Whose story is this anyway?

I think I put so many POV character in my first novel because I didn't know it was a bad idea.

I think I put so many POV character in my first novel because I didn’t know it was a bad idea.

The people in my books are pretty pushy. Each one likes to make sure they get their story told the way they want it. That’s why I write books with multiple points of view.

If you’re not familiar with the term, point of view (POV) refers to the person through whose eyes the reader is looking into the story. The reader is in that person’s head, seeing what they see; feeling what they feel; and doing what they do.

One review of my first novel, The Farmer Needs A Wife said something like.. “there are about 6 POV characters, but it’s well handled and I didn’t find it confusing”. That was nice to know – but there were actually eight POV characters in that book.

Umm –no. There were nine. I forgot about the opening scene.

Nine POV characters! In my first book. What was I thinking?

A few fellow writers have asked how I managed them all. The answer is via a brilliant little graph. Please note – I take no credit at all for this method. It was passed on to me by the fabulous Annie Burgh – who writes complex, fascinating novels with lots of characters and plots and sub-plots. She is also a fabulous teacher. This is what she taught me to do…

Coloured pencils are vital!

Coloured pencils are vital!

When I start a new book, I take a page of graph paper and coloured pencils. The pencils are very important. I need a different colour for each character, whether they have a POV or not. I will sometimes put the colours in groups – for example a husband and wife might be dark and light green. Each has their own colour, but they are both green because they are connected.

As I finish each chapter, I draw a bar on the graph, just like back at school. The colour/s of the bar represent the POV character or characters and the height of the bar represents the number of words in each POV and each chapter… because sometimes there will be more than one POV per chapter.

The secondary characters (those who don’t get a POV) are little bits of colour above each chapter they appear in.

Thus I can make sure each of my main characters gets enough room in the book to tell their story well. I can also keep track of the secondary characters, so I don’t lose them.

If I suddenly realise that there has been too much of one colour, or not enough of another, I know I am letting one character get far too pushy – and I can slap them down a bit and put them back in their place.

If the colour representing my heroine (in the drawing below it is pink for Linda) is the most common colour, that’s a good sign.

If one of the chapters shows three or four changes of POV – that’s not so good. I do like to keep each POV section to somewhere around 1,000 words. I certainly would worry if I had a POV section less that 500 words. But that doesn’t happen often. As I said my characters are very pushy.

Here's the opening few chapters of a new Coorah Creek novel - characters old and new.

Here’s the opening few chapters of a new Coorah Creek novel – characters old and new.

I know I could do this more efficiently in a spreadsheet on my computer, but I think it’s important to reward yourself as you write. Those few minutes playing with coloured pencils are my reward for finishing a chapter.

I write the chapter number under the bar every 5 chapters , so when I am editing and referring back to something I’ve written, I know where to go. I will also sometimes write a word or two to remind myself what is in the chapter, but just for the key turning points in the novel.

Since that first novel, I have tried to get the number of POV characters down. My second book only had five. My third only three. But as two of them had two POV sections – one as a teenager and one as an adult – that sort of puts it back to five.

I really wasn’t terribly successful at cutting back the POV characters. I am currently working on a book that has… let me count them… 10? Maybe 11 by the time I have finished.

But this is a complex story! Honestly.

The important thing about handling multiple POVs in a book is that the reader must always know whose eyes they are looking through and whose thoughts they are hearing. There must be very clear handovers between POV characters. And of course, a character cannot know anything about something that happened when they were not present (unless you have someone like Trish Warren in your book – she is my Coorah creek gossip and makes sure all my characters know what they need to know.)

I truly admire writers who have only one POV character. Even more do I admire writers who first from the first person POV – that is to say, they write as ‘I’ … ‘Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again’.

I can’t do it, but perhaps that’s because for me, it’s the complexity of human nature, and the diversity of the people I meet that makes me want to write.

But I promise I won’t put more than 10 POV characters in a book. Ever…. Well, at least not until next time.

13 thoughts on “Whose story is this anyway?

  1. Fabulous post, Janet. Will sharpen some pencils for our next one. We have written from four, then three, then two POV and first person for our Crouch End Confidential series. You’re right Jenny, it helps to have a best friend or two. Not sure how easy we’d find it to do more than four but perhaps sonething for the future 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Really interesting post, Janet. I must try your coloured pencil and graph system – it sounds like an excellent way to deal with complex POVs. I love the way you talk about slapping down a character who is becoming too pushy!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for focusing me again Janet – you always seem to push the right button at the right time!

    I usually write multiple POV too – though I don’t think I’ve ever had more than four. But the novel I’m planning at the moment has one, and will be written in the first person. It will be a huge challenge for me. I’ve already realised she needs a best friend, and of course others will bring her news and gossip … but I’ve just thought of another character who could help out quite a lot!

    Brilliant! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Multiple viewpoints can’t be bad if they work for readers! I like the graph idea for writers, too.
    Recall reading ‘The Four Brothers of Gwynedd’ (Edith Pargeter/Ellis Peters) – written entirely from one pov. (Samson, a servant). It was brilliantly done, of course, but phew, that servant *had* to be everywhere in the story (and well tuned in to the gossip!) or the entire thread would’ve collapsed!
    Thanks for this post.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. This is a really interesting post, Janet. I usually work with 2 or 3 points of view in a book but think I had 4 in Want to Know a Secret? I love manipulating viewpoint so that the reader knows things a character doesn’t know to keep up the tension.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like sharing secrets with the reader too. In my Coorah Creek books I also have Trish Warren – who owns the pub and is the town gossip. She’s really good at spreading news. But she can keep a secret when its the right thing to do. She is one of my favourite characters. I guess that’s why she keep coming back into the books.

      Liked by 2 people

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