My First Novel Question: Multiple First Person Narrators

April 23rd, 2007

Lynn wrote:

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.

Carol

31 Responses to “My First Novel Question: Multiple First Person Narrators”

  1. EAWhitton 23 Apr 2007 at 9:08 pm

    I think these are great points, not that I’m surprised since Carol’s books have become some of my very favorites in part because she writes first person so very well.

    Almost every established writer I’ve talked with about my current project, which is in first person, mentions that first is very hard to pull off effectively. I have to admit I find that a little odd, since as a writer I feel artificially distant when using third person narration, but it’s true that there are a good deal of things (most mentioned above) that have to be watched in 1st person that generally fall by the wayside in 3rd.

    Along with my standard edits to remove passive verbs and whatnot, I search and highlight every instance of sentences beginning with “I”. It’s a very common, easy pitfall, but it turns your narrative into a badly written diary entry: “I went to the kitchen and got a snack. I sat outside. I waved to the people walking by on the sidewalk, and then I went back inside.” Choppy, boring, and wooden. “Pretzels in hand, I headed out to the front porch and my favorite patch of sun, where the bees buzzed around the flower beds and the neighborhood moms pushed their toddlers in strollers for their afternoon workouts.” The second evokes a much different scene – and to be honest, my first drafts almost always look much more like the first example. That’s the magic of editing.

    I do have to say that I can probably count on one hand the number of authors I really feel write in first person well enough to draw me all the way in. Of course, that may be because I haven’t found the right books… I’m always willing to find another favorite.

  2. Marie Brennanon 23 Apr 2007 at 11:52 pm

    It’s encouraging to hear you say this, since my agent’s currently shopping around a novel of mine that switches between a first and a (different) third.

    Back when I originally wrote that book, I got quite far in before realizing there was a segment that had to happen from someone else’s pov, and by then no way was I re-writing the entire thing to that point from first to third. Since I figured switching between firsts would be more confusing than first and third, I went the latter route. (I also wasn’t at all sure I knew the second character well enough to write him from first person. I know him better now, but Julian’s still not a first-person kind of guy.)

    Now, of course, I’m planning a sequel (once the first one sells), and Julian’s moved from being a minor pov character to a major one in this book, and I find myself having to continue on with the odd choices I made originally. My life would be simpler if I’d done the whole thing in third. But first and third it was, so first and third it will continue to be, and I just hope it doesn’t confuse anybody too much.

  3. Seleneon 24 Apr 2007 at 1:36 am

    Great post, Carol!

    I think that, for me, the most important thing in making alternating first person POVs work is very distinct character voices. If the author’s voice is too dominant, or if the character voices are too bland, it can get confusing really quickly.

    The most common problem with less-than-stellar first person in my experience is too self aware characters. It really comes off as odd when the character is describing himself from the outside, so to speak, or even worse when he’s doing it with flowery descriptions. An overall too “literary” language sounds odd in first person, unless the MC’s a poet or some such (which is rarely the case).

    Oh, and I agree with EAWhitt that having too many sentences starting with “I” does sound really bad. If every sentence is about the character, you have only reactions, but you don’t motivate them. You don’t show your character taking in impressions and reacting too them. (For anyone who’d like to read more about this, I strongly recommend “Techniques of the selling writer” by Swain, and more specifically the chapter on MR-units. Despite the title, this is a great book, and there’s a reason it’s been in print for decades. :-) It’s the only writing book I’d recommend, other than Browne and King’s “Self-editing for fiction writers”.)

    Selene

  4. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 24 Apr 2007 at 2:47 am

    *CROGGLE* Someone thinks writing first person is difficult? I’ve always thought it one of the most dead simple persons to write in, assuming you have the right character for a narrator.

    Multiple first persons? I know the technique, but haven’t had occasion to use it myself, simply because none of the stories or novels I’ve written have required it, but it seems to not be any trouble so long as the reader can be quite certain who is telling what portion of the narrative.

  5. lyssabitson 24 Apr 2007 at 12:50 pm

    - 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.

