I could honestly summarize this entire post down to one point: it’s completely subjective. I’m not even going to argue that one is better than another because that’s the most subjective thing in the world, and just because I think multiple POVs in high fantasy work because of xyz doesn’t mean that’s actually the truth. Some people love single POV high fantasies, and I’m sure there are some out there. Thus, this post is more to outline why I like multiple for some and single for other. And, if you stay tuned, I’m going to say something very similar in a couple weeks when we discuss first person vs third person.
This really is an age old question. There’s no way I could count up the amount of times that I’ve seen someone discussing the multiple perspectives in a book, whether that was a detriment or an advantage. People have a lot of opinions on whether or not multiple or single POVs are better, and, the truth is, neither are actually better. It all comes down to what you prefer. For me, that preference depends on genre.
I won’t lie, I think single POV high fantasies don’t make sense. If your character is a loner, then sure, but even as I type that, my brain’s going wellllllllll because the whole purpose of high fantasy is to create this huge alternative universe where adventures are happening, and that’s always going to naturally include a bigger cast. Think of literally any high fantasy, and none of them have a solitary character wandering through the world. That said, there is a bit of an exception to this, as there are going to be with most things because there’s always that one book–The Merciful Crow just popped into my head, thus the exception. However, if you gave me a version of TMC that had multiple POVs, and thus I got to see things through Jas & Tavin’s perspective, Y’ALL DON’T EVEN. I would cherish the heck out of that.
High fantasy is just the perfect atmosphere for a big cast. You’ve already created your own world, there’s often other mythical races involved, and magic is just built in so the only thing you have to do is explain the system and not the existence of magic itself. Of course there’s going to be a lot of characters. I always think of There Will Come a Darkness–I mean, just in general, I’m always thinking of it–and how well Katy Rose Pool handled her multiple POVs. That book would have absolutely fallen apart without them, and it honestly wouldn’t have been possible with a single one. When you’ve got these big, extensive high fantasy worlds, it just doesn’t make sense to tell them through one POV. How is that one person possibly going to do everything you need them to?
On the flip side, there are definitely books that go way over the top with this. I should probably make a separate post about all my issues with GRRM at some point because they’ve gotten a little out of hand, and I’m starting to talk about him in almost every post now, but The Orangutan Librarian recently talked about how the content of ASOIAF doesn’t justify the length, and I 100% agree. Set aside all the personal reasons why I’m probably not going to read the next book in the series because GRRM is the worst, but ASOIAF is a really good example of too much. I’ll never forget the opening chapter of one of the books, when we meet this new character, get his entire life history, and then he’s executed at the end. Like? Literally what was the purpose? I hate how many POVs are in ASOIAF, and I can remember so clearly skipping through the unnecessary amount of chapters between Jon ones just so I could find out when I would next be happy.
I struggle with multiple POVs a lot, too, because I love having a big cast. One of my favorite things about the Six of Crows duology is how big the cast is, and I apply that to all of my books. I’ve got two contemporaries that only have two POVs, and it’s always so weird for me to write those. When there’s even a small bit of magic going on, I’m all in. Give me five, minimum, and see if it’s possible to tack anymore on. I’ve definitely got to be careful, though, to not turn into someone like GRRM. There’s a balance to strike between eighteen POVs and something more reasonable like Hafsah Faizal. She’s always got the perfect amount of characters starring through her books where I feel like I’m getting exactly what I need as a reader.
Because, really, that’s what it boils down to. There’s a certain amount of information that you need to give a fantasy reader, and that’s part of the reason that I don’t like single POV high fantasies. Don’t get me wrong, I love Margaret Owen, and I will read literally anything she writes, and I am beside myself with excitement over Little Thieves, but TMC would have gone beyond the level of unbelievable awesome it already is and just knocked me flat on my back if it had multiple POVs because the world would have expanded so much.
Now, I already kind of hinted at it, but the place where I really like single POVs are in contemporaries. It just makes sense. When your story takes place on earth, with no magic and no supernatural chaos happening, there’s no real reason to have multiple POVs. I think, at most, two make sense. I love how Jandy Nelson often gives a POV to each of the siblings in her stories, and I think that Julie Drake could have benefitted from doing something similar in hers. That said, I still adore The Last True Poets of the Sea, and I truly believe that if there’d been five POVs, it would have taken away from the experience.
Often, contemporaries are specific to a single person’s experience. They’re not lesser than fantasies by any means, but when you take out the magic, the possibility of war, the chaos that happens in fantasies, it does simplify the story a lot. Would I have loved to see inside Ezra’s head in Felix Ever After? Sure, that would have been fun! Do I also think it would have lessened the impact of the story if we had that? Undeniably. Felix’s story needs to be a single POV because it’s his story and no one else’s, and to have added other POVs on would have cheapened that story.
The exception to the rule that comes to mind for this is Winterwood, and I do think could apply to other urban fantasies. In general, though, I think urban fantasies kind of straddle the line of what makes sense in terms of typical formats, and I can easily sway either way. Something like Shadowhunters needs to be deeply entrenched in the magic of its world, and thus multiple POVs makes sense, but something like Winterwood, which is only softly influenced by its magic, makes sense with a single POV. The same, then, would be applicable to Anna-Marie McLemore. I can’t remember each of theirs individually enough to remember the POVs, but I think many of them are single–or, at most, dual–POVs, and that makes sense. Any more than that would start to drift into a category that felt heavier on the magic.
I think I’ve talked myself into something of a point? For me, more magic intrinsically equals more POVs. There are those, likes the Wolves of Mercy Falls series, that work with more POVs and a lesser amount of magic, but, generally, when you’re looking at something like The Shadow Game series, that works better, in part, because of its multiple POVs. And, of course, at the end of the day, I am not the keeper of the keys! Read whatever the hell you want, friends. I don’t care. All of this could be a totally moot point for you because your favorite thing in the world is single POV high fantasy, and I’m happy for you. Opinions are subjective, so please take mine with a grain of salt.
Now, I feel like it’s worth mentioning that there’s a very specific exclusion happening in this post, and yes, we are going to talk about first person vs third person as it relates to all of this in a couple weeks because honestly? The first thing I look at in a high fantasy is whether or not it’s third person, and if it’s not, you’ve gotten do some solid convincing to get me to read it.