POV Characters (or: You Are Not George R. R. Martin!)

Point of View - IMG_7561

Point of View – IMG_7561 (Photo credit: Nicola since 1972)

There are several schools of thought regarding point of view characters. However, in order to discuss them I’m first going to define what I mean when I say “point of view character” since there are many definitions floating about aimlessly.

To me a point of view character is the character that is currently center stage. They are the one driving the plot, and they are the one whose story is primarily being told. There may be more than one, but think of them as the lead character. To use a few examples – Harry Dresden from “The Dresden Files” by Jim Butcher (my current obsession),  Menolly from “DragonSong” by Anne McCaffrey, Shadow from “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman… I’m sure you’re starting to get the picture by now as well as some insight into what I read in my spare time. Your POV character does not have to be in first person, but it is from their perspective that the book is written.

With that in mind I want to stress the importance of your POV character(s). This is the lens through which you will be sharing your story. Regardless of whether it’s written in first person or third person (if it’s written in second shame on you, sir, shame) the viewpoint character is the reader’s vehicle through your story. They ride with them whether over their shoulder or directly in their head, and your world is revealed to them along with the character.

Having multiple viewpoint characters is a common literary convention; many authors employ this tactic to give the reader multiple sides to a story, allow a reader to know what’s happening in other locations (or even other times), and generally give a broader view of the world. This can be a very good thing. It can also turn bad very, very quickly if you end up with too many.

With the popularity of “Game of Thrones” as a most recent example of such a work people are starting to write books with more POV characters than Stephen King has books. Alright, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I promise it isn’t much. As a Public Service Announcement I’m here to tell you that this is a profoundly bad idea.

The hard truth of the matter is very few writers are able to pull off more than maybe three viewpoint characters in a work without running into continuity errors, flow problems, and issues with just plain having too many stories going on at once. Most writers should maximize out their POV characters at two (or three if you must). You should also make sure that you are extremely clear about which character is speaking when. You cannot change POV mid paragraph. You shouldn’t change POV mid chapter, and if you change POV between chapters make sure your audience knows it up front. Otherwise you will end up with a great deal of confusion.

When using multiple POV characters you will also need to make absolutely certain that your organization of your novel is spot on. There is no set formula for how many chapters should be written from which point of view, but however you do it make sure that it fits. You should also make sure you have test readers look at things for you. If they are confused by the switches something is wrong, and you need to adjust for that. Don’t get defensive and cranky; just do it.

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One thought on “POV Characters (or: You Are Not George R. R. Martin!)

  1. Amanda Bumgarner says:

    I agree with you on this 100%! George RR Martin has (in my opinion) successfully implemented multiple points of view, but it’s not something I would recommend to another writer. Too many times I hear new authors say, “But [insert famous author] does it.” That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea!

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