    Hee hee, I assume that’s Song of the Beast, I admit I wasn’t a fan of the switch when it first happened (I loved Aiden and missed him when he was gone), but I appreciated it in the end since that character was a lot less likeable before we were allowed to see things from her perspective. I think it’s still my favorite of all your books, though. Certainly it’s one I give people when I’m trying to convert them to fantasy (and I try to convert everyone!). I’m a big sucker for bards and dragons, and the combination of the two is irresistible.

  6. [...] on neatly from that is Carol Berg’s response to a reader enquiry about shifting POVs at the DeepGenre blog: “There is certainly nothing technically wrong with multiple [...]

  7. [...] – Multiple First Person Narrators “There is certainly nothing technically wrong with multiple first-person narrators. It is no [...]

  8. Betsy Dornbuschon 25 Apr 2007 at 7:57 pm

    The most common problem with less-than-stellar first person in my experience is too self aware characters. This is a tricky thing to defeat even in third. However, in first it can be a fun device if you can make it obvious they have misconceptions about themselves.

    Gee I write most of my short stories in first person and most of my novels in third. Wonder what THAT means??

  9. Maryon 25 Apr 2007 at 8:00 pm

    Yup, writing in first person can be difficult. You need a character who would tell his story — willingly or not.

    OTOH, in the form of the epistolary novel, the multi-person first person POV is one of the oldest ways to write a novel

  10. Seleneon 26 Apr 2007 at 1:44 am

    Betsy:

    This is a tricky thing to defeat even in third.

    True, but it sticks out like a sour thumb in first.

    However, in first it can be a fun device if you can make it obvous they have misconceptions about themselves.

    Well, you could of course have a very self-aware character, and that might be fun to play with. I’d say all first person POVs (or all intimate POVs) should be biased to the character, and it would be more odd if the character is objectively right all the time than if he isn’t. What I tend to see a lot of is more unintentional (and therein lies the problem most likely). So we get prose along the lines of:

    I flicked my long hair over one shoulder, feeling the sweat trickle down my neck and along the delicate arch of my back.

    Granted, this wouldn’t sound great even in third person, but at least you have the leeway to pull back a bit or “zoom out” the POV, which really doesn’t work well in first. If I kept reading sentences like that, I would assume the character is very concerned about her own looks, as she notes to herself that her hair is long, that her back is arched delicately etc. More often than not, that isn’t the impression the author wants to give.

    Selene

  11. Carol Bergon 26 Apr 2007 at 9:26 am

    Well, of course, a first person narrator must be self-aware, but not self-absorbed. As with any POV character, the writer must think carefully about what the narrator observes about him or herself. The latter is what can drive readers crazy. The key is to have the narrator’s thoughts evolve naturally from the action of the story and his or her reactions from the emotions roused by that action. I think it’s important that the personality who filters everything we see must be somewhat likeable or interesting – a person the reader is going to enjoy being around for the length of the story. Someone who feels the need to constantly describe her own physical appearance–especially in such admiring terms as “delicately arched” is going to get tiresome whether in life or in literature.

    Carol

  12. glenda larkeon 01 May 2007 at 10:48 am

    I have written both first and third person novels, and books where I have alternated between several first person accounts, and between first and third.

    First person is much more difficult to plot and to execute well. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be done brilliantly – and there are many writers who do just that.

    It therefore has totally astounded me how many people have told me that they won’t read first person novels, that they won’t even try. Before I was published, I must admit that it never occurred to me that there were folk out there who were so adamant on this issue, given how many wonderful first person books there are – in all genres, and from classics to modern literature. First person narratives are so varied, I felt it was a bit like saying “I won’t read books with red covers.” Or, “I won’t read books set in England.”

  13. Carol Bergon 03 May 2007 at 1:09 pm

    glenda larke wrote:

    It therefore has totally astounded me how many people have told me that they won’t read first person novels, that they won’t even try.

    As I said, that surprised the heck out of me, too.

    Carol

  14. Charleson 12 May 2007 at 7:54 pm

    I was going to say that 1st person narrative is not my favorite…but then again, when I look through my collection of books I’m amazed at how many of my favorites are written in 1st person. I can’t write that way myself, but I guess I enjoy it more than I realized.

