Do You Like Stories With Changing Viewpoint Characters?

Yes or no?

Me: I actually kind of hate it.

And unlike stories told in present tense, which I also don’t like but am willing to tolerate, I’ve definitely been known to pass over books written from multiple points of view, particularly those with the proverbial “cast of thousands” in which every character has their say

Case in point: everything after A Game of Thrones in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series.

(Changing viewpoint characters isn’t the only reason I bailed on the series: Martin also has the unfortunate habit of killing off main characters with homicidal regularity.  Which, it could be argued, is a further manifestation of the books’ revolving door of POVs.)

It may well be that the reason I’m not reading so many books with multiple viewpoint characters anymore is because I’ve largely given up on the genre where it’s a near-ubiquitous storytelling element: epic fantasy.

Multiple viewpoints are found in other genres as well: pretty much every genre I’ve ever read in my life (which is to say, every genre) has its contenders.  Indeed, multiple POVs is probably the more common way the tell a story as compared to a single viewpoint character.

But that single, narrating character is my preference both in reading and in writing, for two main reasons:

She loves me, she loves me not

The first reason is because I don’t like all characters equally.  Some characters I don’t really like at all, and have zero interest in spending time with them.

Not all characters are created equally.  Some are intensely interesting and compelling – the drivers of the story – who keep me hanging on to everything they say or do.  Characters I could happily read an entire book about.

And then there are other characters: the ones who – the moment the interesting characters find themselves in a pickle, dangling from the edge of a cliff – suddenly appear on the scene (a different scene, that is) and pull the story in an entirely different direction.

I hate that.

These new characters may be fairly interesting and compelling in their own right.  Or they may be spear-carriers, charged with conveying certain information that will eventually impact the original character whenever the storyline finally comes back to him/her (which may not be for many chapters).

In either case, I find it incredibly difficult to care about a new viewpoint character as much as I do the first one I’m introduced to.

Even if s/he is interesting, I’m already emotionally invested in the first character; I only have so much empathy to go around in a given story.  Meanwhile, spear-carriers aren’t meant to be invested in at all, so why am I even being shown his/her perspective as if I should?

Art not imitating life

The second thing that bothers me about multiple POVs is that, really, I consider it cheating.

In real life, we’re not privy to the perspectives of others.  We don’t know what others are doing when we’re not there to witness it.  We don’t know what others are thinking unless we ask them, and even when we ask, there’s no guarantee that the answer we’re given is the truth.

I like stories that follow a single POV all the way through because I find them easier to relate to knowing only what the viewpoint character knows, lacking the same information s/he lacks; at times, likewise not knowing what s/he will do to get out of a bad situation.

I find I just can’t insert myself as easily when reading about numerous characters who all hold various pieces to the same larger puzzle, especially when none of them is aware of what all the others know.  Stories like that feel considerably less like a piece of writing and more like a story on TV.

(Which perhaps is why I enjoy Game of Thrones much better as a TV show than book.  Due to the nature of visual storytelling, there are always other things I can focus on when the story shifts to characters I don’t like.  Plus, the story moves through each of the viewpoint characters much quicker on TV than in the book.)

Indeed, as a way of telling a story, changing viewpoint characters may well owe its origin to the era when TV viewing became a widespread phenomenon.

The power of one

I personally don’t believe that huge, sprawling stories can only be told effectively using changing viewpoint characters.

Harry Potter portrait by speedportraits

Just look at Harry Potter.

It’s amazing how many people I encounter who claim that J.K. Rowling had to “contrive” certain story features like the Invisibility Cloak and the Pensieve to counteract Harry being the only POV character yet needing to know certain information he otherwise wouldn’t be able to find out on his own.

I don’t believe she contrived anything at all.  I believe that those story features were intentional additions to the backdrop of her magical world, as was Harry’s single POV to allow the reader to watch his perspective change and mature as he did without interference from the perspectives of other characters.

I would have written it the exact same way.  But maybe that’s just me

Do you like stories with changing viewpoint characters?

(Image source #1, #2, and #3)

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5 thoughts on “Do You Like Stories With Changing Viewpoint Characters?

  1. I didn’t like it until I read Sarah Cradit’s work. I love her Crimson and Clover Series. I think there is a certain technique to it that must be accomplished or it come off as confusing and seriously disjointed. It also makes identifying with a character difficult, but it does create an ebb and flow that will deliberately slow a story down, which is a desirable effect in some work. I like your blog and love historical fiction. My only published fiction is historical, but 20 century. I am branching out into a different sort of genre writing though, crime/murder mystery novels.

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    • Hi SK, thanks for the comment. I agree, it having changing viewpoints is a way of controlling the pace of the story. I imagine that would be useful in your crime novels if you intend to write them in that way.

      I’m not familiar with Sarah Cradit, but in the few books with changing POVs I’ve enjoyed, it was because every viewpoint character was equally complex and compelling, with their respective storylines as well-developed as all the others. This instead of there being one obvious main character with all the others merely being pawns for conveying information to the reader that the main character wasn’t meant to know. I think a writer has to truly love all his/her viewpoint characters equally and have a strong sense of each of them as individuals for this style of storytelling to be truly effective.

      I’m glad you like my blog. Thank you for following. I’ll be by to check yours out as well. Happy writing. 🙂

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  2. Thanks for the f/u. Certain genre, I am learning, has specific rules, and subgenre also. I am learning, for example, that most crime fiction detective/ P.I. novels are either third person omniscient POV, or first person single POV, but never multiple, but psycho thrillers will allow for multiple POV. When I read historical fiction, I like first person, single POV. That helps me become that person and live that life. I am learning a lot that I did not know before writing my first novel.

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    • It took me a minute to realize f/u means “follow up”. For one horrifying moment, I thought I’d inadvertently insulted you (i.e. “F you!”).

      I don’t know too much about crime novels or mysteries, but genre conventions aside, I think it could be kind of interesting to use multiple POVs, especially if the investigator had a partner. It seems like it would open the door for all kinds of things to go wrong, with each investigator only knowing what they know and trying to piece it all together. If not a story where both the investigator’s and the criminal’s POV were shown (although you’d have to find some way to make both characters sympathetic).

      First-person single POV is what I’m using in my WIP. I find it also helps me become that person and live that life as a writer as well as a reader. The protag’s voice gets stuck in my head even when I’m not writing, to the point that my speaking vocabulary has absorbed a number of archaic expressions since I started this project. 🙂

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