The opportunities and pitfalls offered by multiple POVs are both the joy and the bane of the writer’s life. On the one hand, using multiple points of view to tell a story seems like it makes the job so much easier. No limits—woohoo! But on the other hand, once you start trying to juggle multiple POVs, it can seem like all these moving pieces only make things that much more difficult.
One of the most common questions I receive on the subject is simply: “How many POVs should a story have?”
To which the answer is that there really aren’t any rules. The truth falls somewhere in between the honest but abstract answers of “whatever is best for your story” and “whatever you can pull off.”
However, there are also some more specific, and therefore much more helpful, answers. In a comment on an old post, AZ Ali asked me:
I would really like to know how to balance multiple POVs. I understand that there should be one main character, but how do you balance character arcs? And in the Climax, who should perform the essential act to resolve the conflict? The main character even if it’s not in his POV? All of them together? Hope these questions aren’t too confusing, because I tried asking other people and they said it is completely specific story-based.
Since I know these questions are pondered by many a writer, let’s look at some answers, including one all-important principle that should guide every POV decision.
The Secret “Cheat” Answer That Helps You Decide All POV Questions
AZ asked a lot of good questions in that comment, but buried in the middle is the right question: “In the Climax, who should perform the essential act to resolve the conflict?”
Ding, ding. Da winnah.
Answer this question and you will gain 90% of the information you need to correctly decide all your POV questions for any given book.
The answer to AZ’s question is that the protagonist must perform the essential act to resolve the conflict. Or put even more straightforwardly: the character who resolves the conflict in the Climax must be the protagonist. Structurally, that character is the protagonist. If the rest of the story’s structure, up to that point, does not bear that out, then the story will not work. At best, it will feel disjointed and anticlimactic.
You can use this guideline in two ways:
1. If you know which character you want to be your protagonist, you can double-check the solidity of your story structure by ensuring this character is the one whose actions are central to the Climax.
2. If you aren’t sure which of your many characters is the protagonist, look to the Climax. Whoever decides the conflict is the protagonist.
Once you know for sure who your protagonist is and how this person will play the deciding role in the Climax, you can build on this info to strengthen your entire story’s structural integrity—by making certain the protagonist is also the character whose presence and actions are central to each of the major plot points (Inciting Event, First Plot Point, First Pinch Point, Midpoint or Second Plot Point, Second Pinch Point, Third Plot Point, Climax). This is what will give shape and order to even sprawling stories with dozens of POVs.
Knowing the other characters’ roles in the Climax will also help you determine how their POVs should be structured—or if they should be given a POV at all. The Climax is where every piece in your story will prove itself either part of a cohesive whole or a random, ill-conceived loose end. This is never more true than of something as influential to your narrative’s shape and tone as POV.
5 Answers to Your Questions About Multiple POVs
Knowing how your story’s conflict ends will give you a huge clue into the right choice for just about any POV question you can conceive. But while we’re at it, let’s take a look at the rest of AZ’s questions about choosing and balancing multiple POVs within a story.
1. How Many POVs Should Your Story Have?
As already noted, a common notion among writers is “the more POVs, the better.” But this is not a given. Not only can this approach quickly spiral out of control and end up being way more stress than fun, it can also mess with the story’s structural integrity if not handled consciously and skillfully. In fact, my rule of thumb is always “the fewer POVs, the better.” I’ve talked before (in this post: 10 Advantages of Writing a Single-POV Story) about how focusing your story down to the bare minimum of POVs can offer readers a story experience with much more cohesion and resonance.
In short, my first bit of advice is to staunchly resist all those tempting urges to throw in exciting new POVs just because. This is especially true for most one-off POVs, which only appear once or twice and/or randomly throughout the narrative. POVs will shape your narrative, whether you intend them to or not. They should be chosen and distributed throughout the story with care.
Because there is no “right” number of POVs for any story, the decision largely comes down to your own desires for how you want to shape the narrative. Ask yourself:
- What will additional POVs bring to the story?
- Will the added POVs be just as entertaining as the protagonist’s?
- Will the added POVs strengthen the story’s structural integrity (i.e., will they play an important role throughout the story)?
- And (our money question) will the added POV characters contribute in a vital way to the Climax?
If you’re pretty sure you want to write a multiple-POV story, another helpful tool for determining which POVs to include is to consider which archetypal roles are integral to the storyform. Traditionally, the most “important” characters in a story can be ranked like this:
2. Main Character (if different from the protagonist)
4. Relationship Character (Love Interest/Impact Character/Sidekick)
If you’re passing out extra POVs, consider the above characters first.
