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How to Write a Novel: Point of View 6

How Many Point of View Characters?

The final question in is how many point of view characters your novel should have.

Fewer is better.

If you are writing in first person, the ideal number of POV characters is one. If you are writing in third person, use deep perspective, and avoid author intrusions and head-hopping.

The number of POV characters will depend on genre and word count (which are also related). The purpose of point of view is to create intimacy with the characters, to make the reader care about what happens to the character. For this reason, authors tend to limit the number of viewpoint characters to between three and five in a standard-length novel (around 90,000 words). As guidelines, based on what I see as a reader:

  • Category romance (e.g. Love Inspired, approximately 60,000 words) has two points of view: hero and heroine, with approximately a 40/60 split between the two;
  • Contemporary or historical romance and women’s literature (90,000 words) has two or three points of view: hero, heroine and significant other character. This may be a best friend, or it may be the heroine of the planned sequel;
  • Romantic suspense (90,000 words) has between two and four points of view: hero, heroine, significant other character and villain;
  • Thriller (90,000 words) may have up to five characters hero, heroine (if there are romantic elements) and two or three seemingly-unrelated viewpoints, one or two of which will be the villains;
  • Science Fiction or Fantasy (up to 120,000 words) will have up to five characters: hero, heroine, sidekick, mentor, villain

Each character is someone you want your reader to get to know, to understand. If you have too many viewpoint characters, you reduce the ability of your readers to truly know and understand your characters and their motivations: “The more characters you add to the mixture, the more difficult it will become to keep up with all of them and to keep them in the action” (Ronald Tobias).

But, I hear you say, George RR Martin has nine POV characters in A Game of Thrones, the first book in his A Song of Fire and Ice saga (with thirty-one POV characters and over 1,000 named characters in the five books published so far). However, Game of Thrones is 1,088 pages long, making it almost four times longer than most published novels.

You are not George RR Martin (well, maybe you are. If so, welcome, Mr Martin).

A Game of Thrones had the length to carry nine POV characters. A standard 90,000 word book does not. And George RR Martin had been published for twenty years before he even began Game of Thrones. A multi-published award-winning author can break the rules. An undiscovered unpublished author shouldn’t. And not everyone likes even a bestseller such as A Game of Thrones: I know more than one person who hasn’t been able to get through Martin’s books because there are so many points of view. It got confusing.

So, fewer is better. Read, work out the expectations of your genre, and go from there.

How many point of view characters to you use? Is this the best number for your genre and plot?

How to Write a Novel: Point of View 5

Multiple Viewpoint Characters

My previous posts have looked at the main types of point of view and how to choose the most appropriate point of view for your novel (usually third person deep perspective from several characters, but occasionally first person from a single character throughout the novel).

This post shares my three golden rules of point of view.

Multiple Characters: Three Golden Rules

If your novel has more than one point of view character (and most do), there are three rules you must follow:

  • Only one point of view character per scene;
  • The viewpoint character should be the character who is most impacted by the events in the scene;
  • A new scene is indicated to the reader by an additional line break (or a centred *** if you prefer).

Constantly changing the point of view character in a scene is referred to as head-hopping, and is something that should be avoided at all costs in modern fiction:

When you jump from head to head, you’re trying to achieve narrative intimacy with all your characters at once, and readers will almost always find that more confusing than engaging… and readers can lose their engagement in the story.

Note that a scene is one continuous piece of action in one time and probably one place (just like a scene on television). Once the action moves to a different time or place, it’s a new scene. It’s not a new scene if you are simply adding an additional line break to indicate a new point of view character. You can, under certain circumstances, change point of view once in a scene. Only once. Otherwise it’s head-hopping, and is something your editor, agent or publisher will want you to revise and eliminate.

Remember, the viewpoint character should be the person most impacted by the events in that scene. In almost every case, this should be one of the main characters, not a minor character who only appears on one or two scenes in the entire book (there might be an exception if you are setting this character up to be the protagonist in the next book in a series).

Do you use one point of view character or more? Are they the most appropriate characters?

This brings us to the next question: what is the ideal number of viewpoint characters in a novel? I will discuss this in my next post.

