like something that someone else wont. 

For every one person who says "do this", "do that", "don't do that", "woah, not too many plz", etc etc there will be one who enjoys it for the way you write it. 
POV characters will garner polar opposite views as will 1st person vs 3rd, fan fiction vs original, smut vs no smut and so on. If it's not something they like, and fair enough, they can walk away. It's just not the story for them. If they do like it, great, give them a seat on the front row. 
But it's your story. The one you want to tell. Those characters are yours and they drive your story forward, whether you want one, three or nine.

I've had comments in my reviews about the obvious downsides of having multiple POV characters, but will I change it? No. It wouldn't be my story other wise. I did panic at first I will admit because I thought it would put people off, but let it, if that's the case. I can't worry about that. I still get people reading it (whoever they are) but there could also be loads of other reasons why they choose if they're going to read or not... For Heroes of The Collective, it could be the superheroes, the specific take and angle of superheroes I take with my series. I mean, soz if it puts you off, but we don't have pants over our trousers in my world. It could be the gender of my characters. It could be that there's not enough ess - ee - eggs in it... who knows?

But I own my multiple characters and the series for that very reason. They're all welcome and I can kill them off, marry them off and have fun having a go at creating a rich and textured world for them to fight in.
  • I will say though, that I think a series with multiple characters, and therefore I'm lumping mine in there too, is better binged. I do understand the notion that it might look like some characters get neglected- and on a week by week release schedule if you have a particular fave and they've not featured for a while, it could be annoying. There's always a reason for it though isn't there? 
    But hell, when S11e04 of The Walking Dead came round and it was just a whole episode of Daryl with the other lot (careful not to spoil anything) I was a little annoyed too. But if I was watching them back to back, would I have been that bothered? I don't think I would. Will I keep watching? Hell yeah.
  • It was also suggested to me that it would be easier if I made a character index/bio page, which I did and I update it as regularly as I need to... so there are things you can do to make it easier.
  • Making it clear in the chapter titles will also let readers know what they're getting into. At the end of every chapter in Volume 1 I used to put a teaser for the next one to tell people what character will be coming next, but I've stopped that for Volume 2. 
  • And I think when it comes to introducing everyone, there is perhaps a good way of doing it (I'm not going to say there's a right way) but for me I introduced one first in a four chapter story, which then weaved into another and then again with another 3 (triplets though) and these 5 were all the newcomers (just like the readers were) and then in chapter 13 they met up with the rest who are already the established heroes etc etc etc. Some will say that's too slow. Some might appreciate the gradual build up and introduction of everyone. 
  • Again, you can't please everyone. 
  • And now I can't seem to stop typing in bullet points.
  • ... This is just as much as annoying for me as it might be for you, sorry. 


Ahhh! I'm free! 


Re: How many POV characters is too many (as a writer and as a reader)?

#8
It's not a matter of getting overwhelmed for me as I'm reading. It's just a matter of caring.

The only real time a reader might get overwhelmed is if the writer doesn't do a good job handling multiple POVs. Several stories I've run into on Wattpad handle multiple POV stories so badly that I will not read them online. The head hopping, cutting from one character to another that are in two different locations in the middle of a scene, is annoying. It ruins pacing and makes hard to follow. And it's the difficulty in trying to keep up with the story is why I drop them and ignore them.

As for published books. Usually I pick out novels that I'm interested in and usually it single POV novels. I want to write characters readers will get to know intimately so I stick to reading those. I've yet written a story that benefits from multiple POVs. It's been a long time, and I discovered more is not better for me. Granted, the more that is going on, the more that might warrant another POV. But in the current series, there is only going to be five, six counting the narrorator in the entire series and it depends on the book whose POV I'm going to be using.

Re: How many POV characters is too many (as a writer and as a reader)?

