Feb 13 2012 9:45am

He Said, She Said, They Said: Too Many Points of View

The Perfect Death by James AndrusFor those fans of romance, we know that most romance novels jump between the hero and the heroine’s point of view (POV) throughout each story.  There are many very popular series, including Harry Potter, the Twilight novels and The Hunger Games, which give us the limited first-person POV, and yet still manages to successfully tell the story. But are more character POVs better or worse for good storytelling? 

In the crime drama The Perfect Death by James Andrus, we follow the police investigation of a missing teenager which crosses with the investigation of a woman found murdered. The course of the investigation is shown not only through the thoughts of the lead missing person’s Det. John Stallings and his partner, Patty Levine, but also the lead homicide Det. Tony Mazzettia; the squad Sergeant; the killer; and even occasionally the soon-to-be victims. Although the storyline itself was interesting, the constantly changing POV was dizzying, with many scenes only lasting a page and half. At times, it added to the drama, building small cliffhangers, but for the majority of the book, these mini acts worked more like speed bumps on a highway.

Dearly, Departed by Lia HabelDearly, Departed by Lia Habel, is a zombie story which occurs in the future where society has reinvented itself followed the fashions of the old Victorian society after devastating global changes and the introduction to the Lazarus virus caused the dead to rise.  This is also a love story which follows the life of Nora Dearly and her zombie-soldier love interest, Bram Griswold. Although the premise of the zombie love interest and the new old Victoria Society is very clever twist to an old story line, Author Habel also adds the additional POVs from Nora’s friend Pamela, an army officer, and Nora’s father.  These additional POVs come just in time to slow down the action, and the information presented to the audience through these additional characters, especially from Wolf and Victor, were not essential to moving the story along and drew us away from the building storyline.

The Stand by Stephen KingCan multiple POV’s work?  I am going drag one of my favorite books off the shelf to give you an example. Stephen King’s The Stand is a prime example of where multiple POVs not only work, but actually make the story as wonderful as it is. The Stand follows seven major characters of the story, on the side of both good and evil, and there are any number of other minor characters that also get a chapter or two. Here, each POV takes up the entire chapter which keeps the action flowing and building for that character. Not only is each POV important to their respective story, but every POV is important to the overall building of the entire story, and the bringing of all the characters together for the final showdown between good and evil. 

A presentation of a wonderful story can undermined by the simple fact of who the author chooses to tell that story to the audience. Would Harry Potter be the same if you knew what Lord Voldermort was planning, or whether you knew if Snape was good or bad the entire series?  Would Twilight be improved if we also saw world through the eyes of Edward, Jacob, Chief Swan, the wolf pack, and the Cullens?  Too many POVs can detract from the telling of the overall story if stopping to change characters ruins the momentum of the plot.  Unless a character’s particular POV is pivotal to the presentation of the overall story, it is better to have them step back and let the main characters present the whole story to keep the action flowing.   

What do you think? What books with multiple POVs do you think work—or don’t?


Lucy Dosch writes book reviews for her blog Her e-reader has turned her love of reading into an obsession. When she is not reading, she likes to spend time with her husband and two daughters.

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Kinsey Holley
1. KinseyHolley
Lucy: I agree with just about everything you said here. I'm trying to figure out why multiple POV's worked so well in The Stand, but are more often (IMO) a drag on the story, or just confusing to the reader.

Is it because in The Stand, each chapter is in the POV of just one character? It's been so long since I read it, I can't remember. I don't think multiple POVs necessarily results in "head hopping" -- a phrase I never knew till I became an author -- but it makes head hopping more likely, and head hopping, at least to me, is a great way to pull the reader right out of the story.
Jennifer R
2. Jennifer R
I think it depends on if you're interested in every head-hopped character or not. I just finished reading The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, and of the 3 narrative characters, one of them could have been dropped entirely and I pretty much didn't care about his story--especially since he was obviously a butt monkey. I preferred the second section written in first person to anything else.
Marian DeVol
3. ladyengineer
Lucy, thank you for the article. For the most part, I agree with you that too many POVs spoil the tale - too much "head hopping" is a distraction, especially in a romance. It becomes hard to maintain an emotional connection with the h/h.

However Tom Clancy, for one, does multiple POVs well. In fact, like S. King's The Stand, the POVs are essential for moving his stories forward. They all take place in widely divergent venues all around the world. One example is his Jack Ryan series - The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, The Cardinal of the Kremlin, Clear and Present Danger, The Sum of All Fears, etc.

@JenniferR - I also read The Magicians and Mrs. Quent and started its sequel, The House on Durrow Street, getting about half way through. I think you will find that the "butt monkey" character is pivotal in the second book. The first person POV section reminded me a good bit of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. Like you, I enjoyed this section quite a bit.

My problem with the second book had less to do with the multiple POVs and more with the human cruelty, political intrigue, and whether Mrs. Quent can trust her beloved husband and trust him to keep her safe. I found it disturbing and have stopped reading it, at least for the moment. Don't know if it will become a DNF yet or not, although I will probably go back and finish it eventually.
Lucy Dosch
4. LucyD
Sorry. Responded on Monday but it didn't stick. :( Multiple POV worked for The Stand since it was an ensemble cast. Each character was important and their individual experiences made up the entire story. Plus each POV also lasted a whole chapter and had a complete arch to that section of the story so you didn't feel jerked away from that character. I don't think "head-hopping" is automatically bad, I just think an author needs to keep in mind that if a character can be removed (like we sometimes see in screenplay adaptations), or if switching characters interfers with the forward momentum of the story, maybe there is a better way to share with the audience what they need to know without being distracting. @Jennifer R. -- "butt monkey" (*he, he*) Can I quote you for reviews?
Jennifer R
5. Jennifer R
Hm, I don't know if I'll read book 2 in the series or not. I liked this one well enough (slow start and butt monkey plot aside), but it sounds like it has issues. I just couldn't help but think, why is this guy important? He's so tangential that he really isn't important in book 1, and the author needed to give him more reasons to be there.

Feel free to quote. I just hate it when nothing good happens to a character for ages and ages and ages, a la The Pursuit of Happyness or Bates on Downton Abbey. Except Bates isn't quite that bad yet. But close.
Marian DeVol
6. ladyengineer
@JenniferR et al - My other objections aside, both The Magicians and Mrs. Quent and The House on Durrow Street are extremely well written.

They read as a cross between a Regency historical romance and a science fiction/fantasy tale with elements of magick (magicians, witches, illusionists), a planet with a wildly divergent orbit (appearing in the sky for the first time in human recorded history or at least what is remembered), and a possible invasion by a hostile alien force. Couple all of that with internal turmoil, rebellion, and political and religious intrigue, it is an impressive saga.

It is probably BECAUSE they are so well crafted that they have had such an emotional impact. If I could count on a HEA ending eventually, I could probably finish them, but I know there is already a third book in the series, The Master of Heathcrest Hall (due out in March). So the HEA is at least a book and a half away for me. And they are not short books! ;->
Jennifer R
7. Robin Red
Multiple POVs work only when the change in perspective moves the plot or reveals character. That's the niche.
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