Hey there Fuse fans!
Today I thought it might be useful to talk about an element of novel-writing that I get a lot of questions about. That is points of view. Not first person vs. third person, though that’s probably a worthy blog post on its own, but rather how many points of view to have.
I’m going to be addressing SciFi/Fantasy novels specifically, here, because that’s my specialty. Other genres will have different standards, but in SF/F I tend to argue that for most writers, with most books, you should try not to exceed an absolute maximum of six POV characters. This is to make sure the narrative is tight and engaging. If you absolutely must have more than six, make sure that every POV is necessary for advancing the storyline. You want as few POVs as you can manage, because every new one you add complicates the narrative and makes cohesion more difficult.
As an example, let’s break down the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin, the undisputed champion of the multi-POV structure. Even Martin feels he has too many POVs at this point, with the sixth book looming, and he’s joked he’ll probably have to kill a bunch of them off. But the first three books show a clever economy of POVs even in an enormously sprawling narrative, and I think they’re a useful example of how to choose only those POVs that are necessary.
Here there be spoilers!
The first book, A Game of Thrones, has eight POV characters (in addition to a one-off prologue): Ned, Catelyn, Sansa, Arya, Bran, Jon, Tyrion, and Daenerys.
Of these, two of the storylines (Jon and Daenerys) take place almost entirely separate from the rest of the book — Daenerys’s chapters were even successfully cordoned off into their own Hugo Award-winning novella, Blood of the Dragon. So the main storyline of the book — the intrigue at King’s Landing and beyond — has six POVs.
Each of these POVs serves a vital function:
- Ned is the primary protagonist, and his storyline in King’s Landing is the core intrigue. He dies before the book’s end, leaving five main storyline POVs.
- Catelyn is the viewpoint for much of the intrigue taking place outside of King’s Landing, and is ultimately positioned, after her husband’s death, to be the reader’s eyes on the rising rebellion led by her son.
- Tyrion is our insight into the antagonist faction, the Lannisters, and provides a counterpoint to Catelyn’s understanding of ongoing plot developments.
- Bran is left alone in Winterfell, the initial setting, and shows the reader what transpires there as the story continues.
- Arya is positioned to show the fallout of the betrayal of House Stark, and then leaves on her own journey.
- Sansa shows us life at court, and is the only heroic POV in King’s Landing after her father’s death.
The second book, A Clash of Kings, adds one entirely new POV and expands a previously minor character into a POV, for a total of nine POVs, with seven in the main storyline:
- Davos, the new character, is our window into the new faction aligned with Stannis Baratheon.
- Theon expands into a POV as he becomes a major player in the storyline. His chapters detail the Iron Islands, which no other character would be able to access, and he is the POV in Winterfell after Bran and his allies escape. Theon’s POV does not continue into the next book.
The third book, A Storm of Swords, again adds two POVs, both preexisting characters, for a total of ten POVs — but still only seven in the main storyline, becoming six (the original number) again when Catelyn is killed mid-novel:
- Jaime, now on his own without another POV character, becomes a POV himself. He arrives in King’s Landing once Sansa and Tyrion have departed, as there must be a POV in King’s Landing.
- Sam, separated from his friend Jon but still relevant to the overarching narrative, must also become a POV himself. His chapters are part of the Jon storyline rather than the main intrigue.
The fourth book, A Feast for Crows, is where things begin to spiral a bit out of control — which is why that book and the follow-up A Dance With Dragons are actually two halves of what was intended as one volume. But even in the fourth book you can see the logical progression with most of the new POVs:
- Cersei becomes the King’s Landing POV as Jaime departs.
- Brienne splits off from Jaime on her own journey, as Sam did from Jon.
- The Iron Islands storyline is split between a few minor POVs, but primarily seen through Asha.
- Similarly a few minor POVs, primarily Arianne, illustrate the new Dornish faction.
When you take all the above into consideration, it’s clear Martin adds new POVs when he needs a pair of eyes at a given location that does not have another POV present.
But which POV to choose in each location? That depends on how much you want the reader to know.
In the first book, since the primary audience identification character is Ned Stark, Martin chooses to let primary antagonist Cersei Lannister and her brother Jaime remain opaque. They aren’t POV characters until they themselves become protagonists, in later books. Leaving Cersei without her own POV in the first book makes her machinations against Ned all the more surprising. The scheming House Tyrell has no POV characters at all, over the course of the entire series thus far, because the reader gets more swept up in Sansa’s hope or Cersei’s paranoia if they too have no idea what the Tyrells are actually planning.
In another stylistic choice, none of the faction leaders in the primary intrigue (the ‘War of Five Kings’) are POV characters — Robb Stark is viewed through his mother and advisor Catelyn, Stannis Baratheon is viewed through his advisor Davos, Joffrey Baratheon is viewed through his advisor Tyrion or his hostage Sansa, Balon Greyjoy is viewed through his son Theon, and Renly Baratheon is observed (briefly) by Catelyn when she goes on a diplomatic mission.
This creates the overarching sense of the kings as more distant and symbolic figures, with the crises faced by the advisors taking up the most emotional space. It also narratively accentuates protagonist Daenerys Targaryen, the unofficial sixth ‘king’, as she alone is a faction leader with her own POV.
Generally speaking, the POV character for any major event should be the one most emotionally affected by that event.
So what’s the takeaway?
POV selection is a tricky process, but if you keep some of these factors in mind you can ensure that your narrative is as tight as possible and you aren’t left juggling ‘extra’ POVs that just pad out the novel unnecessarily.
- Be sure you have only so many POV characters as are required to fully illustrate the primary action on the page. You want as few POVs as possible.
- Try not to exceed six POV characters, at the absolute most. Yes, there are exceptions to this rule, but this is generally a good cap.
- Select POVs based on what locations you need eyes on.
- Choose who is and is not a POV based on what information you want to conceal from the reader.