Having Multiple POVs

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I was informed recently by someone who is hooked into the writing world that publishers favour novels with a single point of view (POV). Since the novel that I am currently revising includes four POVs, down from six, this was not necessarily good news. I had to make the decision whether to keep the four POVs or cut two. Even though I have already made my decision (to keep the four), I thought I would see if I could find any evidence of a preference for single POVs and review the pros and cons of multiple vs. single POVs.

I could find no clear sign that publishers are favouring single POV novels. However it was interesting to note that third-person romance novels (which I am not writing) are generally required to contain more than one POV and novels for children should preferably only include one POV. There were however many suggestions that beginner writers should stay away from multiple POVs as they have not yet sufficiently honed their skills to manage them effectively. Nevertheless, most people writing about multiple POVs simply stressed that if you are going to have multiple POVs, you must do it right i.e. do not switch POVs within a paragraph, scene or even chapter (although I am not so sure about chapter). These are standard rules, albeit ones that are broken effectively by accomplished writers all the time.

The pros of multiple POVs are that you can tell the story from more than one perspective and explore the motives of several characters. It also allows you to reveal facts that could not be known by a single POV character. In a multiple POV story, a single character does not have to be placed in every scene allowing for more flexibility in story-telling. Handled well, multiple POVs can allow for a greater variety of interesting characters.

Nevertheless, there are cons to multiple POVs. Some would argue that readers emotionally invest more in single POV novels. One issue I had not considered associated with multiple POVs is ensuring that all of your characters are equally likable and entertaining. If they are not, readers can come to favour one voice and resent the others. Multiple POVs can create greater narrative distance as it is unlikely that readers will identify with all the characters equally. This rang true for me, and I realized that I sometimes do skim or get irritated with one or more of the characters in multiple POV novels. A corollary to this is not trying to tell too many stories with the multiple POVs as it is distracting and weakens the main story.

So what are other writers doing? A quick skim of the books on my bedside table provided the following results (and reminded me that I need a new bookshelf):

Single POV (10 books): - Loving Frank – Nancy Horan; Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie – Alan Bradley; Mao’s Last Dancer – Li Cunxin; Far from Botany Bay – Rosa Jordan; The Magicians – Lev Grossman; The Book of Negros – Lawrence Hill; Still Alice – Lisa Genova (with one chapter from main character’s husband’s POV); The Bishop’s Man – Linden Macintyre; Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen; The Heart Specialist – Claire Holden Rothman.

Two POVs (4 books): A Reliable Wife – Robert Goolrick; The Best Laid Plans – Terry Fallis; The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffennegger; An Inconvenient Wife – Megan Chance (note that the second POVs in Fallis and Chance’s books are very minor and brought in through letters or personal notes).

Three POVs (2 books): The Hours – Michael Cunningham; The Outlander – Gil Adamson (although one is considerably more dominant than the others).

Four POVs (2 books): Every Lost Country – Steven Heighton; Freedom – Jonathan Franzen.

Five or more POVs (2 books): The Canterbury Trail – Angie Abdou; The Witch of Hebron – James Howard Kunstler.

This was interesting to me as single POV books are more common than I thought at least in my unscientific survey of books I own. I suppose if you combine the multiple POV category, there were an equal number of books with more than one POV. Nevertheless I was surprised how few books have four or more POVs. I am not going to change my current novel, as I am committed to my POV characters and like them equally. However it is something to consider in a future novel.

Photo Credit: Charmaine Sylvia Photography via Compfight http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/