Single POV vs multiple POV's

by Fredrik
(Oslo, Norway)

I've been thinking a lot about how to angle this question. This will be long. Keep in mind that this is just my opinion.


It seems like every time someone comes to you with a question and mentions that their story includes multiple POV characters, you never fail to add in your reply that having multiple POV characters comes with a trade-off. Something along the lines of books contain a finite number of pages and the more POV characters you have the less time the reader gets to spend with the main character and connect with them and watch them develop.

This is all very sensible. A balanced position. But I get the impression that you prefer a single POV, at least in principle. I was wondering if you could give some examples where one would work better than the other and vice versa. Both in theory and actual examples. I have some examples of my own.

In general I think a single POV is best for short stories and stand alone novels. For longer novels (400+ pages) and book series I think multiple POV's work better. I find that single narrators tend to overstay their welcome if I spend too much time with them. For several reasons. I won't bother listing them all, but the main ones are that I grow tired of their voice, and having one narrator restricts where the story might go and ultimately makes the story a bit too predictable, especially in a book series.

There are many examples of great stand alone novels with a single narrator. But I think most people would grow sick of these voices if stuck with them for too long. I think listening to Holden Caulfield nagging about phonies for another 200+ pages would quickly grow tiresome.

I think that's part of the reason why book series with a single narrator tend to have really bland, Mary Sue-like main characters. Characters need flaws to be interesting, but if we don't get breaks from those flaws then they become annoying. I have never read a book series with a single narrator that I would describe as "great". I dare say the highest one might come is "really good", as is the case with the Harry Potter books. But Harry as a character is really bland. It's everything else that makes it a good series, though the world building could have been better, and would have been better if we could have seen it from other points of view. Seeing the same things from different perspectives is what makes characters, objects and worlds really come to life.

I think getting a break from characters in longer works is really important. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, familiarity breeds contempt, that sort of thing. Having multiple narrators carrying the story gives them room to be more human without the reader getting tired of their personalities.

Response Thank you for putting so much thought into this question. (Unfortunately, I had to edit part of your question because 10,000 words is the limit for a page.)

I wouldn't even try to give a definitive answer, because I don't think one is possible on this issue. But here are a few thoughts...

First, it is true that creating a character who the reader will want to stay with for a long time is challenging. Writers can also get tired of their characters, which is often why they create new characters. Agatha Christie, for example, grew to hate Hercule Poirot and preferred to write Miss Marple stories. But Poirot certainly paid a lot of bills.

It's also harder to create a character that a wide readership can relate to without making them a little bland or generic. Distinct characters often appeal to fewer readers.

I think you also have a point about "Mary-Sue" characters. But let's remember that the term, Mary-Sue, doesn't necessarily mean a bland character. The term originated in fan fiction, where a Mary-Sue is form of writer's wish-fulfillment. The phenomenon occurs when a writer puts a version of herself into a fictional world. Usually, the Mary-Sue is an ideal version of the writer, or a version that lets her fulfill her personal fantasies about being in that world. Hence, a Mary-Sue in fan fiction is almost always the smartest character in the room.

I think some of the more popular characters in genre fiction have a touch of Mary-Sue about them, simply because there's a level on which every character represents a facet
of the writer's personality, simply because it's the writer's mind that creates them. If you are writing a long series, it's easier to write about a character whose personality is close to your own and who evolves as you do.

Of course, you can make a mistake and write a series about a character that is so one-dimensional that you grow less interested in him/her. In that case, the readers might get less interested as well. Changing POV characters may be as much about the writer getting bored with a character and sensing the reader might a break too.

However, I don't think it's necessarily true that readers grow tired of a long-running main character. Some will and they are the ones who stop buying the sequels. However, in a genre like Mystery, readers often keep reading a lengthy series because they like following the life of the main character through various adventures and stages of his/her life. Often, the more time a reader invests in a character, the more they want to keep reading stories about that character. (This is what makes a long-running series successful.) The character becomes an old friend to the reader.

But, to the point of your question...

I have said a few times that you don't need more than one main character, which is true and a part of Dramatica theory. However, there are times when you might want multiple POV characters. For example...

1. In Romance, it is very common to tell the story from the perspective of both romantic leads, because the reader wants to know what the male lead is thinking to know he is the right mate for the female lead.

2. To create dramatic irony, in which the reader knows something the main character does not. For instance, in Suspense it is common to provide a little of the villain's point of view so that the reader sees the trap that is being set for the main character, even though the main character remains oblivious for most of the book.

3. To provide a more objective look at the story problem. For instance, in Literary Fiction, you don't necessarily want the reader to identify strongly with a character but to look critically at the characters and the world they live in. Multiple POV characters give the reader a broader, more comprehensive, and more detached perspective on the story world.

4. If you are writing a multi-generational epic, you probably need to change POV characters as people die. Note that these kinds of epics are like Literary Fiction in that they offer the reader an objective view of a family or culture over a span of generations. The reader can then consider issues or patterns that can only be seen over a long time frame.

5. A similar case can be made in historical fiction, where you are educating the reader on history as well as entertaining. For instance, if you are describing a political struggle, you might have a different POV character from each faction so the reader gets an intimate look at the motivations of all parties and see that they all have valid perspectives. Thus, the reader is challenged to say who is right. You can do the same in fantasy stories that also feature political struggles.

6. Sometimes multiple POV characters are a way to draw in different types of readers. For instance, if you think you have several different archetypal readers you want to appeal to, you may create a character each of them can identify with. (You see this more in children's or YA fiction.)

I don't prefer single over multiple POV characters. But I will say it is simpler to plot a single POV, so I think beginning writers should consider why they want to use multiple POVs before they make that choice.

I think the key point is that you have to know what readership you are writing for. Different choices create different kinds of emotional or intellectual experiences for the reader.

Some readers prefer a strong emotional connection with one character and would be bored by a more objective perspective. They may also prefer a story that creates an emotional response, such as fear, adrenaline, or love. They may prefer page turners to thought-provokers.

Other readers enjoy an objective perspective that makes them think about themes, issues, and ideas. These readers may reject a purely emotional adventure for its lack of intellectual stimulation.

And there are plenty of combinations and grey areas.

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