I’m outlining a story with an ensemble cast of six characters, with roughly equal spotlight and impact on the story (they all play a major role in 30 to 40% of the scenes). It’s a competition where they all want the same prize for different reasons, but have to make alliances (that shift over the course of the story) to get it. The focus is on the tangle of relationship arcs between them.
I know the pitfalls of having so many main characters, and I hope to reduce them in two ways:
- Linking the relationship arcs and the external plot together as much as possible
- Not introducing fleshed-out antagonists and supporting characters, since all main characters act as one or both for the others over the course of the story.
But I’m hesitating between two options when it comes to choosing POV. I could cover all needed scenes with only three or four POV characters to avoid diluting attachment too much, or I could share POV equally between the characters.
What do you think?
Also, no matter the option I choose, I wonder if it’s better to string scenes from the same POV together as much (you get each POV for a long time but don’t return to them often) or to jump between POV often (you get each POV briefly but return to them frequently).
Thanks a lot for everything I’ve learnt from you over the years, and thanks in advance for your insightful advice.Camile
The choice of POV is partly meant to reflect which characters are most important. One of the reasons to choose fewer POV characters is to better prioritize your characters. Since in this case you’re explicitly aiming to give all six of these characters equal importance (and you have a premise that justifies that as well as any premise could), it is better to evenly distribute POV scenes between them. This will help set and meet expectations for their importance.
And since each of the six characters has about the same level of spotlight and agency in the story, you’ll want to help readers get attached to each one if you can. This is still a tricky premise, as it’ll be tough to make all six characters distinct while aiming to make each one lovable to readers. But if that’s too much to handle, you’ll want to cut the POVs down to three and make those three characters more important in the story, not one or the other.
As for how frequently they switch off, that’s not nearly as important as several other factors in choosing when each person gets a POV.
- In the beginning, establish each character so readers know what to expect, reveal what makes them tick, and show each in a way that encourages attachment.
- As the story goes on, if any characters have moments of antagonism that risk making them unlikeable, put that in their POV (or have them plan the antagonism in their POV) to help soften the likability impact by showing, for instance, that they feel bad but think what they’re doing is necessary.
- When switching POVs, prioritize the action. After one POV character does something that affects others or just plans it, switch to the POV of the character most affected and show how they respond to that.
It’s better to simply look through the plot points you’re planning, think about the experience that would work best for readers, and plan POVs accordingly. They don’t have to be in a perfect regular rotation, but I would avoid violating expectations by suddenly giving one character a POV for a long time or neglecting a character for several chapters. You can also start with a slower rotation and then speed it up.
Keep the answer engine fueled by becoming a patron today. Want to ask something? Submit your question here.
Comments on How Many POVs Should I Have in My Ensemble Story?
I’ve read a few mystery / thriller stories with multiple POV’s – it’s quite a popular set up at the moment; The Guest List by Lucy Foley springs to mind as an example.
I’ve found them very readable, so it’s a format that can definitely work in the right context.
In those cases, there is a lot of shifting about – each chapter changes to another person, putting different perspectives on events as they occur and also often building likability – as, say, one person is mean to the POV character, and then we shift to the mean persons POV to get a hint of why they acted like that. It’s a little confusing at first until you get a grip on who everyone is, but once you’ve got that, it’s very moreish getting these bite sized chunks from different people’s viewpoint.
There is a lot of hiding information from the reader while being in people’s heads, which I’m sure Chris and Oren would get annoyed by XD but that’s because they are mysteries, so you won’t have that issue so much.
One of the absolutely key things is to make sure that each character is very distinct (and preferably with a distinct and memorable name!), especially if you are introducing them one after the other. A big issue you’re up against is readers getting confused as to who’s head they are in now – and if you’ve got Jane and Jill and they act in similar ways, readers will get confused over and over again. It is essential that the characters are distinctive both from inside their POV, and when viewed from the outside by another POV.
Anyway, good luck, sounds like an interesting set up!
The article “Eighteen Ways for Protagonists to contribute” might give you some ideas. I would give that one a read if you haven’t already.