You may also be dealing with a story that is, in fact, two (or more) stories running separately from each other for most of the story until (you guessed it) the Climax. This format may involve two or more characters who are on separate quests, a minor character who represents an important subplot, or dual timelines that feature either separate characters or the same character at different ages.
Once again, the deciding factor in which of these extra POVs/plotlines should be included is how they impact the Climax. If they tie in appropriately at the end, you’re golden. If not, you may want to rethink the unnecessary complications they create.
2. How Do You Decide Which POV Character Is the Protagonist?
We’ve already talked about the deciding factor in which character will be your story’s protagonist (i.e., the character who plays the deciding role in the Climax). But there are a few other considerations for your protagonist’s POV throughout the story.
For starters, you’ll want to make sure you’re choosing a protagonist whose POV will be interesting to readers throughout the story. This is the character with whom you’re asking them to spend the most time, which means it needs to be a character whose POV is worth their time.
Not only should the protagonist’s voice as a narrator be the most engaging, but the protagonist’s action in the events should also be the most interesting. A young princess locked away in a tower while the war takes place somewhere else is unlikely to be the most engaging character to follow. In some measure, this once again comes down to your story’s structural integrity: the protagonist should be the primary actor in all the major plot points, culminating with the Climactic Moment.
One of the main reasons writers decide to add extra POVs is because they feel readers need to be able to partake in events at which the protagonist is not present—and therefore cannot narrate. Sometimes this is a legit reason. But if the new POVs don’t add to the entire story—not just on a plot level but also on a character level—then their inclusion is likely just lazy storytelling. There are many creative ways to write around scenes in which the primary POV character is not present.
3. How Do You Balance Dual-Protagonist POVs?
So what happens when you’re writing a story that features two protagonists? Is that even possible?
Most stories will eventually come down to just one protagonist—as proven by which single character ends the conflict. There are exceptions, such as romances in which two protagonists share the story (acting as one another’s antagonist within the story’s overall relational conflict) and mutually end the conflict.
However, even in stories in which a single protagonist ends the conflict, the story may require the presence of an equally important character whose POV is featured just as prominently as the protagonist’s throughout the story. These types of stories may include:
Whatever the case, “dual protagonists” are defined by the fact that both POVs are given equal precedence throughout the story, usually alternating one to the other. Structurally, you can approach this in two ways.
1. Use the same plot points to drive the plot in both POVs.
2. Choreograph scenes so each POV gets its own structure-advancing plot point at the proper time.
In the vast majority of cases, the first is preferable, since it contributes to a tighter story.
4. How Do You Balance Your Minor Characters’ POVs With Your Protagonist’s POV?
In some stories, the protagonist is clearly distinct at the primary narrator and is given the bulk of the story’s scenes—but the story also includes one or more minor character POVs. How do you balance these supporting POVs?
By now, you should know my answer is not to just stick ’em in wherever the fancy strikes you. It’s true you can do this (and heaven knows many authors do), but doing so weakens the overall shape of your narrative.
Ideally, you should include your minor POVs according to some sort of rhythm or pattern. They should appear as regularly as possible within the story. By this, I don’t necessarily mean as often as possible, but rather that they should appear at regular intervals. This allows readers to lean into the story’s pacing and should prevent them from being caught off guard when a minor character’s POV crops up again.
5. How Do You Structure Multiple POVs?
At this point, we know the Climax determines which POVs are the most important, and we know the protagonist’s POV should figure prominently at all major structural moments within the story. We also know it’s best if the supporting POVs feature at regular intervals throughout the story and that it’s preferable if the protagonist’s structural beats affect the other POV characters or, at the least, that the other POV characters are given corresponding beats of their own.
More than that, it can be helpful in choosing and regulating the balance and flow of all your POVs if you look at their placement in your story’s structural spine. List your existing scenes and examine how the POVs are distributed. Ideally, they should be uniformly represented within each structural section (i.e., comprising about an eighth of the story—or the space between each of the major structural beats). This may mean each POV shows up once per eighth (or at least once per quarter), but whatever the case, the distribution should be as even as possible. You’re rarely (if ever) going to want the bulk of a character’s POV scenes showing up in the First Act and then disappearing until the Third Act.
Once again, what is most important is that each POV either impacts or is impacted by the story’s major structural moments. If that is not true of any POV, then that POV can probably be removed without affecting the story.
If you think of multiple POVs as strands in your story’s overall tapestry, you can sense both how much complexity they can add to your story and also how many complications they can create for you as a writer. When deciding whether or not to include multiple POVs, remember your story’s structural integrity should always be the bottom line in determining what to include and how to include it.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you written stories with multiple POVs? How do you determine which POVs deserve to be included in your story? Tell me in the comments!
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