How to Write a Novel: Point of View 4

Choosing a Point of View

My previous posts have looked at the main types of Point of View (POV):

  • First person;
  • Second person;
  • Third person (omniscient, cinematic, inner limited and deep perspective).

Choosing the Right Point of View

How do you choose which point of view to use? In modern fiction, the only real choice is between first person and third person, ideally third person deep perspective. Browne and King say:

So what degree of narrative distance is right for you? Broadly speaking, the more intimate the point of view, the better. One of the most vital and difficult tasks facing a writer is creating believable and engaging characters, and an intimate point of view is a terrific way of doing this.

Remember that some publishers and readers won’t consider a novel written in first person. However, this is still a better option than second person (which virtually guarantees no one will read it) or omniscient (which only a very few publishers will consider. These are usually vanity publishers or small trade publishers with little or no knowledge of writing and editing, and no discernible market).

Genre may play a part in your decision: romance, women’s literature and cozy mysteries often use first person point of view. It is occasionally used in fantasy, but rarely used in thrillers or suspense. Middle Grade novels are likely to be third person but may use omniscient or cinematic viewpoint, while Young Adult novels tend to be first person or third person deep perspective.

Using Multiple Points of View

The next question is whether to use a single point of view throughout the entire novel, and whether to have a single viewpoint character or several.

Most novels are written using multiple points of view, as this provides variety and interest. However, these multiple points of view are where the new author can really get in trouble (and what shows an editor, agent or publisher that you’re a new author). There are three main ways of using multiple points of view in fiction:

  • First person point of view with multiple characters;
  • Two main characters, one first person point of view and one third person point of view;
  • Third person point of view with multiple characters.

Some novelists like the intimacy of first person, but want the variety of several characters, so write multiple characters from the first person point of view. From Browne and King:

[some authors] write in the first person but from several different viewpoints—with different scenes done from inside the heads of different characters. This technique can be highly effective in the hands of an experienced writer.

Translated: multiple characters in first person is not a technique for beginners. Done well (e.g. Invisible by Ginny Yttrup or Gone to Ground by Brandilyn Collins), it is excellent. Done badly, it is virtually unreadable.

Gayle Roper uses the technique of combining first person and third person successfully in Shadows in the Sand (with first person for her heroine and third person for two secondary characters and for the villain), but again, it is not a technique for beginners. The constant change between first person and third person can remind the reader ‘this is only a book’, as I found when reading Leaving Lancaster, by Kate Lloyd.

This is why most authors stick with the tried-and-true option of writing multiple characters from third person point of view, varying the narrative distance depending on the individual character and the genre. There is enough to learn about writing without making life difficult by choosing a point of view that is more challenging to write well. Experiment with multiple points of view by all means, but learn the basics first.

What point of view do you use?

My next post will share my three golden rules of point of view.

How to Write a Novel: Point of View 3

Third Person Point of View

The previous posts have defined first person, second person, cinematic and omniscient point of view. This post will continue looking at third person point of view, this time focusing on what is most commonly seen in modern fiction: inner limited and deep perspective.

Inner Limited

Third person inner limited puts the reader in the position of observing the action through the eyes and thoughts of a single character. It’s much like first person, but written in the grammatical third person language of he/she and his/her. Note that the reader can only know the thoughts of the point of view character: unless the character is a mindreader, the character can only observe the actions of the other characters in the scene. This is the viewpoint favoured in modern fiction:

Princess Elizabeth sat waiting in the Royal quarters of the Tower of London. She knew she should be grateful she hadn’t been placed in a typical prison cell. At least the walls of the Royal apartment were covered in fine tapestries to keep the heat in, there was a large fire to fight London’s cold winter, and the food was as fine as any she had eaten in her Hatfield home: freshly cooked and still warm when it was served to her. She sat, bored, thinking of her half-sister Mary, the Catholic Queen who was now her enemy.

This example is rather distant, in that the reader is watching a scene rather than being drawn into that scene. The reader can see some of what is going on inside Elizabeth’s head, but words like ‘thinking’ inject narrative distance and remind us that this is just a story. This technique has some uses in modern fiction (like cinematic point of view), but can feel distant if used for an entire novel as it fails to engage the emotions of the reader. The solution to this is a deep and more intimate third person point of view, almost like first person.