#9
Basically, I agree with everything EnhancedBeing said. But I will add one thing (and take it to my grave)... If you have a first-person story, it should be told in one POV. Also, mixes of first and third annoy me greatly.
But if you're writing in third person, I say feel free to have as many POV's as you like.
My general way of thinking is, if you're writing in first-person and need more than one POV for the story to make sense, the story itself is not good for that style. If you're writing in first-person and need more than one POV because the main POV character is going to die, just don't. If you're writing in first-person and want more than one POV because it sounds like a cool thing to do... ok, that one I'll accept. I'll also accept an occasional bonus chapter written from a side-character's POV. But basically if you need multiple first-person POV's, you should be writing the story in third.

Re: How many POV characters is too many (as a writer and as a reader)?

#10
A story is a chess gameboard, and characters are pieces on this gameboard. Then finally, the plot is the game unfolding.

The more viewpoints, the better.
Imagine observing the game of chess, but knowing only what a single piece is doing? Or orchestra, but you can only hear one instrument? 

That's boring and confusing. Unless you make the entire world and all the events revolve around this single chess piece, giving them abilities and importance that no chess piece should have, in which case it's no longer a beautiful game, but more akin to a child chewing a chess figure because it reminded them of their favorite snack.

A wet dream of a mary sue, which is not how reality works, but appeals to the lowest common denominator of usually teenage and younger people who self insert into fictional characters and imagine their lives as their own.

Re: How many POV characters is too many (as a writer and as a reader)?

#12

razscrivens Wrote: I recently got a comment that got me thinking, how many POV characters is too many? A Song of Ice and Fire has numerous POV characters every book, with many rotating in and out of the cast. Then there are other novels that spend the entirety behind the eyes of just one character. I've read blog posts that say only two, maybe three maximum should be allowed, or else the reader will get overwhelmed.

However, I personally like the ASOIAF style as it keeps the story fresh. Each chapter feels like an episode for that character, and I feel that the format lent itself well to TV syndication. Do you know/have you read any other works with more POV characters than that? I know there must be a limit at a certain point, like you couldn't have 15 characters in a single average-length novel. That would be impossible, unless it was the gimmick of the book itself, but even then it'd be a very hard sell.

What are your thoughts? Are you unwilling to read a book with too many POV characters? At what point do you get overwhelmed?


I think a lot of it depends on the importance of the other characters. Assuming you have a central MC, do these other characters bring anything to the story? Or have you sacrificed quantity for quality?

As someone else said, it also depends greatly on the format. I think web serials (which is what this site is all about) isn't very good for stories with very large main casts of characters. It's too easy for a character to get pushed to the side and not be seen for weeks or months on end as other characters' chapters are pushed out. Compare that to A Song of Ice and Fire, which is not an ongoing web serial published weekly, but a book [series] that you can hold in your hand. You aren't waiting weeks and weeks for the next Tyrion chapter to be released; you have the entire book.

Re: How many POV characters is too many (as a writer and as a reader)?

#13
razscrivens Wrote: I recently got a comment that got me thinking, how many POV characters is too many?

[...]

What are your thoughts? Are you unwilling to read a book with too many POV characters? At what point do you get overwhelmed?

From some perspective I'd say two different PoV are already one too many. But then I like a good PoV. So perhaps like Mother of Learning have some PoV but only in the epilogue and the two chapters before that.

There is differences in taste, though. Just as there are are people that like to read murder mysteries where the reader is told who the murderer is in the first chapter. In some sense it just totally changes some fundamental aspect of the story. The readers learns so much that it is hard to be really interesting from the story point of view. (pun not intended).

Take a look a Stroker's Dracula for example. Due to the many PoVs the danger and what the heroes should do is obvious to the reader quite early. But none of the characters knows. It can be hilarious. Or a lesson in frustration. Oh, why oh why, don't you just talk with each other???

Re: How many POV characters is too many (as a writer and as a reader)?

#14

whoever Wrote: In some sense it just totally changes some fundamental aspect of the story.
Which... is the point. Dracula could be 100% told from the pov of Mina Harker. Not much would be lost, story-wise (and we'd hear a lot more about her being annoyed that the guys don't tell her things). It would be equally as interesting as Dracula is now, and probably just as good, if you like that sort of thing.