    As for multiple 1st person narratives within a single novel, the 1st time I encountered this was Andre Norton’s “The Crystal Gryphon”. The story is told in 1st person, rotating between Kerovan and Joisan. (This is also the 1st time I’ve seen having chapters named after the viewpoint character, something George R.R. Martin makes excellent use of in his Song of Ice and Fire series).

    I actually enjoyed Norton’s use of the multiple 1st person narrative. And what I found especially interesting was when the two characters finally met and how portions of one major scene were told from each perspective.

  15. Carol Bergon 13 May 2007 at 9:05 am

    what I found especially interesting was when the two characters finally met and how portions of one major scene were told from each perspective.

    Yes, I think this technique can add a marvelous richness to a story. Of course it can be done from multiple third-person POVs as well, but I think it is particularly effective from multiple firsts.

    Carol

  16. Adamon 30 Jun 2007 at 11:35 am

    Hi,

    I am doing a short story and while I have no wish to give away my highly marketable plot (lol) I have a question with regard POV.

    In the story my main protagonist is able to see through others eyes and hear their thoughts. It will ease into multiple narrators, but one in third and one in first. This means that although it’s a different POV, its a constant connection. I want it to be sort of in the background until some thing specific happens.

    Is it ok to do this change of POV such:

    (this is just an example!)

    Bill lifted the coffee pot and poured himself a healthy cup.

    ..did he look? I thought he did. Maybe if I pretend to be interested in this lampshade…yes, he looked again..No, it’s too much, I’ll have to go or I’ll start blushing and..

    Bill shook his head in annoyance.
    Why couldn’t she just ask him out? God, she was becoming annoying.
    He sat down and ate his sandwich.

    Does that read right or is there a better way of doing it? Using italics makes it obvious but it should probably be obvious without them.

    Any help would be great.

    Adam

  17. Anthonyon 27 Jul 2007 at 1:21 pm

    One of the absolute best examples of a brilliant first person is The Contortionist’s Handbook by Clive Clevenger. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it done better.

  18. mollyon 30 Sep 2007 at 5:00 pm

    I am in the process of writing a novel I have started and stopped working on over the last 20 years or so. I finally find I have the time and decided to begin re-writing it and plan to use the foreign to me technique of first person.
    I took a paragraph and in third it’s not as descriptive as in first, so that pleased me. In third person it was a mere description of what occurred, but in first I was able to add more from the character.
    I have always used third person, so this is not only new and different, I have noticed it more in the books I have previously read now I have been made aware of it.
    molly

  19. Iffix Y Santaphon 03 Jan 2008 at 3:25 pm

    I just completed my own space odyssey adventure bouncing from multiple first persons.
    My first experience as a writer was with first-person, when I was very young. I made a transition to third person as my writing style developed. As such, I began writing this story in third-person, and after several months, found my writing going nowhere. Then I stepped back into first person, which was quite an easy transition, and used multiple-first-person view to add depth to the story.
    Most every chapter is written by a different character with a new voice. Some are very straight-laced. Some are comical. And it was very enjoyable to see how each interacted, to see into their minds. Especially as each was so uniquely different. And they’ve all become very real in my mind.
    I definitely stress that it is very critical to develop different voices for your characters, and keep them straight. If one character speaks like a pirate, he shouldn’t speak well-pronounced English in the next chapter in which he is featured, something I’ve found myself doing on more than one occasion. It’s easy to lose yourself; compare passages by the character to be his writing is consistent.
    I used the premise that these characters were actually telling each other the story with instant messaging devices, which seemed to fit well with this type of story.
    I found this style to be more challenging, toward the end of the novel, as one of my major characters needed to write a scene, being the only one able to see what he saw, but would wind up dead (supposedly) by the end of the scene. A bit of ingenuity, and I pulled it out of my hat. I think it turned out well. I’m hoping Tor agrees.
    My project has only just begun. I plan to write many more volumes. And it is very exciting to see others who are using this style as well.

  20. Bonnieon 27 Apr 2009 at 8:24 pm

    I am working on my first novel. It’s a sci-fi novel written in the 1st person. I have gone back and forth which POV to use, but I always come back to 1st person. The reason I think the story works better in the 1st person is b/c the novel is based on actual events that occurred in my childhood.