Deep Perspective

Modern readers favour a more intimate third person (especially in genres such as romance and women’s fiction), as this pulls the reader into the scene and provides a degree of narrative intimacy more like first person:

She sat, drumming her fingers on the desk. These might be the Royal quarters, befitting her station as Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King Henry VIII, but it was still the Tower of London, still a prison. She gazed around the room. Perhaps the view had changed. No. Still the same wall hangings, showing that awful hunting scene. The poor stag. It hadn’t deserved to meet that grisly end at the hands of her father. That was back when he was married to Catherine of Aragon, before he split from the Roman Catholic church to divorce Catherine and marry Elizabeth’s mother.

At least the fire was warm and the food was as good as at home in Hatfield. Deep breath. What to do? There were no new books, nothing to sew and no one to talk to until the guard arrived with dinner. It was luxury compared with the hovels most people lived in, but it was still prison. A gilded prison, so here she sat, waiting upon the pleasure of her half-sister Mary, the Catholic Queen. Her enemy.

The reader should be able to feel Elizabeth’s boredom and impatience. If this was done really well, the reader would also be able to sense Elizabeth’s underlying fear: that she may have to die in order for Mary to secure her throne. That is the beauty of deep perspective: done well, it shows us things the character themselves may not even be aware of. But the example above also shows one of the problems of deep perspective. It takes more words to show than to simply tell (184 words compared to a mere 65 for the cinematic example).

To better understand deep perspective point of view, I recommend Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View, by Jill Elizabeth Nelson, a well-known Christian fiction author. It is short (63 pages), but well worth reading. It is available at www.Amazon.com for around USD 5.99, and can be read either on a Kindle e-reader, or on your PC by downloading the free application.

The next question is which point of view to use. This will be the subject of my next post.

How to Write a Novel: Point of View 2

Omniscient and Cinematic Point of View

The previous post defined first person and second person point of view. This post starts our discussion of third person point of view, which uses pronouns such as ‘she’ and ‘her’. It is the most common point of view in both contemporary and historical fiction, but there are several degrees of third person, and it is important to understand the distinctions between them.

Unlimited or Omniscient POV

Some people see omniscient point of view as one end of a continuum of a range of third person viewpoints, while others see it as unique and separate from third person. I include omniscient in third person because it is written using the grammatical rules of third person, and uses he/she and his/her pronouns.

Princess Elizabeth sat waiting in the Royal quarters of the Tower of London as the guard entered with her breakfast. She should be grateful she hadn’t been placed in a typical prison cell. At least the walls of the Royal apartment were covered in fine tapestries to keep the heat in, there was a large fire to fight London’s cold winter, and the food was freshly cooked and still warm when it was served to her. He knew many people who didn’t have these luxuries at home, never mind in prison. Elizabeth was waiting upon the pleasure of her half-sister Mary, the Catholic Queen. Mary was afraid of Elizabeth, afraid of her popularity with the common people, and afraid she might fight for the throne as that wretched Jane Grey had. She was dead now, having paid the ultimate price for the ambition of her father.

Unlimited is the omniscient external narrator, who not only sees everything but knows what is going on in the minds of all the characters as well. This was the favoured point of view in the past, but can be seen as confusing for the reader (see how the example moves from Elizabeth’s mind to that of the guard, then to off-stage Mary?). Modern fiction prefers a more intimate point of view where the reader can see inside the mind of the main characters—but only one character at a time.

The advantage of omniscient point of view is that the reader gains a level of perspective over the whole story. The disadvantage is that the reader doesn’t feel any intimate connection with any of the characters. Many readers dislike the omniscient point of view, because it can lead to moralising author intrusions (‘she should be grateful’), and is thought of as old-fashioned and patronising.

The other disadvantage of omniscient is that it is hard to write well. The above example isn’t true omniscient: it’s third person with head hopping. True omniscient point of view has a separate narrator with a distinct voice, as in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or The Princess Bride (which has been criticised in reviews for the author intrusions).

