How Many Points of View?

A wander from my Wandering before I even get into it.  Tomorrow evening (6:30, Thursday, June 13th), I’m doing a book signing at Alamosa Books here in Albuquerque with Darynda Jones and Shea Berkley. Although the official focus will be our various YA projects, I’m sure other works will be discussed as well.  I hope some of you will be able to drop by.

Point and Views

Point and Views

As I mentioned last week, I’ve finally found my way into the sequel to Artemis Awakening (to be released May of 2014).   First, without giving any spoilers, I can safely state that Artemis Awakening has two point of view characters.  As I worked my way into the sequel, I realized that this book demanded a third.  Why?

If I tell the honest truth and say because it “felt right,” you’d be justified in wanting to roll your eyes in frustration.  So, although that’s perfectly true – I have been writing for publication for over twenty years now, and decisions I used to work my way through have become reflex – I’m going to try to explain a little about the criteria I use to decide how many points of view a book needs.

The first element to consider is what narrative voice I’m using to write.  If it’s first person (“I”), then I usually stick with one point of view.  I have read books that work with two or more “I” narrators, but usually that’s not a choice I make.  One of the reasons I write first person is I want to be locked into one point of view.  If I feel the book needs more than one point of view, then I shift to third person.

When I was starting Through Wolf’s Eyes, I considered writing it in first person.  I stopped after a relatively short time.  Firekeeper’s way of seeing the world is so peculiar that I realized that an entire book told solely from her point of view would be maddening.  Therefore, I added Derian’s point of view.  He knew what horses and tents and stew pots and all sorts of other things were, which was very helpful.  As the book progressed and more action started taking place in the royal court – a social sphere nearly as alien to Derian as human society in general was to Firekeeper – Elise stepped in.  And so on…

I think of this as a “fan” structure, because as the plot unfolds, so does the number of point of view characters.  Too often, authors introduce all the point of view characters in the first few chapters, whether or not they’re needed.  This can keep the reader from getting involved with the story, because of all the skipping around for no apparent reason.

Q: So, how many point of view characters does a novel need?

A: As many as it needs.  Seriously…  Some stories need only one point of view character.  My novel Child of a Rainless Year does just fine with only Mira’s POV.  (Although her aunt’s journal entries could be considered another point of view, I suppose.)  So does Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls.  However, it was suggested to me that Marks of our Brothers (my second published novel) might have benefited from an additional POV, that the tension could have been heightened if the reader – although not necessarily the characters – had a better idea what the bad guys were plotting.

Maybe so…  Certainly, David Weber gets a lot of mileage out of giving the reader both sides of a conflict, so that the reader knows who is planning what and what errors each side is about to make because of ignorance regarding the complexities of the situation.  There’s definitely an advantage to this choice if building tension important to the story.

Another reason for more than one POV is to permit “showing” rather than “telling” about various events.  A good example of this is Tolkien’s novel The Two Towers, where events separated by distance are told each as their own story, rather than having one set reported upon at some later date.

However, for me, distance alone is not enough reason for adding another point of view.  What I really enjoy is becoming immersed in the different ways two people who might be within touching distance perceive the same event or other characters.

Here’s a great exercise if you want to explore the impact of point of view  on a story.  Take a section from a book you know well, then retell the action from the different points of view.

Let’s use the journey through the Mines of Moria from Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.  Tolkien tells this mostly from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, although occasionally he dips into Frodo’s POV, usually when he wants to add some emotion.  Now, sink yourself into each character and tell that section from the different point of view.

Gimli would be initially optimistic, then apprehensive, then what?  Frightened?  Vengeful?   His point of view of current events would be colored by “I remember when…”  “I had hoped…” with every step, every new piece of information.

Gandalf…  Does he sense the evil still lurking?  Does he realize that they are in a death trap – a death trap that he suggested they enter?  How does this color his reactions to the place?  Remember, he’s also the leader, so he’s going to be worried about his followers, not just himself.

Legolas?  Go beyond the cliché “elves and dwarves don’t get along.”  He’s seen the carved door with its hints of old friendship between the races.  Would he mull over how time has changed relations?  Is this, perhaps, the turning point in his own relationship with Gimli?

How about the humans?  How do they feel about these dwarven tunnels?  Cramped?  Claustrophobic?  Do they feel their relative youth as a race?  Would Boromir and Aragorn think the same way?  Why not?  How would these differences color how they see what is precisely the same place?

The Hobbits would probably be delighted to be underground, yet frightened by the death and destruction surrounding them.   Again, would Frodo, with his greater education and sense of history, see things differently from the younger hobbits?  How would Sam’s soul – so romantic, yet so practical – color his view of the place?  How about Merry and Pippin?  Does their reaction go beyond relief at being out of the snow?  Do they differ from each other in any way?

These differences are among the reasons I usually prefer writing from the point of view of one or more characters, rather than from that of an omniscient narrator.   Point of view can add richness and spice.  It can add character to events that otherwise could become nothing more than plodding plot.  Like any spice, point of view should be handled with precision and care but, without it, I find that the most exciting story can become bland.

Now… Off to find out what my newly added point of view character has to say…  He’s a bit creepy, but I think it’s going to be interesting to see what’s going on inside his head.


5 Responses to “How Many Points of View?”

  1. paulgenesse Says:

    Excellent answer on how many POV’s are needed in a book. However many it takes to tell the story well.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    I like this answer too, because it makes sense, but it’s not one that I’ve seen before. I like the balance of familiarity and unfamiliarity.

  3. janelindskold Says:

    Just to note… The point of the exercise I suggested was not to indicate that a writer needs to include every different POV, but that investigating different POVs is a good way to think which characters POV is best included.

  4. Paul Says:

    There have been some strange POV mixes in recent years. Mystery writer Robert Crais has taken to having chapters featuring one character in the first person, others in the third. Western writer Johnny Boggs had a novel about the Northfield raid wherein various characters had their own first-person chapters. Even going way back, many of Louis L’Amour’s “Sackett” books have first-person narration, but he would sometimes mix it up, too, with chapters depicting other characters in the third person.

  5. Serenity Navin Says:

    You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something that I think I would
    never understand. It seems too complex and very broad for me.
    I am looking forward for your next post, I will
    try to get the hang of it!

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