But in a fundamental way, it wouldn't be the same book. People who like it now might not like it, and people who think the format as-is is weird might love it.
There's a TV show, Colombo, which ran for ten seasons. Every episode started with the murderer doing the murdering. If you changed it around, to start where the detective shows up, it would still be a good detective show. It would be equally as interesting, and the plots would be just as good.
But in a fundamental way, it wouldn't be the same show. I (who like it) would probably find it average, and wouldn't bother with it, while my aunt (who hates it) would probably like it much more.
And all this comes from changing one thing. The POV.
Which goes to show how important this decision is.

Re: How many POV characters is too many (as a writer and as a reader)?

#16
I'd say there is no real 'hard cap' on the number of perspectives you can write. I think it all depends on if the story is facilitated by aditional perspectives, the length of the story and the skill of the author. 

Stories that for example go heavy into politics, tend to have more perspectives, because those themes and story elements need those perspectives. Because political themes usually need to be highlighted from multiple angles to be understood properly.
Adventure stories on the other hand tend to have fewer perspectives, because those follow a specific storyline in a specific area. Having more perspectives here, tends to become repetitive -- which btw is what I see happen quite a lot on this site. So be careful with repeating the same event from a different perspective. 

Everything has an exception though. If for example you look at Xianxia stories -- which I would mostly also classify as adventure stories -- you see stories that use quite a few perspectives. Those perspectives are often times completely focused on the protagonist though, where for example random npc #5439 gets half a chapter to monologue about how amazing the protagonist is. Making the reader/protagonist feel like a badass, seems to be a story element that can easily be facilitated by alternate perspectives.

So yea. It depends on the story and what you want to achieve.

And we of course can't forget about the skill and experience of the author. Do you feel comfortable writing multiple perspectives? Do you know how to balance multiple perspectives, when what perspective is needed, when you can switch perspectives without annoying the reader, when the reader is sufficiently emotionally attached to a character/perspective, and so on and so forth. It's a whole set of skills.
Or maybe you don't know anything about all that, and just want to practice. That's fine too as far as I'm concerned. That's pretty much what this site is for. Though I do feel some research into the topic would be advised if that is the case. 


Re: How many POV characters is too many (as a writer and as a reader)?

#17
Lots of great points from various different perspectives here already.

My two cents: I think it'll depend on the story (and therefore the writer) - how well the POV switching is executed, frequency of uploading, how memorable different characters are, etc. - and it'll depend on the reader. As I've seen through this thread, different readers prefer different things. I enjoy having multiple POVs, both as a writer and as a reader. I like switching from one character to the next and getting to tag along with them on their part of the journey.

I also think I agree with the idea of having a "main" set of POVs, even if you want to include a lot of others. Having POVs for side characters can be really cool, but being able to take the reader back to those familiar few POVs will probably create a sense of stability and lessen confusion.

DrakanThinking The truth is, if the story is well-executed, there's an established cast of "main" character POVs, and the POVs don't all sound like one another/bleed into one another in the reader's mind, then I think I'll enjoy it even if it has multiple POVs.

Re: How many POV characters is too many (as a writer and as a reader)?

#19
Well I'll start off saying I'm not a big fan of 1st person writing in the first place, but I definitely prefer as few different 1st person perspectives as possible. So I think stick with one and if you go over three I will probably stop reading the story. Why not just switch to third for side characters and first with the main. 

If you are extremely talented and can give each first person perspective it's own unique voice than fine go to town. It's just really hard to make each characters perspective so distinct as to be unique and instantly identifiable. I figure 98% writers on RR utterly fail when it comes to attempting this. All the characters just end up sounding like each other and if the name of the switched perspective wasn't at the beginning of the chapter you would have no clue who it was. Characters start coming across as flat, and the more frequent you hop around the more obnoxious it gets.

It always makes me sad when I start a well written engaging first person perspective story, and then the author ruins it all by switching between a bunch of perspectives. If you can successfully pull it off you are one hell of a writer, but more than likely you won't.