Carol Berg April 23rd, 2007
I have one author who writes the first half of a one chapter story in the first person singular, and then in the second half, she changes to write in the first person singular of the opposite character. When I told her it was confusing, she lashed out at me about how she was a teacher and it was correct writing.
OK, I found myself writing a long answer to this question and decided not to bury it at the bottom of the My First Novel pile, because first person narration is dear to my heart. I love the feel of living an adventure so close to one of the participants – both reading and writing. Before Transformation was published, I never knew there were readers who held an antipathy to first person. Many of my all-time favorite books are first person, and, I suppose, what bad first person books I’d read would have been bad no matter what “person” they were written in! But since I’ve been reading more pre-published fiction, I understand way better. (And I’ve a few other pet peeves to go along with bad first person, but I’ll leave them for another time.)
So on to Lynn’s query…
There is certainly nothing technically wrong with multiple first-person narrators. It is no more “incorrect” than using multiple third-person points of view or present tense or omniscient POVs or whatever else. For those of us who love first person done well, multiple narrators can alleviate the biggest downside of writing first-person narrative, which is getting only one character’s view of the action. All of my nine books are in first person, and I have used multiple narrators in four of them.
Of course, as with any technique, you have to work at it. Here are a few things I concentrate on:
- first and foremost, I always make sure the reader is clear about whose head we’re in. I only switch at chapter breaks, and I always delineate the speaker in the chapter head. Some writers switch at scene breaks–or even more often, which gets dicey, in my mind–but I prefer using a chapter break, even if it means variable length chapters. On the other hand, I do try to minimize switching, giving a sequence of chapters in one voice, and then one or more in another. But, of course, the storytelling must ultimately decide this. I would like to think that my characters and their voices are distinctive enough that they are instantly identifiable – but every reader is different and I don’t want to pop them out of the story by leaving them confused.
- during revision time, I always work to minimize the use of “I”. This is true no matter whether I have a single or multiple narrator. Using POV characters who are naturally good observers can be a real bonus. They can reveal their thoughts and feelings, not only by speaking them directly in narrative, but by what they observe, how they phrase it, and how they react.
- I don’t wait too long to introduce the reader to alternate narrators. (I did this once, and heard about it!) A reader can get highly invested in a first-person narrator and can feel betrayed at a late switch.
- I never do simple repeats of scenes. If my two narrators give me alternate views of an incident, I always make sure to minimize the repeat of the action and unfold additional events in the second telling. This is a really fun way to deepen and enrich a story, giving lovely plot twists.
- I try to avoid characters indulging in excess navel gazing. Pages of nothing but self-examination are boring, no matter whether they’re written in first or third person.
I’m sure there are many other techniques other writers can add to these.
The upshot is, don’t tell your person she’s wrong. Try to figure out what it is that grates –the confusion, the uncertainty, repetition, drowning in thoughts, or whatever–and present her with your reactions. There are many ways to tell a good story.