Too Many POVs?

I’m currently reading Elizabeth Bear’s excellent Range of Ghosts, the first volume of a new fantasy trilogy, and enjoying it very much. It’s beautifully written, is set in a compelling, original world, and has some really cool set pieces (the first ghost attack, the discovery of the ghost-devoured city). But I still found it really hard to get into. Why? Because the first three chapters introduce four different POVs, and, though one of them is obviously the main narrator (at least so far), I still found that many POVs to be distracting.

I know, I know, I’m being incredibly old-fashioned. But I can’t be the only reader who finds cramming a lot of POVs into the start of a book distracting. Who am I supposed to root for? Ah, the modern reader will answer, you’re not really supposed to root for any of them. You’re supposed to see and understand that there are many realities and motivations in the world, to understand that one character’s evil nemesis is actually a distinct character herself, with specific needs and purposes that make her act the way she does.

Except that I’m not sure that’s where Bear is going in this book (I haven’t finished it yet). The evil here seems pretty evil, which is something that I, the old-fashioned reader, really like. I may like my heroes to have flaws, but I want my villains to be irredeemably villainous.

What’s really bothering me, I think, is that I want a story to start with a single group of characters, and stay there for a few chapters so I can get to know them before they move on. After that, the story can break into as many separate threads as it wants. As long as I get that initial grounding, I’m satisfied.

Unfortunately, none of the cool books start that way these days, at least not in fantasy. GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels are probably the best example.

Am I just out of touch? Do books have to throw everything into the mix from the start because readers are less patient than they used to be? Have gaming and role-playing become so dominant that readers, who are also gameplayers, now want to see all the characters in a book get equal time from the author?

Have I just gotten so old that I shouldn’t be permitted to have opinions any more?

What do you think?

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  1. 1. carmen webster buxton

    Are you being old-fashioned or in fact new fashioned? It seems to me the desire for a very limited set of third person POV characters is actually a modern concept. Look at a Dickens novel or War and Peace. The current fashion is for a 3rd person so close it might as well be first person, but only 1-3 POV characters. I was re-reading Captains Courageous the other day, and 3/4 of the way through, we cut to the father’s POV on the west coast, after never having seen him before except by secondhand mention.

  2. 2. Heidi A.C.

    Though I’m not all that old (early 30s), I too am a fan of setting a solid foundation before scattering to the four winds. I rarely write things that have more than one point of view. Perhaps I’m just out of touch as well. But I will say that I’m an avid gamer and RPer in World of Warcraft. And while I love reading about different characters, I like to get to know each one before I move on to the next. To each their own I suppose. My interest is piqued by your description of this book, however. I shall have to check it out. Thanks for sharing!

  3. 3. Richard Finn

    It’s old fashioned for fantasy, I think. For instance, LOTR had multiple POV’s, but they were restricted to the Hobbits – only diverging when the fellowship split up.

    It’s been awhile, but I don’t think GRRM switches POV mid-chapter. I mean, each chapter heading tells the reader which POV we’ll see. I also don’t recall Dickens very clearly but I don’t think it switched POV that quickly and included more than 3 POVs or so.

    Still, it’s part of the zeitgeist in fantasy. It’s part of the suspense that keeps you reading. It does irk me a bit sometimes – I would skip back and forth while reading Game of Thrones, for instance. It’s a lot more like watching a show like Lost, which followed many many different POVs and subplots. People liked Lost and a lot of people like the same kind of thing in their reading.

    Another approach, which I think really works, is the main POV with occasional offshoots. I recently read Retribution Falls, which does this very well I think. Most of the narration centers on the captain, Darian Frey, while other POVs are explored as they become important. In effect, Frey is the only character for whom the setup is given in the traditional place for it (the 1st quarter) while the others have their back stories meted out throughout in their own POV (only the “good guys”, though – never the villains).

  4. 4. Elias McClellan

    I admire those that can seamlessly write/maintain all those POVs. It’s seldom done seamlessly and often the threads diverge too far a-field or knot up the plot ~cough~ KS Robinson ~cough~. Personally, reading and writing, I like third-person-as-limited-as possible. First person often reads arrogant or worse, Debbie Downer, (Walter Mosley is the rare exception). Second person makes my eyes bleed and gives me nose hemorrhoids.

