How many points of view do you need in a story? And how many are too many?
Those are very subjective questions, but let’s give them a shot anyway with writing rule #21:
It’s difficult to make a story look professional with more than three points of view.
That’s not to say you can’t tell a story from four POVs. It doesn’t even mean a story’s going to be an automatic mess if it has a handful of narrators/protagonists.
But you do have to work harder to look smart when you choose to go this route.
What this basically means is that if Ann, Tommy, Lantana, Bill, James and Jen walk into a bar, and if readers are going to get inside each and every one of their heads while they do, their author is going to have a tougher time making that story engaging.
To a large degree, this is because it’s confusing to keep all the main characters straight.
Admittedly, Writing Rule #21 most often applies to fantasy and sci-fi pieces, where the writers have a bad habit of getting creative and the names they choose are foreign to begin with. Aaalg and Grecinto and Tavalk and all that good stuff.
I’m not making fun of fantasy or sci-fi in pointing this out. I love both genres, am writing in one and plan on writing in the other next year. But it still can get really confusing having to remember so many names, especially when they’re all protagonists in their own right.
Besides, I’m not letting “regular” genres off the hook here. All that perspective-switching can be just as convoluted in chick-lit or historical fiction or any other literary category.
I’m the first person to preach that, in real life, you usually need multiple perspectives to best see the truth. However, in fiction, for whatever reason, it needs to be more orderly.
Otherwise, readers are left struggling to remember if Ann is the one who’s really petite and smart with dark hair and some serious unresolved issues; if Tommy’s the guy who constantly wears a thick gold chain around his neck and acts like a stereotype; if Lantana is the lawyer with a super-hot boyfriend and a secret past; if Bill is the professor who can’t stop thinking about his redheaded teacher’s aide; if James is the single dad who thinks he might need counseling; and if Jen is the one who…
Wait. Which one is Jen again?
In other words, it’s exhausting. And it becomes more complicated and exhausting for every new perspective you add. When readers read a story, they want to be flipping pages forward, not turning them back to remember details the author didn’t solidify well enough already.
Also, let’s face it: It’s annoying to be left at a cliffhanger at the end of one chapter or section, only to have to wait three or more chapters or sections to see that conflict addressed again.
I remember reading one series that bounced back and forth between two or three characters. The first book was really engaging, and I really liked the third book too. But that second book, which bounced back and forth between three different points of view, had a story line in it that was really rather boring.
That meant that, as a reader, I wasn’t just left on obnoxious cliffhangers every 30 pages or so whenever the point of view switched; I was left on obnoxious cliffhangers with no worthwhile distractions to tide me over.
It was less than a fully thrilling read, to say the least. And again, that was with just three protagonist perspectives.
Then there’s one more reason why I writers need to be cautious about adding extra points of view into their stories. It’s because it takes away from every other already established story line you have running.
Unless you’re self-publishing and don’t care that your book is going to be 500 pages long, every single section you devote to one point of view takes space away from another. As a result:
Your characters might not be as developed as they could and should be.
Your storylines might not be as well-established as they could and should be.
Your larger story could leave readers feeling a little (or a lot) lost, wondering why their burning questions weren’t answered along the way.
I’ll repeat my disclaimer again for anyone who I’ve sent into an absolute panic by this point: This in no way means you absolutely can’t or shouldn’t employ multiple points of view. Some authors make a ton of money doing it. More than that, some tales are best told that way.
Just be really careful when you’re deciding on whether to add more perspectives or not. It’s for the simple reason that you might not be doing yourself or your readers any favors if you do.
And both of you deserve the best.