Outer Limited or Cinematic POV

Outer Limited describes the action through the eyes of an external narrator who sees only the external, observable actions and dialogue but none of the thoughts or feelings of the characters. James Scott Bell describes as this as Cinematic POV, and I consider his description makes the concept easier to understand. If the reader is only seeing what a camera would see, the point of view is Outer Limited:

Princess Elizabeth sat waiting in the Royal quarters of the Tower of London. The room wasn’t a typical prison cell: the walls were covered in fine tapestries to keep the heat in, there was a large fire to fight London’s cold winter, and the food was of high quality. Elizabeth sat, waiting upon the pleasure of her half-sister Mary, the Catholic Queen and her enemy.

This is distant, and like omniscient point of view, it tends to tell the reader rather than show, and doesn’t give the reader that much-needed intimate connection with the characters. However, it can be a useful point of view in certain circumstances. It is often used in thriller and suspense novels to show what is happening away from the sight of the main characters (e.g. the villains making their plans), and the narrative distance it provides can be useful when describing certain scenes (e.g. physical violence).

The next post will move into the most common point of view in modern fiction: third person inner limited.

How to Write a Novel: Point of View 1

Introduction to Point of View

One of the most important aspects of writing a novel is getting the point of view (POV) correct, and it is one of the major issues for many first-time authors.  Sol Stein considers that point of view “is possibly the most mismanaged aspect of the writer’s craft”. The basic approaches are:

  • First person;
  • Second person;
  • Third person;
  • Omniscient (which some writers see as a type of third person).

This post will look at first person and second person point of view, with examples that break several of the rules of modern fiction but are written purely to illustrate the different points of view:

First Person

First person uses ‘I’ as the personal pronoun, taking the reader inside the mind of one particular character, able only to think, see and experience from the viewpoint of this one character:

I sit waiting, waiting, waiting. These might be the Royal quarters, as befits my station as Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King Henry VIII, God rest his soul, but it is still the Tower of London. It was still a prison. Despite the wall hangings, a warm fire and the fine food, I still sat there, waiting upon the pleasure of the Queen, Mary, my half-sister and now my enemy.

First-person point of view gives narrative intimacy, the feeling that they are getting to know this character’s deepest thoughts and emotions. In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Browne and King say:

In order to succeed in the first-person point of view, you have to create a character strong enough and interesting enough to keep your readers going for an entire novel, yet not so eccentric or bizarre that your readers feel trapped inside his or her head. Also, what you gain in intimacy in first person, you lose in perspective [and] your readers get to know only one character directly.

Note that some readers don’t like reading novels written from the first person point of view and some publishers won’t accept first person manuscripts, so choosing this option might limit your market.

Second Person

Second person uses ‘you’ and ‘your’, putting the reader inside the story:

You sit waiting, waiting, waiting. These might be the Royal quarters, as befits your station as Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King Henry VIII, God rest his soul, but this is still the Tower of London. It is still a prison. Despite the wall hangings, a warm fire and the fine food, you are still sitting here, waiting upon the pleasure of the Queen, Mary, your half-sister and now your enemy.

This feels contrived. You are not Princess Elizabeth, so are you really going to sit through a 90,000 word novel and pretend that you are? Second person works for instructional non-fiction, and is the mainstay of ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ books, but it is not considered appropriate for novel-length fiction. In the words of Newman and Mittlemark (authors of the tongue-in-cheek How Not to Write a Novel):

Certain late twentieth-century novelists used the second person singular successfully—notably Italo Calvino in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and Jay McInerney in Bright Lights, Big City. But there it ended. In fact, it was named the “second person” when McInerney became the second person to get away with it and it became clear he would also be the last. Very occasionally, an editor sees past the contrivance and buys such a book—on the condition that the author revise it completely into a traditional third-person narrative.

The next post will move two misused points of view: third person unlimited and outer limited (also known as omniscient and cinematic).

How to Write a Christian Novel: Defining Your Genre 11

Step Six: What is your target word count?

