How many people does take to change a story?

I am caught up in the ever-increasing circle of more and more and more characters in Heirs of Alexandria series that either keep telling me they need their story told, or having reader inform me that really they need to know… (which is where the story that is up on the Baen site comes from. A reader had asked me just what Antimo Bartelozzi‘s backstory was, that made so intensely loyal.)

Now as anyone who has become involved in the 1632 saga knows, the more stories get written, the more loose ends there are fraying away out there, begging to be tied in, and of course, getting more and more wrapped up in a canon that gets more detailed and more complex with each story.

I have the same issue with the Heirs books, in that I’m a dismal failure at killing enough interesting characters. And the canon is now very complex – the problem with Italianate Macchiavellian politics is that after a while (like the end of a big fat book) you get messy stains on the pages from the author’s small brain exploding. It’s that or confused readers, and I’ve decided I prefer the former. I can always get more braaaaaaaaaainz… At last call I (and a few others) were interested in more adventures of Cair Aidin, more adventures Jusef Szpak (from A Mankind Witch (Heirs of Alexandria)
– which is selling about a copy a day at the moment, which I am very pleased about. THE FORLORN
, less so.), more from the person that perceptive souls may have realised was a famous Swedish king in the same book, more from Iskander Beg, Guiliano Lozza and Thalia, (in TRM) and more from the thief, David, and Count Mindaug (MUCH FALL OF BLOOD). And that’s without the major characters, some of whom we will hear more of. (Vlad is less than certain.)

And that’s just one series. And they’ll spawn more, if I write them…

Which brings me to my topic. Of course this varies from writer to writer, setting to setting, subgenre to subgenre… but is there a good number (particularly of principle or POV characters)? And just how do you tell. Personally, I KNOW from practical experience, that too much head-hopping confuses me as writer, let alone readers, but in Byzantine intrigue in high fantasy plots it is very hard to avoid. I’m quite limited by the samll brain, so I’ve found 4 major POV’s is ‘easy’ with an occasional blow in acceptable. But the size of your cast of major characters is question I have never had adequately answered. I do find each major character adds between 10-20K to a book… which has some practical limitations. But what are your thoughts?

15 comments

  1. When I’m writing I don’t actually do any head hopping at all. In my ‘Tribes of the Hakahei’ series I have 6 POV characters but they each have their own chapters (or group of chapters). That would probably be my limit. As a reader, I don’t know, really. Whatever works. If the writer can keep them clear and interesting, then whatever works. Which of course isn’t really an answer at all. So… hmmm, probably the fewer the better, if you really must have an answer. Find another way to get across the required information and leve the readers intrigued about half seen characters.

    1. I’ve found ‘each their own chapter approach good… to a point – the point being when it has been six or ten or fifteen chapters since one of the appeared as a POV character… I’ve lost their thread

  2. I prefer reasonable simplicity in any one story (volume/novel whatever). Much fall of blood, for example, had the Manfred stream and the Vlad stream. Yes others were PoV characters in those streams but at least there were only a couple of active threads in the book. I don’t like stories where you have half a dozen separate P.oV charcters all acting on their own and not obviously about to connect with each other (e.g. Game of Thrones ). For the most part the 163x books tend to do much the same thing – only two or three threads in any one story even though the threads may spread through multiple inerlocked volumes.

    One of the things I like about electronic/indie publishing is that you can probably write shorter stories (Novella? anyway say 20-40k words as in Bolg ) and have them be single PoV. Then you can ether sell them individually as shorts or bundle 3 of them together to make a collection (or do both and see which sells better).

    I have to say I’m kind of curious about all sorts of things in the HoA universe – including those characters mentioed above, but they probably don’t need a lot of words to get them to a state of reasonable closure. And if one particular character turns ut to be more popular you can always wriet another episode in his/her life and make it longer / more complicated if required.

  3. I can follow up to six, as a reader, but more than that and it gets overwhelming. As a writer, I tend to stick with three or four in a novella, two or three in a short story, and four in a novel. That said, I just finished a trilogy done entirely through one character’s eyes, with four major supporting characters (five if you count Snowy the Mule).

    My guess would be, are you spending so much time making certain that the reader knows which PoV they are reading, that you lose the plot and pacing? That’s my cue to sit back and re-think things. YMMV.

    1. I think Masgramondou touched on something crucial here – threads as opposed to character POV. If the major threads are very clear in their definition (say one is in the palace, the other in the gutter, the third in the trackless wilderness) you can get away with a few more, simply because it takes very little to define which thread, which POV you’re in.

      1. The thread thing is good. My six POV character series generally has two threads or three going, i think. I can’t think of any higher numbers than that.

  4. A test: Taking notes is acceptable in subsequent reads, or when reading for criticism. It should not be necessary for the first read. Of course there is the whole issue of what kind of reader one should test with…

      1. Dim is probably the wrong word. Probably more scientifically useful criteria would be normalish intelligence, and not a chronic reader. Maybe take the lower bound for book frequency among the bulk of your usual readers, and go a notch below that. As for practical useful advice, I don’t know that I have any.

        I have an outlandish scheme. Pose it as sociological research, and get government grants. Get some authors who want to experiment with their craft, good solid types who write readable, enjoyable stories, who are writing the novels anyway, to write some stories. Test the stories against various readers who are not habitual readers, who are nominally the population being tested.

  5. I actually prefer the classic thread, with one character, one plot per novel, but my fantasies tend to get… complex. I don’t think I’ve ever (successfully) juggled more than four characters, though. Also, I’m doing an experiment with four first persons in the current free novel. I’m doubtful about this (very) but we shall see.
    BTW, I wonder (?) if you’re seeing what I am, now that you’re putting indie out there, where once a week or so you have a letter demanding more of something else. As in, I get Nuns in space (St. Lucia of the Spaceways) Darkships, Musketeer Mysteries, Refinishing Mysteries, and the die hards who want Shakespeare. Since I want to do all these — but can’t do them all at once — it ties me in knots. A bit.

  6. My writing buddy, who was much more diligent about reading books on how to write than I was in the beginning, told me she read somewhere that each major POV character gets about 50,000 words. This seemed rather rigid, but it did make me realize that I had given one person so much stage time that I needed to tie off his tale more satisfactorily than I had. I did give two non-MCs their own POV scene each, but I felt guilty. I did it anyway, but I was pretty sure I was breaking some rule somewhere.
    My first novel has three POV characters. The WIP has two, and things are much less forced. For the shorts, with the exception of a very long one, I’ve stuck to single POV.
    I do feel that if someone gets a POV he should have his own sub-plot, at the very least.

    1. I have to tell your writing buddy that this is a generalization which is wildly wrong, and varies from writer to writer. (My natural length is 80-100K, my natural lead character set is 4.)

  7. I usually start with too many. I depend on my beta readers to tell me when a story has gotten too confusing. Then I have to analyze what the story is about. I’ve been known to excavate several POVs complete with sub plots and entire threads. I agree with Masgramondou about the threads being more important than the POV characters, now that I think about it.

    I’ve got all the removed sections waiting impatiently to be turned into at least short stories. Which is the beauty of Indie. I don’t know if you have that option with the Heirs of Alexandria offshoots.

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