Questionable: Multiple POVs

K M Fawcett asked:

I’d love some insight on writing a series of books. Especially POVs in them. I’m on Book 3 now of my sci-fi/ fantasy romance and this is the 3rd couple I’m writing. However, couples from the first 2 books are intertwined in the story as some are related to each other. I want to give them some POV scenes too but not sure if that takes away from the main romance. I’m not sure how to handle writing it. Would that other couple have to be a sub plot that runs through the story? Do I only keep it in this hero/heroine’s POV? I guess the question is how best to handle multiple POVs in a series. Also perhaps how much back story is appropriate to include so that new readers can follow along and old readers don’t get bored. Thanks!

POV is like salt; it’s crucial but should be used sparingly. I did a book with seven POVs once and it’s still the coldest book I’ve ever written for one obvious reason: the more POV characters you have, the less time you spend in the protagonist’s head. The less time you spend in the protagonist’s head, the less time you have to attach to him or her, the less involved you are in his or her story, and the more distance you’ve created between the reader and him or her.

So when deciding how many POVs you want in a story, my rule of thumb is “as few as possible as needed to tell the story.” One POV is great. If you’re writing a romance, convention says you should have two, the heroine and hero (which is not always the same as protagonist and antagonist). Sometimes giving the antagonist a POV is good idea; it’s what saved The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes (Xan was added in very late rewrites) and I think Bill’s POV was crucial in Crazy for You. Other times, it’s a disaster; most mysteries would be ruined with an antagonist POV.

Once you get past main character POVs, you need to ask yourself exactly what the story is getting with extra POVs. I maintain that Rachel’s POV was important in Welcome to Temptation, but there are readers who would happily have done without her view of the story to get more Sophie and Phin. Lately, I’m happy with the just hero/heroine (not protagonist/antagonist) POVs; more than that seems to defuse the story too much even though the limited POV narrows my options for world-building. However, I’ve also got a work-around because the book I’m most interested in right now is an episodic novel, a series of short stories, each complete on its own, that combine to make a novel, and I have a dozen POVs in that collection that build that world, while each story has no more than three POVs to bring the reader closer.

So here’s my multiple POV advice:

1. Your best choice is one POV for intimacy and reader involvement.
2. If you’re writing a romance, the convention is for both heroine and hero POV (not always protagonist and antagonist), and you probably need a good reason not to use both. (I’ve done just the heroine’s POV and liked it, but it does make the romance a little lopsided.)
3. If you’re more concerned with building a world than with tight reader identification and emotional involvement in the plot, bringing in a subplot protagonist POV provides another view of the world you’re building while reinforcing the main plot. The more subplots you add with POV protagonists, the clearer the world you’re building grows, and the colder your story gets. So if you’re writing epic fantasy fiction, bring on the POVs. If you’re writing romance, not so much.
4. If you’re writing a multi-story series (short stories, novellas, novels, whatever), treat each story as its own unit of narrative, and stick to one, two, or three POVs for each story, letting the separate stories taken together do the world-building and use each individual story to create reader identification and emotional involvement.

As to how much back story you include about previous books, my advice is none. Treat each novel as a stand-alone and handle the back story the way you’d handle the back story in a stand-alone; that is, provide whatever information the reader needs to understand THIS story in the now of the story, and leave the rest out as unnecessary to the understanding of the story the reader has now. It goes back to Strunk and White’s idea that a book should have no unnecessary information in it in the same way that a machine should have no unnecessary parts or a drawing no unnecessary lines, “necessary” in this case meaning “necessary to this story alone” rather than “necessary to the series.” If your reader likes this story, she’ll go glom the rest; if she doesn’t like this story, adding in stuff that doesn’t move the narrative is not going to make her look for more stories like that. Plus you have the same real estate problem with back story that you have with extra POV: the more pages you spend explaining what happened before the story started, the fewer pages you have to tell the actual story.

Standard Disclaimer: There are many roads to Oz. While this is my opinion on this writing topic, it is by no means a rule, a requirement, or The Only Way To Do This. Your story is your story, and you can write it any way you please.

24 thoughts on “Questionable: Multiple POVs

  1. I had this problem with my romantic suspense Desert Heat series, (all stand alones that had 3 POV’s H/H and antagonist, and each successive book built upon secondary characters from prior one.) The way I figured it (and believe me I’m no expert just a novice trying to find my way) was the secondary characters in book #1 became H/H in book #2 and so on. Then in book #2 main characters from book #1 had cameos. They did not have POV’s as they were secondary characters. Their purpose was to establish setting, (same small town) friendship, continue backstory and set up the next book. The only character who had face time (but no POV) in all three books was the local cop but his story was told through the eyes of the heroine/hero. I’m not certain how well I did that, but I’m pretty sure I won’t write another series for a while. : )

    1. That’s a good way to do it because the community becomes part of the setting; the reader knows where she is when she sees those characters.

      1. But it gets boring when a 2nd character ALWAYS is your next hero or heroine. Just like sometimes it’s NOT right for them to be a couple at the end of the book. I’m thinking of a certain author and her series here. I don’t know if I’m supposed to name names and titles or not.

        Actually, I’m also thinking about how predictable a different author’s gotten, in 1 subset of her series. My sister and I were discussing it a couple of months ago. She’s gotten stale. And I think she’s lost track of all the myriad plot points running though her world because she keeps starting new trilogies but not finishing up the original.

        1. You can name names and titles, but you have to critique the work, not the author. In other words, it’s okay to say, “Maybe This Time has major plot problems,” but not to say, “Jenny Crusie sucks” or “Jenny Crusie phoned it in.”

          I don’t mind it when a secondary character gets his or her own book. I mind it when that character has no real role in the first book and is just there because the author wants a set-up for the next book. I’m always trying to figure out how that character fits in the book.