The ‘sweet spot’ for a modern novel seems to be 90,000 words (which equates to around 300 pages), but there is variation by genre:

  • Category romance (e.g. Love Inspired): 55,000 to 60,000 words, but can be up to 75,000 words depending on the imprint (e.g. Love Inspired Historical);
  • Romance: 85,000 to 100,000 words;
  • Cozy mystery: 65,000 to 90,000 words;
  • Science Fiction: 90,000 to 110,000 words;
  • Fantasy: 90,000 to 120,000 words;
  • Chick lit: 80,000 to 100,000 words
  • Mystery: 80,000 to 100,000 words
  • Thriller: 90,000 to 100,000 words
  • Crime: 90,000 to 100,000 words
  • Suspense: 90,000 to 100,000 words

These figures are taken from posts from publishing industry experts such as Rachelle Gardner, Chuck SambuchinoColleen Lindsay and Book Ends literary agents. However, a recent post by literary agent Chip MacGregor suggests many contemporary stand-alone novels are in the 70,000 to 80,000 word range, with some going up to 90,000 depending on the project and the publisher.

Historical novels tend to be a bit longer than contemporaries, as they are more likely to be epics or sagas (which are over 110,000 words). Young Adult novels tend to be shorter than adult novels, so between 45,000 and 80,000 words, although they can go up to 100,000 words. Middle Grade can be anything from 20,000 to 50,000 words or more, but average around 35,000 words.

There are always going to be exceptions. Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel, The Historian, is 240,000 words. George RR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice books are a similar length, but he had already published several standard-length novels, so had a track record of sales to build on. And if you are going for a longer novel, make sure you are telling more story, not just adding more words. The last two 450-page novels I read could have told the story more effectively using fewer words (and has turned one of those authors from a must-buy to a don’t-bother for me).

As a first-time author, the advice is always going to be to take as many words as you need to tell the story, but count on being the rule, not the exception, and keep within the general word count limits for your genre and target market.

Paper costs money, so the longer your book, the less likely a publisher will pick it up (or, should you choose to self-publish, the less likely you will be able to sell paperbacks profitably). Equally, don’t go too short. Readers get annoyed paying what they consider to be full price for an ebook only to find out it’s little longer than a short story.

For reference, anything shorter than 40,000 words isn’t a novel. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula awards dictate that novellas are around 17,500 to 40,000 words, between 7,500 and 17,500 words is a novelette, and below 7,500 words is a short story. Between 100 and 1,000 words is flash fiction (the kind often included in magazines), and a story that is exactly 100 words long is a drabble. Really.

Calculating Word Count

In the distant past, before the invention of the word processor with the automatic word count, there used to be great debate about how to calculate word count. After all, no one actually wanted to count each and every word, so it was agreed that the average double-spaced typewritten page was 250 words (25 lines at an average of 10 words per line).

That formula worked on a typewriter or when using Courier font in a word processor, but now we have multiple fonts to annoy people with, all of which take up different amounts of space on the page. But it doesn’t matter. We have Microsoft Word and the automatic word count feature.

Older versions of Microsoft Word would calculate word count differently depending on the font: Word 2010 is more sophisticated and gives the same word count regardless of font. Is the word count correct? I don’t know, and I don’t much care. It’s not as though I (or anyone else) is actually going to count the individual words. The word count from Word is good enough unless your agent or publisher wants you to use a different method (in which case, listen to them).

A couple of hints: in Word 2010, an American ellipsis ( . . . ) is three words, while an Australian ellipsis (… using three full stops or … using Alt-0133) is only one word. And * * * in your scene breaks adds three words with each new scene. If your word count is getting too high, cut the pretty scene break markers.

How long is your book? What do you think of these guidelines?

This concludes my series on defining your market and genre. Next week we will starting a new series looking at point of view.

How to Write a Christian Novel: Defining Your Genre 10

Step Five: Is your novel a stand-alone or part of a series?

My personal opinion is that, where possible, authors should plan to write a series of books. This has advantages in both the writing and the marketing:


You can utilise your research into time and place for more than one book, reducing average research time per book.


You can utilise characters in more than one book, which means you have a more complete characterisation for minor characters (as they will be major characters in another book in the series). This gives your reader a better sense that she knows your characters and can relate to them.


