Thursday, September 29, 2016

Editor's Notes #25: Points of View Part 3—How Many Are Too Many?

My previous two posts discussed first-person POV and third-person POV with guidelines as to the logic behind each choice, based on four roles: author, narrator, viewpoint person, and protagonist. I showed how these roles sifted out or interacted, depending on the POV chosen.

Since POV deals with . . . uh . . . viewpoint, the role of the viewpoint person seemed to warrant its own blog post. And I can't talk about viewpoint without talking about a "workable" number, how many is too many, and why so many inexperienced authors have their characters head-hopping without even realizing it.

If you're writing in the first-person POV, the viewpoint person is almost a no-brainer. It's you. You may or may not be the protagonist, but you're telling the story, so we see and hear it because you've seen it. Whether your thoughts are neutral or not is neither here nor there; this is your story, dang it, and you'll tell it the way you want to.

This can be a powerful way to introduce an element of surprise during a climax in the plot because there may be a turn of events you never saw coming. What? The murderer is WHO? How did I not notice? It can also be a limiting factor when knowledge is needed and you're the only source of it with your eyes and ears—and biased interpretation of events.

Third-person POV can give a little more lenience with the information that's doled out, because the narrator can fill in bits of information the viewpoint person may or may not see. We hear the viewpoint character's voice through dialogue and thoughts, and see the other characters through their reactions. If we want to know the thoughts of the other characters, they either have to say them aloud or the author needs to change the viewpoint character temporarily.

Writing in the third person can be done with an omniscient narrator who seems to touch upon each character's thoughts from time to time as needed; however, skill is needed or everything will become a big, jumbled mess. It's not technically head-hopping if you choose this route, but it's also not likely to allow the reader to connect with a particular character, either, and may cause a complete disconnect with the reader and book.

The "limited third-person POV" is a more common one in use today. You either have one viewpoint person, or you change views at logical, designated, easy-to-follow places.

And there lies the hard part. How often is too often? How many viewpoints are too many? I'm a firm believer in the "less is more" adage when it comes to viewpoints. There can be exceptions, of course, because there always are: the juvenile fiction book, The Westing Game, has about a dozen viewpoints, each one with its own chapter, and it's done so skillfully that the book became a favorite of everyone in my family after we discovered it.

On the other hand, if you ever want to see multiple viewpoints done badly, go to the Kindle freebies and take your pick of sample chapters. For every author who takes his work seriously, writing and rewriting, getting betas and edits, there are at least ten others who think they'll make an easy fortune by writing a book and getting it out there in all its first-draft glory. I've read books that have had viewpoint people change every paragraph or so, and without a distinct "voice" to the character, I couldn't guess which character was speaking. Those are, not surprisingly, the books I don't bother to continue reading past the first chapter or so.

It's too frustrating to hop around that many heads, and you don't want a frustrated reader on your hands, because a frustrated reader is one who will put your book down and never look back.

One of the best examples of a changing POV that works extremely well is in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. (No, I did not jump on the bandwagon because there's now an Outlander TV series with a hot Scot.) I started reading Gabaldon's books about 11 years ago and was hooked on her superb storytelling skills. She has a way of making the reader feel immersed in not only the sights, but the sounds and smells and texture of the time period. And her historical research is top-notch.

Gabaldon's first book in the series was written from the first-person point of view. She's since said that was simply the way it came out when she started writing, so that's how she kept it. However, when she began to write the second book, she realized the first-person POV would be too limiting, so she did something unique: the chapters/sections where we see things from the viewpoint of the main character (Claire) are all first-person POV. The remaining portions of the book may be from the viewpoint of a select few of the other main characters, but they are all written in third person. I love this because it's such an original way of changing things up. When I see "I" in the narrative, my brain immediately shifts to the way Claire thinks and acts, and I'm right there with her. When I see "he" or "she," on the other hand, I know we'll be seeing events from the perspective of her husband, daughter, son-in-law, or other primary character. We're not hopping around like crazy people, mind you, but each person has such a unique voice that I can tell whose eyes I'm seeing through, even if it's just a simple narrative of the character making his way through the woods.

So tell me: can you spot a head-hop a mile away, or are you unaware until someone points it out to you?


  1. I just read something that head-hopped and I definitely noticed.
    I make sure there is a break in the scene when I change viewpoints. Only once have I done it within a scene. (There was just no way around it, but I made it obvious when it shifted.) I've used as many as three and that's probably the most I would ever use.

    1. Three seems like a decent number. That's kind of the unofficial number I always think of when I think of multiple POV but not too many. If there's a scene break (or if it's clear, like your example), it can work to great effect.

  2. I think I usually probably kinda notice a head-hop when it hops my way. If I miss it, then I find myself pretty confused and I have to go back to re-read.


    1. I've read some books where I'm sure I've missed something, because suddenly I have no idea what's going on . . . the character is not acting/talking like himself. And then I realize, it's not me, it's the author. A head-hop has occurred and nobody told any of us. How dare they?

  3. I don't know anything about this Scot or why he's hot but I keep hearing good things about the Outlander series. It's making me kind of feel bad for not having checked it out yet.

    I hate head-hopping, especially when it's a group of men, and you keep seeing 'he' this and 'him' that and how am I supposed to keep track of who's who? Unless those three dudes just became one big amorphous blob and I somehow missed that part of the story.

  4. Well . . . kilts. Duh. But there's actually a great story to go along with them. My husband picked up the first one a few years ago because I told him there's just enough romantic stuff in there to keep women happy, but there's a lot of great story to keep guys happy too (much like how Legends of the Fall is part epic drama and part chick flick), and he enjoyed the series enough that he's read through it twice. And his reading taste is more along the lines of Tolkien, Martin, etc. so I guess there was enough blood and guts and rich writing to keep his interest.

    As far as head-hopping goes, I'm right with you on hating it more when everyone who's speaking is the same sex. And I would love to see you guys write a story where people become a blob with head-hopping within a single head. Now that's a tale worth the tellin'.


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