Every piece of advice that we’re going to talk about in this series has good intentions at its origin, but has evolved into something either misused or inviolable. “Limit your POV” has become the former. To combat head-hopping, one of the first pieces of advice in creative writing—not a rule—is to limit your points-of-view. By focusing on only a couple characters, it is harder to accidentally head-hop. But is that always sound advice? Some would say this advice has gone too far, making the automatic response to the concept of multiple POVs a grievous sin.
Head-hopping is when the author jarringly moves from within one character’s head into another, confusing the reader. It mainly happens in third-person POVs, but can also happen when an author switches from third- to first-person. For a better understanding of POVs, take a look at the Points of View Series. Head-hopping should not be confused with well done omniscient POV where the narrator can see into many characters’ heads and is able to discern the switches. In visual terms, head-hopping would be like watching a movie where the camera was from someone’s perspective then shifts to another without warning or does not seamlessly transition.
How to Choose Your POVs
There are advantages and disadvantages to both limiting and expanding the number of POVs. You’ll want to ask yourself what the needs of your story are as this choice will affect your story in multiple ways at once.
You might want to limit POVs to keep close to a character. It helps readers align and sympathize with certain characters. Seeing inside the main characters’ minds can be essential to understanding their motivations or gaining sympathy, while too many characters could dilute those connections the reader makes with the characters, distancing them. One POV can be problematic as well. Only having one character option can be straightforward, but it also can make a reader put the book down; if readers do not like the character or can’t connect, they have no other option.
If the goal is for the reader to keep distant, more character POV could help. More also adds layers to the novel in conflict, characterization, tension, and/or tone.
Mystery vs Anticipatory Tension
Fewer POVs hide twists. Some genres like mysteries and thrillers are almost always single POV, even as romantic sub-genres, because more would reveal too much information to the reader.
More POVs can create dramatic irony (when the reader is privy to information from one character that the others don’t know). While the reader awaits character epiphanies, it creates page-turning tension. With only one or two POV’s, that could be lost.
There comes a time where limiting POV can completely stifle creativity and lose the richness of a narrative. The POV of characters determines the writing’s tone, and each unique voice added changes the overall feel. Having only one POV sets that tone for the entire piece. Adding more can create different feelings—pessimistic, sad, uplifting, humorous, serious, etc. It could be beneficial to change it up, like an uplifting POV to break up a perpetually sad POV.
This novel has four first-person POVs: three gods and a mortal girl. They are divided up into chapters labeled with their names. Two characters have more chapters than the others. The most important thing about this choice is they each have a purpose. Lucien knows more than everyone else; he is the readers’ informant. The info he shares with us creates anticipatory tension. Archer is an MC, so he shows us the conflict first hand, and seeing his struggles from his POV is critical. Aroha is elemental in showing the complexity of living dual lives; she is also some comedic relief when all other characters are serious. Last is Callie, the other MC, the one most teen readers will want to align with. She is a mirror of the reader, wading into a fantasy world. The reader simultaneously dreads and desires her to solve the mysteries around her.
While querying, I was asked by a few agents to revise and resubmit with only two POVs (the lovers) or one POV (mortal girl). They were abiding by this advice to limit POVs. The novel would’ve lost irony and the personal conflicts of the gods. The largest issue with limiting POVs for this novel was it would’ve caused a massive tonal shift, destroying the rich tapestry of immortal personality and backstory. The gods have a mortal front, but hidden behind is a complex being; without the character Aroha, for example, the book would’ve been darker, without those comedic uplifts she creates. It would’ve watered down a complex narrative into something unoriginal and a bit too sad. I chose not to limit my characters and waited for the right publisher to come along who shared my vision.
There are ways to write omniscient POV well or include multiple POVs. Some common organizational or formatting tricks are separating characters per chapter (probably a must with multiple first-person), using gaps in text to mark shifts, and/or (in third-person) using the character’s name in the first sentence. Another option is labeling chapters—if characters are separated—by name or theme. There are many other options, but the point is to make the transition from one mind to another clear-cut.
So How Many?
Sorry, there’s no magic number as this would be forcing advice gone astray into a rule. Better advice than automatically limiting POVs might be to examine each POV’s purpose, meaning there should be a well-thought reason for every POV. Show us the villain’s mind to humanize him/her? Solid. Give us two characters’ POVs in a romance to create a he-said/she-said narrative? Great. But if there is any other way to show a minor character’s thoughts and emotions through actions and words, you might want to examine that option first.
Have you ever heard writing advice that seemed odd? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook! Keep an eye out for next month’s Misused Writing Advice: Don’t Use Adverbs.
And join us next week for an interview with B. B. Morgan, author of Thief in the Castle, to talk about the upcoming sequel, Mage in the Undercity.
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