    Good topic Mr. Butler.

  5. 5. Jessica Meats

    I don’t mind multiple point of views. In fact, I have six point of view characters in Child of the Hive, so I’d be hypocritical to complain. What I can’t stand is when the point of view jumps mid-scene. If I’m inside the head of one character and then suddenly inside the head of another with no warning, it throws me and disrupts the flow of the story.

  6. 6. Paul (@princejvstin)

    For me it depends on the subgenre.

    Big broad epic fantasy? (e.g. Steven Erikson). I definitely want multiple POVs, lots of entry points into what is going on.

    For a tighter, maybe an Urban Fantasy or a sword and sorcery, a tighter point of view works better for me.

  7. 7. Patricia Bray

    I’ve tossed aside books that introduced too many POV characters in the early chapters. Once I lose track of who is who, or why we care, I’m ready to read something else.

    In fact, with Daniel Abraham’s THE DRAGON PATH, there was a spot towards the beginning where I said “If one more POV character is introduced in this next chapter, I’m done.” But luckily the rapid introduction of new POV characters slowed down, and I enjoyed the novel.

    What bugs me is that (in my opinion) many of these additional POV characters don’t add to the development of the story or the narrative tension. Instead they are distractions as subplots multiply, and the author tries to tell too many stories within the space of a single novel.

  8. 8. S.C Butler

    Carmen – It’s not the number of POV characters that bothers me – it’s how quickly they’re introduced. I read a lot of Victorian fiction, and what a lot of Victorians will do is introduce subsequent POV characters through the eyes of the first POV character before you get to their POVs, which means you don’t get introduced to their POV cold. A much more effective way of doing that, imo. And you’re right about that Captain’s Courageous switch – I remember it being jarring, too. As you point out, it’s possible to introduce POVs too late.

    Elias – I admire writers who can juggle many POVs too. As long as, as you say, it’s done seamlessly and not digressively.

    Nose hemorrhoid? (Lovely image.)

  9. 9. S.C Butler

    Jessica – Head hopping is also a terrible problem, and much more a begginning writer’s problem than too many POVs, for exactly the reason you raise.

    Patricia – Exactly. My rule for POV characters is that they have to be drawn from a story’s central protagonists, unless I absolutely need them for a scene that’s crucial to the central story but can’t be told by a primary character, in which case I think you can use another character.

  10. 10. Clothdragon

    I’ve tossed a few books recently because of this. And just barely made it through Carrie Vaughn’s Discord’s Apples — and that mostly because I really like her other series. It wasn’t a bad book, but I never got as invested in it as I have other books told entirely from a single point of view. I like to settle in and get carried along rather than reorient myself every chapter.

  11. 11. Mary

    My big problem is not so much the POV characters as when they have a complete lack of focus. If all the characters have some connection, it works much better.

  12. 12. Kathryn Scannell

    This comment: “Have gaming and role-playing become so dominant that readers, who are also gameplayers, now want to see all the characters in a book get equal time from the author?” really struck a chord for me because I’m in the process of putting together a little talk on the pitfalls of trying to turn your RPG into a novel, and this is exactly one of the things I’d planned to point at as a major difference between a good RPG story line and a good novel story line. I think you do need that focus on a main character or three to make a novel work.

    I find myself wondering if some of these stories with a dozen or so viewpoint characters are a sign of people who really want to write omniscient, but are afraid to do it because a lot of people these days have trouble telling the difference between omniscient POV and head-hopping (including some editors).

  13. 13. S.C Butler

    Clothdragon – I like Carrie’s books as well, but haven’t looked at Discord’s Apples. I’m surprised that she would get carried away by POVs. And the idea of having to reorient yourself every chapter is precisely what I was trying to say, only you said it better.

    Mary – Elias and Patricia said much the same thing. Your point that it works better when characters have a connection is very apt. Then the reader has to do less of the reorienting that Clothdragon talks about.

