Multiple POVs. Are they friends or foes to authors? Well, as my dad likes to answer this sort of question: It depends. Let’s look at an example.
Two aliens walked into a bar. Krizznorp, Overlord Supreme of the Everlasting Fleet, surveyed the foul watering hole, disdain hue radiating from his luminous compound eyes. He was time was far too valuable to waste on such a putrid gathering of organic waste as this. But the Uber-Emperor’s polyp-spawn, Crown Prince Bill, was visiting from the blessed homeworld, and Krizznorp had been given the dubious but potentially career-advancing honor of showing him a good time. And if ever there was a waste of organic matter, it was the polyp-spawn gawking slack-jawed beside him. Setting his jaw, Krizznorp braced himself for a night of debauchery.
Okay, Greg again. This is a fairly ho-hum setup. The POV character has been tasked with treating the boss’s kid like royalty (which he happens to be in this case), but he’s got better things to do. There’s nothing new or interesting about this. But now let’s add a second POV.
Crown Prince Bill was ecstatic to be getting his first ever visit to a war zone bar. Oh sure, his guards and attendants had told him they were just exactly like every other bar in the quadrant, but Bill knew better. Even just standing in the doorway next to his new best friend Krizznorp, Bill could sense the desperation hanging in the air as if lifted there by the drunken fumes wafting up from the soldiers. Once he was able to return later, this time alone, that desperation would add the perfect savor to his favorite pastime.
So in that example of multiple POVs, the most obvious advantage afforded is dramatic irony, where the reader knows more than the character, thus generating tension. In this case Bill doesn’t know how much Krizznorp disdains him, but Krizznorp also doesn’t know that Bill is some sort of alien serial killer. Thanks to the story dipping inside multiple characters’ heads (or whatever this particular species thinks with) the author has additional tools with which to generate conflict. Will Bill become aware of Krizznorp’s dislike of him and if so, will he murder Krizznorp, fearing no retribution because of his royalty? Conversely, will Krizznorp (I regret this name a little more every time I type it) realize what Bill really is, and if so, will he dare report it to the emperor? But what if Bill’s father already knows?
The opposite of our example with Krizznorp and Bill above is that if you have only a single POV, all information critical to the plot must somehow be conveyed to that character at some point in the story. This is what I like to call Overly-Important Character Syndrome, and it’s part of the reason so few epic fantasies have just one or a handful of POVs. It’s hard to convey “epic” through a single person’s eyes.
But for every advantage multiple POVs can convey, there are also disadvantages. The two worst offenders are length and pacing. I’ll discuss each briefly below.
Every POV character needs a plot arc. These can be of varying length, but if a character occupies a POV and an important part in the story and they don’t have a subplot of their own, it’s going to stand out in a bad way. But the number of POVs drives the length of your book as much as any other factor. My first novel manuscript featured about a dozen major POVs and was 287,000 words. For every first-time author not named Pat Rothfuss or Brandon Sanderson, that’s way too long. For my second novel I focused on keeping the number of POVs down. I ended up with five major POVs and the novel topped out at 126,000 words. For my third novel I went with just a single POV and ended up with 84,000 words.
Adding POVs and their attendant plot arcs also has dramatic impact on the story’s pacing. Maybe I want to have an unbroken segment of chapters featuring an extended, major action set piece for Krizznorp. But then I realize I haven’t checked in with Bill since chapter two and the longer I wait to do so, the more jarring that reintroduction will be. Or maybe I’ll alternate chapters so that Bill and Krizznorp each have an equal number and I trade off chapter-ending cliffhangers. That sounds great until I realize I have too little plot for Krizznorp and half of his chapters will end up being filler. If not well thought-out, multiple POVs can transform quickly from an advantage to a chore.
Multiple POVs can add a lot of richness to the tapestry of your story, but they also will have their own demands that must be met. I come back to this concept a lot in my posts, but it all comes down to what kind of story you are trying to tell. If it does require multiple POVs, advance planning (or an upfront acceptance that you’ll be doing a fair amount of rewriting) can save you a lot of headaches and frustration down the road.