POV Problems: The Series

Writing a novel is hard.  Writing a series is liking trying to raise triplets–exponentially more difficult than raising three separate children.

There are so many ways that writers can go wrong with a series that aren’t noticeable at the book level that I could probably devote a month’s worth of posts to the subject.  (This is all from the reader perspective, of course.)

Many series just bog down at some point in time.  The writer turns a series that should’ve been three books into a five-book series instead.  Or they introduce weird twists that lose their readers.  (I’ve personally stopped reading two separate series that moved from standard fantasy worlds in the first few books to post-apocalyptic worlds or the present day world in the next book.  Not what I signed up for, thank-you.)

What I wanted to talk about today, though, is POV issues.  I’m currently on book three of a series.  The first two books were written in first person and from one POV, so when I started the third book I expected it to be the same, which is why I was really confused when I read the second chapter and the character referred to themselves in third person.

I had to stop, flip back, and finally realize that the author had switched POV.  Now, interestingly, the author chose to stay with first person for both characters.  I’m personally of the opinion that you can do anything you want in a novel, even multiple first-person POVs, as long as it works.  This one does not.

Why?  Because the author hasn’t mastered character voice.  The two POVs are too similar to one another.  And when your character is always talking with “I” that becomes a big issue.  I find myself mid-chapter trying to remember whether this chapter is Character A’s viewpoint or Character B’s viewpoint.

Never do that to your reader.  It throws them out of the story and makes them question a lot of other things about your story that they might have glossed over otherwise.

I think in hindsight the series would’ve been better off without this new viewpoint added.  Or written in third-person POV if the author just had to add this viewpoint.  At least in third-person the default voice of the story could’ve been the narrator’s voice and the author could’ve used character names to ground the reader.

Another issue I’ve noticed with this novel (keeping in mind that the voices aren’t incredibly distinct from one another) is that the author started out with too routine a pattern–one chapter per character–and then broke it for no apparent reason.  I didn’t catch that they’d broken the pattern until midway through the next chapter.

It makes reading this book very annoying.

It’s also problematic to introduce a first-person viewpoint for a character you’ve known from a distance for two books.  You’d think it would be appreciated because it gives further insight into the character, but the fact of the matter is it’s offputting to me because this particular character comes off far less appealing once you’re inside their head.  All those insecurities and weaknesses that the character obsesses about were hidden before.

(I also think this is partially a bleed from the other character’s viewpoint.  The primary POV spent most of the second book thinking about quitting.  Ugh.)

So, what would my POV advice as a reader be to someone who is writing a series?

1. Use consistent POVs throughout the series.  Keep in mind that while you’re writing the series readers might be reading it one book at a time spread over years, but after it’s done most readers will read the entire series in one long go.  So, first-person POV throughout or third-person POV throughout and preferably with the same characters as the first book or with a smooth and obvious transition when new POVs are introduced.  (See George R.R. Martin for the latter.)

2. If you are going to switch up POVs, do so in the second book and make it obvious.  Maybe book one is Character A’s story and book two is Character B’s and book three is Character C’s.  Fine.  But books one and two as Character A and then book three as Character B–Eh.

3. If you have multiple POVs and use first-person make sure that each character’s voice is strong and distinct enough for a reader to recognize it immediately.  Don’t think that putting the character name at the top of the chapter will be enough.  (Although you should do that as well.)

4. If you have multiple POVs, consider using third-person instead, especially if you haven’t mastered #3.

5. Think long and hard about writing chapters in the POV of a character who has been present for a long period of time without having a POV.  It’s a lot like providing a physical description of the character too late in the book.  If what you have the character think doesn’t agree with what the reader believes they’ll think, you could be in trouble.  (This technique is best used for a deliberate purpose and by someone who is an experienced novelist.  See Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn for an example of using this technique to great effect.  Although I will say as much as I was surprised and impressed by the twist I also never really recovered from the disconnect between section one and two.)

I’m sure there are other issues with POV in series, but these were the handful that were bugging me about this current book.  Another issue I’ve seen with the really long-running series is the shift in character voice that isn’t noticeable book to book but is glaringly apparent when the whole series is read together.  Like a character who is active and directs their own fate suddenly turning into a milquetoast with no apparent cause or motivation for doing so in the next book.  (You can get away with any character transition, but you have to devote enough text to the transition to make it reasonable to the reader.  You can’t just end book two with them active and start book three with them staring at their belly button without upsetting a few readers.  You know, like me.)

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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