          1. Oh, neither is you. The first is Kay Hooper and her Bishop series. I’ve enjoyed most of the books but the biggest flaw in the last 6 or so, in my opinion, is that she’s coupling everyone up by the end of the book. The one time she didn’t, I cheered. And there’s going to be a character or two introduced solely to be the main character in the next book.

            The 2nd is the Harmony stuff that Jayne Castle’s writing. Aside from the fact that I hate trying to keep track of 3 names to check for new books, she’s lost track of her plot lines by expanding too much. Go back to the beginning and end the first Cabel, under the Quck name. Go to the modern era and end the next one. Stop starting new spinoffs, write 2 books and move to another spinoff. I LIKE her concept but holy hannah, her dangling plot points are WORSE than the ones in the online comic Girl Genius.

            Now that I’ve got that out, I do like both of those authors. But I’ve stopped buying their books for the most part. I’ll borrow from the library or if my sister’s bought it, read her copy. Or wait and pick up the hardcover when Barnes and Noble prices it at $5 or $5 a year or so later.

            And I’m sorry, this isn’t related at all to the topic at hand. But it was nice to get it out of my system!

  2. Very clear explanations. Fab breakdown.

    As a writer, I prefer the intimacy & connection of 1st person. Same as a reader, but am fine with two perspectives for romance and other stories that call for it. More perspectives than that and I definitely lose some connection.

    And totally with you on backstory, Jenny. Not so fussy for prologues either.

    To me, too much backstory up front doesn’t work because, aside from info dump boredom, I don’t care about the character yet. And for me caring is key for any story. Lack of connection/caring is actually the number one reason I give up on movies or books. Sometimes I’m hopeful, though, and stick with something because I think the writer may draw me in yet. Watched a movie the other day like that. Sat through the whole thing yet despite fine performances, just never felt a thing.

    Backstory when writing multiple books with the same characters involved can be especially tricky to pull off, though, and it can be challenging to get the right balance. Good luck with it KM:)

    1. That’s the biggest mistake writers make, doing all the set-up about a character readers don’t care about yet. Introduce the character in trouble and in conflict so the reader gets invested, then start salting in the back story as the reader needs it.

  3. For an example of an SF romance with multiple POVs, you might check out Lois McMaster Bujold’s “A Civil Campaign”: It’s the 13th book in a series, but I read it first and had no trouble following the story (though it does help to read the previous book, “Komarr”). There are two couples and at least four POVs that I remember. I think the viewpoints are well done, though I’m generally with Jenny in preferring as few POVs as possible.

  4. Oh, and on the issue of grading — I had a teacher in high school who asked us to give ourselves a grade and explain why we deserved it. He said he ended up raising more grades than he lowered at the end. Apparently the students were pretty hard on themselves.

  5. I tend to be a one POV per scene girl in my romances, using both the hero and heroine. totally agree with not needing to include other information and backstories that don’t relate to the plot of that actual book, even in a series. When previous series characters do pop up, i”ve seen authors do a quick one or two line summary of, perhaps the relationship, but that’s about it (or include a little touch in dialogue) but other than that they ground themselves in the current book. I always figure if readers are curious enough, they’ll go back and read the books they missed but it’s THIS story they picked the book up for. I’m a 3rd person POVer. For some reason 1st person bugs me. I have a few, rare books where it works for me but those have been mysteries, not romance.

    Interesting topic, too, because I have 2 series I’m kicking around and since I’ve never doing one before this offers up some great tips.

      1. Nope not just you. I recently read a novella, thankfully, in first person. It was a romance and there were sex scenes. I did not like it. I think it will be my first and last first person point of view romance..

      2. It can be really wonderful, but you have to be careful because of the intimacy of the POV. Ironically, a character who has a more distant personality works better for first person because otherwise it turns into that person on the bus who starts talking about her sex life as soon as you sit down. TMI.

    1. Clarification: The “one, two, or three POVs” is for the whole story. If you’re doing third person limited POV, you should only have one POV per scene. (Third omniscient is always the author’s POV and first person is always the POV of “I,” whoever that is.)

  6. Completely off topic, but hijacking the thread to tell people that Lani Diane Rich/Lucy March’s new book, That Touch of Magic, is out today!

    You may now resume your originally scheduled programming.

  7. I have tended to be a one-POV person in my writing, either first-person or a very tight third-person. I’m trying to open that up to more POVs: my current WIP calls for POVs from the MC and her two best friends, possibly from the antagonist too. I had originally considered adding in one or both of the possible love interests, but that just seems too messy. Because all of my writing prior to this novel (other than a single attempt at a romance novel that I finally had to trash) has been very short stuff, I’ve always had only one POV and no sub-plots. I think that writing multiple POVs might help me create sub-plots, or vice versa, but this is all uncharted territory for me. So this is great info for me too. Thanks!

  8. As a reader, I find that multiple POVs work best for me if they’re all introduced to me early in the book. I’ve read a couple of books recently where the POV switched about 2/3 of the way in, and I found it quite disruptive to my involvement in the story.

    1. I agree. I think you need to set up everything that’s going to be in your story in the first act, even better if it’s the first 10% of the story. That way you’ve given your reader all the playing pieces, the information she needs to set up her expectations. Introduce something new after that, and she has to recalculate everything which is just annoying. That doesn’t mean there can’t be surprises, but you can’t suddenly introduce a new character late in the game without damaging the world you’ve built. Davy Dempsey didn’t show up until about halfway through WTT, but I foreshadowed the hell out of him by having Sophie and Amy and Clea talk about him a lot. I loved Anne Rice’s The Mummy until halfway through the book she killed her antagonist and introduced a new character to take his place. It killed the tension and the expectation and I never got it back.

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