Publishers like a series, because a successful first book provides a ready-made audience for subsequent books. Publishers often take advantage of this to include teasers for the next book in the series, whetting the appetite of the reader.

First Book Free

Many publishers (and self-publishers) will make the ebook edition of the first book in a series free or very cheap (say, 99 cents) to encourage readers to try an new author and hopefully purchase additional books in the series, or some of the author’s back list titles.

Additional Editions

A series also gives publishers (or self-publishers) the option of increasing the overall sales by producing a reduced-price series-in-1 volume after the publication of the final book in a trilogy.

The current trend in a romance series is for each book to focus on one couple, who get their Happy Ever After at the end of the book. Subsequent books will feature a different couple as the hero or heroine, but will include some scenes with the characters from previous books. A series may follow:

  • Siblings or family members (e.g. Kaye Dacus’s Brides of Bonneterre trilogy);
  • Close friends or work colleagues (e.g. Irene Hannon’s Heroes of Quantico trilogy);
  • A specific location (e.g. Gayle Roper’s Seaside series or Susan May Warren’s Deep Haven series);
    A common theme (e.g. DiAnn Mills’s Call of Duty series). This can be less popular with readers, as we don’t get to see any of the characters we have come to know in the earlier books;
  • A family through time (e.g. Gilbert Morris’s Wakefield Dynasty, Jack Cavanagh’s American Family Portrait, or Roseanna M White’s new Culper Ring series). Each successive book follows one member of the next generation through their defining moment. These are usually romances, in that the family member meets their future spouse, and one of the advantages is the ability to refer back to previous characters (generations) to give a sense of continuity. One of the disadvantages (from the point of view of the author) is that these series require a lot of research, as each book is set in a different time period.

The trilogy that takes three or more books to tell one story has fallen out of popularity, although authors such as Jamie Carie are still using this format. Personally, I don’t favour it as I don’t like cliffhanger endings, but it can be successful.

Not all series fall in the romance genre (although most do). Mysteries are often written in a series, with the focus of each novel on solving the mystery. Authors such as Mindy Starns Clark or Julianna Deering will include a romantic subplot that sees some movement in each story with a full resolution only at the end of the series.

How many books in a series?

Trilogies are the most popular, although some series will have four or more books. Other authors will set more than one series in the same character universe, which allows them to keep up with previous characters while focusing on a new set. Susan May Warren is currently trying this with her Christiansen series (set in the same location as her Deep Haven series), and Karen Kingsbury took it to a ridiculous extreme with the Baxter family: a total of twenty-three related books across the Redemption, Firstborn, Sunshine, Above the Line and Bailey Flannigan series.

Read in order or stand alone?

It can be very annoying for the reader to pick up the second or third book in a series and find it difficult because they don’t understand the backstory that was covered in previous novels. Equally, the reader who has faithfully followed the series doesn’t want to be drowned in repetitive backstory (see the Amazon reviews for Coming Home by Karen Kingsbury).

So does the reader have to read the books in order to get the full story, or can each novel function as a stand-alone story? Ideally, both. And this is the trick in writing a successful series: to include enough information about the previous novels to ensure the story is a well-rounded stand-alone novel, but still satisfy those series readers who want to know what has happened to their favourite characters.

Are you writing a stand-alone or a series? What advantages do you see in writing a stand-alone novel?

Next week we will discuss how understanding your genre will help you determine the ideal word count for your novel.

How to Write a Christian Novel: Defining Your Genre 9

Step Four: When is your novel set?

The key question to ask in writing a historical novel is: Is the time period an integral part of the plot? If not, consider a contemporary novel. Successful historical novels are almost always set in a time of social, political or religious conflict. Perhaps this is why there are relatively few novels set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I: this was a period of relative calm between the religious turmoil of the early Tudor period and the political upheaval of the English Civil War.

Research is vitally important in any historical period. There will always be a reader who has read everything about this period and who will point out all the inaccuracies and anachronisms in their review (I admit: sometimes this person is me). Sometimes this reviewer will be a historian who writes an essay-review detailing the factual errors and citing the original Latin scrolls in London’s National Archives (I’ve read this review—and the author’s unsuccessful attempts at rebuttal).

