Writer Wednesday: 4 Questions to Determine How Many POVs

I know you’ve seen them. Maybe even sailed a couple across the room. Those books. The ones with so many POV characters you feel like the guy in the old TV show Quantum Leap. You’re never with one long enough to get to really know them before the author tosses you into another one.

It’s difficult to understand why the author would choose to the POV of even the shopkeeper’s wife, detailing her affair with the baker’s daughter, when none of the three have a significant role in the story, and the affair doesn’t cause or resolve conflict for the main characters.

Sure, it’s tempting to show the reader every aspect of the story, to make sure they understand all the undercurrents and motives. If you’re like me, you put  a ton of work into your characters, even the minor ones. I’m even proud of the unnamed hotel clerk Kiellen questions in BLOOD DRAGON. I think he comes across really well. But I didn’t use his POV to show the reader that the reason he’s so surly is because he doesn’t sleep well because of the nightmares replaying his brother’s death every night. The reader didn’t need to know that, even though it would have added some interest. It didn’t move the story forward, so it didn’t belong. So the surly hotel clerk didn’t have a POV.

How do you decide how many POV characters?
Recently, I noticed several people on a message board discussing how to know which POVs to keep in one of their finished drafts. To decide which POVs my book absolutely needs, I ask myself several questions:
  1.   How many POVs are absolutely necessary to tell the story?
  2.  Is one (or more) of the POVs showing events that another POV character already knows? If so, that POV probably isn’t really necessary.
  3. Is the primary reason for one or more POVs to show development of that POV character? If so, it can most likely be shown through another character’s POV. Intimate details might not be necessary, or might be shared with another character in order to show them. As a reader, I don’t want intimate details from every single character, only from the protagonist(s) and antagonist, and possibly one other pivotal character.
  4.  Is the primary reason to show a character’s ‘side of the story’? Is that side of the story necessary, or redundant? Does the reader absolutely NEED to know that side of the story in order to understand the story? If so, is it possible to show the necessary information from one of the other POVs?

Every POV character we add is another complication for the reader to understand, so the minimum POVs that are absolutely required to tell the story makes it easier for the reader to understand the entire story. At the same time, we have to trust the reader to understand, without every single dot being connected.

As a reader, I prefer 3rd person, but will sometimes read 1st person if it’s well done. In 1st person, if there are more than 2 POV’s, it’s really unlikely I will read the book. In 3rd person, that magic number is 3.Of course, there are books with sweeping, multifaceted plots that simply can NOT be shown in 3 or fewer POVs, particularly if events are taking place in two or more separate locations, with no overlap in characters. I’m okay with those, too, as long as there are no extraneous POVs. IMO, unnecessary POV characters is usually the sign of a beginner, or lazy writing – not always, but often. Writers strive for clarity in their writing, and additional POVs just muddy the waters.
What do you do to determine how many POV characters a story needs? Do you plot it out ahead, planning which character will show which parts of the story? Or do you play it by ear? Or some combination?
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