There And Draft Again

A Fellowship of Fantasy Writers

Fantasy Writing and the Epic Too Many Characters/POVs Issue January 27, 2013

Obviously, since I am a contributor to this blog, I tend to lean toward writing Epic Fantasy. The manuscript I am currently working on is the first in what might turn out to be a six book series (or more if the plots don’t stop rolling out of my head). One trend for epic fantasy tends to be that we have a lot of characters, especially when it comes to series. My story is centered around five main characters, but there are plenty of other characters that play important roles as well. Writing with this many characters hasn’t really been an issue for me. No, what I am talking about when I say the Epic Issue of Too Many Characters or POVs is more on the marketing side of writing.

When I ventured into the serious side of writing last year after having completed the first drafts of books one and two of my series, I was startled by the amount of advice people give you without first reading your book. People guffawed when they found that my main characters totaled to five and that there were plenty of other POVs from which my story is told (eleven to be exact). I was told to narrow it down to three MCs and definitely tell the story solely from their POVs instead of the other characters. My query letter mentioned the five girls by name and I was advised to cut it down to one or two, even though they all have vital roles in the introductory book. When I did this, I found that people who read the query and the first five chapters were confused that the MC mentioned in the query didn’t show back up again until chapter five.

So what did I do? I started cutting characters’ POVs. That eliminated entire story lines that were being set up for the books to come. What does that mean? It compromised my story, which to me is a big no-no. You should never NEVER compromise your story to the point that you can hardly recognize it anymore just for the sake of selling a book (in my humble opinion).

So this leads me to the big dilemma that a lot of epic fantasy writers face: How many characters are too many? At what point should we draw the line while trying to follow the unspoken rules of the literary marketing world?

My answer: If done right, there is no such thing as too many characters or too many characters’ POVs in a book, especially epic fantasy.

Obviously, when dealing with POV, you should keep to third person limited. First person when dealing with a lot of characters can be really confusing for a reader. I’m not opposed to two POVs with first person, but anymore and I feel a bit discombobulated as a reader. Why go third person limited instead of third person omniscient? Because omniscient, from what I have learned firsthand, usually involves what agents and editors refer to as “head jumping”, which means you are skipping around from different characters heads in different paragraphs. So learn from my mistake since I wrote both books in omniscient and have had to do A LOT of editing to correct this: Stick to limited.

I’d like to leave you with some examples of epic fantasy books that have more than one characters’ POV and do just fine. You might recognize these from the best sellers’ list, which to me is proof that if you do it right, having multiple characters and multiple story arcs can still make for compelling and not confusing stories.

~~Mara Valderran

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5 Responses to “Fantasy Writing and the Epic Too Many Characters/POVs Issue”

  1. Mara you have no idea how on the same page we are about this. Because I grew up reading epic fantasy I am very comfortable with a story told from multiple POVs. When I decided to write my own epic fantasy I faced exactly the same dilemma (and the same number of POV characters…) – everyone told me to keep the number down to three, and if possible choose just one. Honestly I’d love to, but like you the story doesn’t seem to work as well. My plan is keep a note of all the great multiple POV books I’m reading (and I’m still coming across them so someone is representing them), look up the representing agents and where possible track down query letters. There must be a way forward!

  2. EM Castellan Says:

    I guess the question to ask yourself is what concessions to trends and the current market are you ready to make in oder to get traditionally published? All the examples you give are classic books, from well-established authors whose debut books weren’t told from multiple POV. Having sold a lot of books and being labeled as an “experienced writer” gives you license to write whatever you want, but in oder to get your foot in the publishing door, you might indeed be forced to change your novel – a lot. So what it comes down to is: are you ready to do this? If not, it’s perfectly all right, but the indie route might be the right one for you then. Great post Mara!

  3. Rachel O'Laughlin Says:

    Awesome post, Mara!
    I’m struggling with this same dilemma right now. As yet no one has told me I need to cut down the number of character POV in my story, but I’m wondering how I’m going to market it. As Eve said, with this kind of story, we as writers might be forced to make concessions to get our foot in the door.
    I’m thinking, though, that if my long epic series is my baby and I don’t want to destroy it, it may even be worth it to take one strand of the story and package it into its own neat little novel… and market that one. If it gains interest and popularity and an agent picks it up, maybe given some time working with each other, a game plan for marketing something Game of Thrones style might emerge.
    I wouldn’t hold my breath, but if nothing else, it could be a way to get part of a story told in today’s difficult market. And there’s always the indie route if it just isn’t picking up steam.
    Or does this just sound like a really bad idea? Haha.

  4. kathils Says:

    I definitely agree with Eve. My current series has 3 POVs (at least for now). I almost tossed a 4th in, but seeing as it was for a character who may or may not appear again, I thought it might just be too confusing.

    I’m totally fine with multiple POVs provided it’s necessary, and also provided each one has a distinct voice. If I have to wonder who’s head I’m in, that’s going to pull me totally out of the story. When handled well, multiple POVs give a depth to the story that can’t be achieved through just one character’s eyes.

  5. Thanks, everyone! This issue is definitely a prickly one for me. Eve–that is the exact dilemma I faced. When I deleted POVs to make it more “market-friendly” the story was so compromised I barely recognized it. I’d rather go indie than compromise my story that much. And I think that’s the big takeaway here–we, as authors, have other options now if our stories don’t fit the rules of the traditional publishing world.


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