Wedded to WarWonderland CreekThrough Rushing WaterYesterday's StardustGlamorous IllusionsStardustBefore the Scarlet DawnCourting Morrow LittleThe Frontiersman's DaughterThe Fire in EmberA Tailor-Made BridePaper Roses

However, this does depend on genre to a certain extent. An author writing genre romance will be forgiven for not including all the historical details (but the ones she does include should be correct). An author writing historical fiction and holding herself out as an expert should check and double-check all facts against reputable sources (i.e. not just Wikipedia.com or Victoriana.com).

There is an element of worldbuilding in historical fiction, as the author has to introduce the reader to a different culture and (often) a different set of values. The further back in time and the more foreign the location, the more difficult this worldbuilding will be.

One fault I find over and over again is authors getting the language wrong when writing outside their own culture. This is especially the case when Americans write about England—they have a tendency to inject Americanisms into the speech of their English characters (which can be a problem in contemporary fiction as well). I find it less of a problem when non-Americans write about America, probably because so much Christian historical fiction is American that we all have a good idea about the historical and cultural context.

Popular historical periods in fiction include:

Scotland (1300-1600)

Americans in particular seem to have an enduring love of Scottish highlanders (probably based on the success of the Outlander books and the sight of Mel Gibson with a broadsword in in Braveheart).

Tudor England (1485-1603)

I loved this period when I was about seventeen. Several authors are bringing it back for a new generation (perhaps due to the popularity of The Other Boleyn Girl). Personally, I’m over it. I’m especially over Anne Boleyn, because it’s all been done before (and we all know the ending). The religious issues make it a fascinating period, but I’d like to see more from the lives of the everyday people. Or anyone who isn’t a Boleyn (and calling her Nan Bullen doesn’t make it any better).

Colonial America (up to 1783)

Covering the first American settlers up to the War of Independence or Revolutionary War, and dealing with the difficulties of settling a new country and the struggle for independence from England.

Regency England (1811-1820)

This is a popular period in general romance, but one that has not yet been fully explored in Christian romance (and some of the authors who have written in this period show a woeful lack of understanding of the basics, to the point where I can’t take them seriously as a reader. For example, it’s called the Regency because the King had been declared unfit to rule and his son ruled in his stead as the Prince Regent).

Victorian England (1837-1901)

Victorian England was a period of huge social change through migration as a result of the Industrial Revolution, the Irish Potato Famine, and the colonisation of Australia and New Zealand. Authors writing in this era include Jennifer Delamere, Kaye Dacus and Australian authors such as Amanda Deed and Carol Preston.

American Civil War (1861-1865)

Gilbert Morris saturated this period with his 60-book House of Winslow series, but there are still a large number of novels set either during the war or just after (e.g. Jocelyn Green and Elizabeth Camden).

Gold Rush (1848-1911)

The Californian Gold Rush started in 1848, and miners moved north and east through the United States and Canada over many years, including the Klondike Gold Rush in Canada’s Yukon Territory in 1896-1899. Tracie Petersen and Deeanne Gist have both written about this era.

Westerns/Frontier Fiction (1850-1880)

Set west of the Mississippi River, usually in the time of wagon trains (although some westerns feature the coming of the railroad. This is currently a very popular time setting for romances from authors such as Karen Witemeyer, Carol Cox and Mary Connealy.

Gilded Age (1877-1900)

The period following Reconstruction, when the rise of the railroads and wealthy industrialists hid serious social problems. Often set in among the Four Hundred, those families considered most worth knowing in New York high society, or among the society leaders in a smaller community. Siri Mitchell and Judith Pella both have books in this period.

Edwardian England (1901 to 1910)

This is a period that is rising in popularity, as a result of the success of Downton Abbey. For examples, see Carrie Turansky and Murray Pura.

Generally speaking, historical novels cover periods up to an including World War II, with anything more modern being considered contemporary fiction. I don’t entirely agree with this view. I wasn’t alive during the 1960’s, and my memories of the 1970’s are filled with sunshine and sandpits, not the impact of the Vietnam War, the American Civil Rights movement, or the rise of women in the professional workplace. This is a period that is ripe for the attention of novelists, and more are focusing on this era (e.g. Pamela Binnings Ewen).

