“Limit your POVs to two or three,” they say.
They do say a lot of things, don’t they?
I’m not about to argue with the experts–the writers, agents, editors, publishers, marketers, and creative writing instructors who tell us that eight points of view is Just. Too. Damned. Many. They’ve been in the business longer than I have, and they know things I don’t.
What I can do, though, is offer a counter-example (and a defense, which I’ll get to later). One counter-example. That’s an N of 1, in statistician-speak, and not very telling, but the N in question is a really big book. Here, I’ll give you a hint:
Its title rhymes with The Silence of the Lambs.
You’ve heard of it, right?
Harris writes no fewer than ten unique points of view in SOTL:
- Clarice Starling
- Jack Crawford
- Jame Gumb
- Hannibal Lecter
- Catherine Martin
- that weird omniscient third-person thing at the beginning of several chapters
- Frederick Chilton (occasional intracranial, see Ch. 29 for an example)
- Ruth Martin (Ch. 32)
- Sergeant Tate (Ch. 37)
- Joel Randall, Hostage Rescue Team Commander (Ch. 55)
Okay, a few of these characters have precious little in the way of scenes, and one might argue that Harris wrote Chilton, Martin, Tate, and Randall from an omniscient point o’ view, sprinkling in a bit of free indirect style (which some of my earlier critique partners would call POV Drift) here and there. Whatever. There’s some head-hopping going on and that present-tense chapter opening technique is downright wacky (I happen to like it), but does anyone care? Did you pick up SOTL and curse Harris’ name for confusing you by interrupting the lovely Clarice with Lecter’s, Crawford’s, and Gumb’s inner thoughts?
‘Course you didn’t. Or, who knows? Maybe you did. Maybe you used Silence of the Lambs in your writing class, brandishing it about as the Way Not to Write a Novel.
“Now, this, students, is an example of what you should never, ever do. Not if you want to be published. Not if you want to be taken seriously.”
I apologise for the snark. Really, I do. I’m not making fun of writing instructors or anyone in the writing business. But fifty will get you a hundred that someone, somewhere, at some point called out Harris for pushing the POV envelope. (n.b. I am not inviting bets here.)
Let’s take a moment to imagine what SOTL might have been like if Harris stuck to two POVs. Clarice’s, of course, is necessary, so that leaves room for one more. Who would it be? Gumb, perhaps. We’d see the creepy insides of a madman’s mind that Clarice couldn’t possibly know. But then we’d miss out on the sick genius of Lecter, the poor size-fourteen gal trapped in a well, Crawford’s unfortunate domestic tragedy. Even if we added them in (upping the Poisonous POV Quotient to five–FIVE!), what do we do about the Tennessee cops during Lecter’s escape? Or the red herring that ropes in the Hostage Rescue team while Clarice ends up facing Mr. Gumb on her own? Put those two in and — poof! — already up to seven.
Just. Too. Damned. Many.
Or maybe not? I’ll be happy to argue that at least five of Harris’ POVs are necessary to keeping up the tension. We need to see Gumb’s pathology, Crawford’s humanity, Martin’s terror, and Lecter’s ingenuity–all of which also need to be initially hidden from Starling to keep her on her toes.
So what about five? Is five okay? And if five, why not six? I think you see where I’m going here.
Now for my defense. Yep, I’ve got eight POVs in LUCKY THIRTEEN, and I’m nervous about that. But I think I can explain each and every one of them.
- The MC: Well, she’s the MC. So there.
- The Bad Guy: When my critique partners were doing chapter-by-chapter reads, they always said “Hooray! Another Bad Guy scene!” I think they enjoyed being inside his head and seeing what the MC couldn’t, but had to figure out. I’ll keep that one.
- Cop X: The point of view of the cops (at least one of them) is also a keeper–if they’re onto my main girl, I don’t want her to know why or how or when they’ve got a new lead. So I need at least one cop.
- Cop Y: Possibly not necessary. But I’ve set up a contrast among the boys in blue (girls, actually) to add a bit of mystery.
- Victim A: Only shows up once. Do I have to include his POV? I think so. Scary stuff happens while he’s alone and I want the reader to see it.
- Victim B: Shows how serious the stakes are. And serves as my MacGuffin.
- Victim C: Contrast object to Victim #2 and source of a secret. Plus, everyone loves this one.
- MC’s ally: Another opportunity to keep up tension later in the story by scene-hopping twixt the MC and her ally during a potentially dangerous time.
I’ve said before that I’ve never taken a writing course. I don’t have an MFA. Hell, I could be talking out of my elbow when it comes to POV or anything other aspect of creative writing. But I think I’ve written a good book. Other people think I’ve written a good book (and no, they’re not my parents). At some point, if the gods roll good dice in that big craps game in the sky, maybe a much larger portion of the world will think I’ve written a good book.
Whether it has eight friggin points of view or not.