  14. 14. S.C Butler

    Kathryn – Glad you picked up on that throwaway line at the end. It’s something I’ve felt strongly about for some time. A satisfying gaming experience is very different from a satisfying book. Gaming has to be inclusive – everyone at the table must enjoy the part they play. If even one person isn’t having fun, everyone’s enjoyment is lessened. But a book is much more autocratic. What often separates good writing from bad is the ruthlessness with which the author pares away everything unnecessary to the essential story.

  15. 15. S.C Butler

    Heidi – I don’t mind multiple POV’s, I just have a problem if I find them dumped in my lap too early in the book. Let me find my footing, please, before you move me on to something else!

    Hope you like Bear’s book.

    Richard – There’s actually one exception to all the POVs being from the hobbits in LOTR, and that’s when Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are chasing Merry and Pippen. Tolkien drops back into old-fashioned 3PO POV there – which you’d never get away with today.

    GRRM certainly doesn’t switch in mid-chapter. He’s too good a writer for that. As you point out, he warns you with his chapter headings. For my taste, however, it’s still too many, too soon. And I do believe it’s purely a matter of taste.

    I don’t mind multiple POVs per se. I just don’t want to be drowned by them at the start of a book. Epic fantasy has to have multiple POVs, almost by definition.

    Paul – Like I told Richard, it’s not the multiple POVs that bother me, it’s when they pour over me like a horde of orcs.

  16. 16. Marie Brennan

    I’m with you on this matter. I like having multiple points of view (and think it may well be necessary for epic fantasy; you can’t really show the scope of the story otherwise), but I really prefer for the story to start out with one character and get me settled before I’m hauled off to deal with others.

    Martin worked for me because his pov characters are almost all together at first, but when there’s more than two and they don’t interact right away, it’s an obstacle for me getting into the book. Not an insurmountable one, but it’s there.

  17. 17. Linda Adams

    I’m not sure if POVs is the problem. It might be more the number of characters. I like omniscient viewpoint, which is one POV. But I just read a book done in it, and it had so many characters that the book was just plain confusing. I should note that that, IMO, this particular book didn’t have a protagonist that I could find, which added to the confusion.

    I can’t speak for the Bear’s specific book, but he has done past books in omni.

  18. 18. S.C Butler

    Marie – Ack! If I’d known you’d already written about this, I might have refrained. Or not. Your point about LOTR is exactly what I would have said had I gone into specifics. And you’re right about Martin doing it the way it should be done. Still, there were so many of them, it did start to get to me after a while.

    Linda – Omniscient is no problem for me – I grew up on the Victorians. Which means I don’t mind a hundred thousand characters. It’s really just the agglomeration of differing POVs at the start of a book that I find hard to get through.

  19. 19. Marie Brennan

    Hey, there’s no reason we can’t both rant about things. :-)

  20. 20. Joe Iriarte

    I’ve heard a lot of rules, as an aspiring writer, that seem to say the opposite: ditch the multiple POVs, don’t mix first person with third, keep it as simple and straightforward as possible. And I get that inexperienced writers are more likely to mess up when they’re overly ambitious, but it almost seems that the rules become entrenched for their own sake, without regard for whether the author is actually pulling off whatever she or he is going for.

    As a reader, multiple POVs have never bothered me, even when they’re all thrown in early. Neither does first person, or even multiple first person POVs. I don’t think it’s a function of short attention span or of gaming, since I don’t have a particularly short attention span, and I identify as a reader much more strongly than I do as a gamer. (And I’m not a video game player at all.)

  21. 21. S.C Butler

    Joe – I’m not proposing any rules. There are no rules to writing. Different styles and aspects of the craft work or don’t work in different at different times. The only rule, as you say, is what works. And I don’t think many authors can pull off multiple POVs at the start of a book.

  22. 22. Jack

    Mutliple POV’s can be interesting but they do take some getting used to. I’ve always been impressed with the authors who attempt though because basically they’re writing 3 or 4 different novellas at the least and in the case of Martin I’d think it would be more like full length novels. It’s gotta take some time to sit down and pound out that many story lines.
    Anytime an author decides to use a less than traditional form of POV’S it’s going to take the reader a few chapters to get used to it.

  23. 23. S.C Butler

    Jack – If the different POV threads don’t interconnect and reinforce each other, then they probably should be separate novellas.

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S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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