A reader asks how many different POVs are allowable in today’s fiction? While there aren’t hard and fast rules, I do have some guidelines to offer.
Writing Tip for Today: How many POVs can fiction handle before the story breaks down?
All POVs Point to Main Character
My first consideration in a multiple POV story would be that no matter how many or how few, all the different narrators must contribute in an important way, to the Main Character’s journey, obstacle or goal. Some writers attempt multi-POV stories to “make it interesting.” But most of the time, this approach just gets readers confused or dilutes their sympathies for any one character. In general, the more characters in a story, the harder for readers to keep them straight, so it’s logical to say that more POVs might equal more confusion. Confused readers are often non-readers! Ask yourself what specific role each POV plays in your story. If possible, use composites of these different POVs so there are fewer changes for the reader. Kill off any narrator whose contribution mirrors or closely resembles another narrator’s part in the story. Strive for the least possible number of characters and POVs.
Put POV into Motion
The second area to address in a multi-POV work is how each POV change pulls the story forward. You can’t just keep writing the same scene from different POVs. Make sure each time a new voice speaks that the overall story goal has some new revelation, however small. If you spend too much time marching in place with different POVs, readers will become impatient for more of the story to unfold.
Whose Story Is This? The Dilution Factor
The Dilution Factor: The more POVs readers must remember, the more diluted their sympathies become. The most important consideration in a multi-POV story is to be sure readers understand whose story is being told. Which character has the most to lose? For which character are stakes highest? Which character generates the highest level of emotional connection? If you can answer these questions, you should come out with one character who is the most important to the story and to the reader. All other POVs in the work must then be subordinate to this character’s story, contribute to this story and hinge on this story. If you are still convinced there is more than one Main Character, you may want to separate them into separate stories. That Dilution Factor is going to win out most of the time. Instead, give us a representative character who we can root for, cry and laugh with and follow to the end of the story. And as with all the writing advice I give, it either works or else it needs work.