How many points of view?

A hot topic at today’s pub writing session (in the gaps between writing) was point of view (POV) — specifically, how many points of view are optimum in a novel?

This is actually rather pertinent when it comes to ‘epic’ fantasy, in which genre it has become quite common to write from several character POVs, often up to eight or ten, in order to tell a story large in scope and complexity. The point was made, however, that in some cases such a large number of POV characters could be deemed to represent ‘laziness’ on the part of the author, who might be taking the simple option to convey information or character.

This proved to be a highly controversial statement (probably because it was made without all the qualifiers I’ve included above…) A lively discussion ensued!

My take on this is that generally fewer POV characters are preferable, primarily because as a reader I want to engage on a deep level with characters, which doesn’t tend to happen to the same extent when the POV is constantly changing. I want to go on a journey with the characters, discover things as they do. I think it’s fine for events to be happening off stage, events that we only hear about when the POV character does. In epic fantasy, where there could be wars or quests or other big stuff happening elsewhere, there’s a definite temptation to throw to a different POV character who can be the reader’s eyes and ears in that space. Ultimately it’s a matter of what is best for the story. Sometimes multiple narratives are part of the author’s grand vision.

The best example for multiple POVs I’ve come across is Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy. In this series she writes from about six POVs and every single one is brilliantly rendered with depth and texture. Each POV character undergoes massive transformation and there’s a reason their individual stories are told. They’re not there merely to serve as narrative devices (which criticism of other nameless novels was at the heart of the earlier ‘laziness’ comment, I believe).

When I set out to write my current novel(s) I made the conscious decision to limit my POVs to two, mainly because I wanted to keep the story intimate. However, I’ve been contemplating adding a couple of POV characters to the second novel, which I’m about to commence. My reason is primarily to convey events that are geographically distant from my original two POV characters, but I also thought it would be interesting to tell the stories of an additional two or three characters. After today’s discussion I’m remembering my initial ambition and I guess I’m going to have to consider what will be best for the story!

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