How many POV characters are too many?

I overestimated the tolerance readers would have for an obnoxious protagonist.
David Tallerman, talking about his Tales of Damasco series

I enjoyed The Way of the Kings but I only read a quarter of the book

Sherylyn has just finished reading Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of the Kings.

The main protagonist in The Way of the Kings is Kaladin, while it also has secondary characters Shallan, Szeth, Dalinar plus a couple of other more minor viewpoints as well.

Like me, early in the book Sherylyn started skipping some character threads, until eventually (like me) the only plot-line she read was Kaladin, and only Kaladin in the current time, not his early life. She skimmed the other point-of-view characters when they interacted with Kaladin—as Dalinar does toward the end of the story—but otherwise skipped them all.

You may think that because we only read one character line that we didn’t like the book. Not at all. We both enjoyed it and would recommend it to other SFF readers. It’s a great story, full of ideas and great world-building, the sort of book that you think about afterwards for a long time. We both know we’ll go back one day and re-read it, because there’s a lot we missed.

Like me, Sherylyn didn’t care enough for the other characters to read about them.

No-one reads Rossi

In Linesman, the story we have with our agent at present, we have two point-of-view (POV) characters. Ean Lambert who most people like a lot. The secondary POV character is Jordan Rossi. Luckily for us he gets nowhere near as much air-time as Ean, because a lot of first-time readers skip the Rossi bits until he joins up with Ean.

They can’t stand him.

You skip characters you don’t like

Initially, with The Way of the Kings, I thought one of the reasons I skimmed was that there were too many storylines to follow.

Sherylyn and I discussed the book once she had finished it. We’re writers, and we pull stories apart to see what works and what doesn’t. Especially one like this which we agreed was a good book, and the characters were necessary for the storyline, but we still both skipped so much of it.

We decided that it wasn’t so much too many people to follow but more that we didn’t like the people we were reading about.

How many characters are too many?

We’re thinking a lot about this right now because Linesman II, which we’re about to start editing, contains five points-of-view.

Acquard, the main protagonist, is a no-brainer. If you don’t like her then you’re not going to read the book at all, especially given she gets half the book-space. As for the others, plot-wise it makes sense to include them, but should we include them all? Especially the last one, Ricaro Onetree, who makes a brief appearance toward the end of the book.

Will our readers put up with all five of them or do we have move the story around so that a lot more happens while Acquard’s around?

Five point-of-view characters is probably too many. How many we cut depends on how easily we can rearrange scenes.

We do know one thing from reading stories like The Way of the Kings. The more a reader likes the character(s), the more characters we can include.

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