Do you write contemporary or historical? When is your story set? Is that the most appropriate setting?

Next week we will discuss the next step in defining your genre: stand-alone or series?

How to Write a Christian Novel: Defining Your Genre 8

Worldbuilding Genres

Many bookshops have a section called ‘Sci-fi/Fantasy’ or similar, which annoys writers because they see the genres as being quite separate—and they are. What these novels do have in common is the requirement for world-building: the ability of the author to create a credible imaginary world in which the story takes place. This includes developing the physical characteristics of the world (e.g. geography and ecology) as well as the history, culture and religion of the different people groups in the story.

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The world might be a long time ago on a faraway planet (Star Wars), it might be a futuristic version of Earth (Star Trek), it might be post-apocalyptic Earth (The Hunger Games) or it might be contemporary Earth but featuring a sub-culture hidden from the rest of us (Harry Potter or Twilight). Each of these require a different type and level of worldbuilding.

This genre isn’t heavily represented in Christian fiction, although publishers like Marcher Lord Press and Splashdown Books specialise in what is generally referred to as speculative or visionary fiction. In Christian fiction, speculative or visionary fiction includes some aspect of the supernatural, and this may or may not be biblically accurate (which can cause problems). While speculative fiction might have a romantic sub-plot, the main plot is almost always an action plot.


Science Fiction

Usually set either on another planet or system (Star Wars), or featuring star-travelling humans in the distant future (Star Trek). Science fiction novels usually feature an adventure plot rather than a romance plot, although there are some exceptions. There is usually a heavy reliance on technology, but the key to a successful sci-fi novel is the same as for any other novel: plot, character and conflict.

There’s not a lot of Sci-fi the Christian market—Kathy Tyers is the only author I know who specialises in this genre, although Christian authors such as CS Lewis and Lynne Stringer write general market sci-fi from a Christian world view.


Fantasy usually has an Earth-likes etting. Where a science fiction novel depends on science and technology, a fantasy world often incorporates magical elements (e.g. Lord of the Rings), or mythical creatures (e.g. dwarves, elves and dragons). Technological advancement is often similar to medieval Europe. There are a lot of authors writing Christian fantasy, many of which feature an allegorical romance representing Christ’s love for the church.


Stories featuring vampires, werewolves and other shapeshifters, mermaids, zombies, witches, wizards, or humans with psychic abilities. Paranormal novels tend to be contemporary, and paranormal romance is especially popular. The author needs to define the ‘rules’ of their paranormal society and ensure that characters obey these rules (or face the consequences). There’s probably a little less world-building in a paranormal novel than other genres discussed here, because there are a number of long-standing genre conventions (e.g. Stephenie Meyer faced a lot of criticsm for her sparkly vampires).

Paranormal romance (PNR) has been rising in popularity in the general market over the last decade, but predominantly in the general market. It doesn’t usually fit with a Christian worldview. The only examples of PNR I’ve seen in the Christian market are novels like The Widow of Saunders Creek by Tracey Bateman (traditionally-published speculative fiction with a romantic element) or Barbara Ellen Brink’s self-published Amish Vampire series (which I haven’t read, so can’t really comment on their Christian element).


Stories set on some alternate version of a future Earth. Classic examples include The War of the Worlds, The Day of the Triffids, the Tripods trilogy by John Christopher, and The Running Man by Richard Bachmann (better known as Stephen King). They tend to have an adventure plot, often centred on a chase or survival, and are particularly popular in Young Adult fiction (e.g. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins). Christian authors writing for this market include Jerel Law (Son of Angels) and Krista McGee (Anomaly).

Time Travel

Features the hero, heroine or both travelling back or forward in time, having to adjust to a new way of living. Time travel romance was popularised in the general market by novels such as Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, and Christian authors to have used this plot device include Tamara Leigh and Meredith Resce.

Do you write fiction that requires some level of worldbuilding? How do you describe what you write? What do you feel are the essential ingredients in a novel of this type?

Next week we will discuss the next step in defining your genre: time period.