    I have read several posts and most agree that third person is the best, however, when I change it, my story changes from what I imagined. I am torn on what perspective to write in. Most posts say that it’s difficult to write in 1st person, but it’s not been difficult for me (so far).

    Do publishers prefer 1st or 3rd??

  21. Carol Bergon 28 Apr 2009 at 11:40 am

    Bonnie,

    Write the story the way it feels right. Despite what others say, third person is not always the best way to tell a story. Nor is it necessarily the best for a first time author.

    Publishers don’t care about first person or third person. They want great stories with unique, compelling voices. Yes, doing first person right is tough. But writing with a unique, compelling voice is tough!

    Write it. Read it. Revise it until it works, keeping in mind the pitfalls of first person, as well as all the other important pieces of craft you have learned along the way. Maybe that will eventually mean putting it in third person. Maybe not. Revision is your ally. Just as critique is your ally. But for now, don’t be scared off of doing what feels right by worrying about what publishers or bloggers or commenters want.

    Good luck. Have fun. Go write!

    Carol

  22. Tomon 21 May 2009 at 7:07 am

    When I was in school they taught us to srite in the first person. We studied the use of the third (and second) person, but as far as creative writing went it was first person all the way.

    Sine then I’ve always found that whenever I write in the first person it comes across forced, and almost childish in style. So, I tend to write in the third person.

    Recently though I have been working on a novella, which I’ve put in the first person. I was wondering how I’d managed to pull that off until I realised that it was the character. My narrator has the right personality for first person to work with my writing style: he’s angsty, has lots of academic knowledge but no practical experience, that kind of thing. I’ve also got a slightly non-linear structure which is letting me show off bits of his background immediately before they become relevant to the plot, without being too obvious about it, so it’s clear that he’s not always a reliable narrator, and why, but not nessecarily in what way he’s unreliable.

    The whole thing is a bit experimental for me, so it’s going to have to go through several rounds of redrafting I think. The characters voices are too simmilar, there are big sections of exposition which could be better done as dialog, and some sections of dialog which are boring and could be better summarised. I think I’ve been a bit too verbose in places.

    The general shape of it works though, the characters personalities are distinct and interesting, and mysterious in some cases because my narrator doesn’t always understand them. I’ve also found it easier to play with the relationships between characters, because I can have my narrator worry more convincingly about what others think of him.

    Anyway, that’s what I’ve recently learned about the first person: with the right structure and the right narrator it can be as powerful and sophisticated as the third person.

    Tom

  23. Rebeccaon 23 Aug 2009 at 1:14 pm

    I am so glad I found this page in my hunt for answers. I am attempting to write my first novel, and decided to narrate it in first person however, I have more than one narrator. I use two main characters, and two others who narrate when I need them too. I am not sure if this is even allowed, or acceptable at all. I have made sure the change is only on chapter breaks, and that its clear very soon who is now speaking. I am quite a ways through the story and now am doubting my decision and wonder if anyone had any advice for me? :)

    Its a fantasy story, with a lot of characters. I have enjoyed it but in my hope to publish someday, I am in search for some answers.

    Thanks
    Rebecca

  24. Carol Bergon 23 Aug 2009 at 1:55 pm

    Rebecca,

    There is no reason not to use secondary characters as first person narrators, certainly if they have an interesting perspective to bring to the story. The main things are
    – to keep clear who is speaking (as you’ve said you’ve done)
    – to avoid unnecessary repetition; that is, it’s cool to see a certain action from multiple perspectives, but each telling should bring something new to the reader
    – make sure the jumps are not too jarring for the reader (ie. too frequent, too manipulative, as in always switching just at a cliffhanger, or unnecessary);

    For now, write your story the way it’s unfolding to you. You have all of revision to perfect it.

    Have fun!
    Carol

  25. Rebeccaon 02 Sep 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Carol,

    Thank you so much for your reply. It was much appreciated.
    I have made sure the narrator is known as soon as possible, and I think I repeat some of a scene only once. I was beginning to doubt myself, and consider a rewrite in third person but I think I will keep it as is. (Its already at 32 chapters, so thats a huge job) It needs some revisions, but I think the story is good, always something happening, never a dull moment. lol

    Blessings
    Rebecca

  26. Nancyon 15 Oct 2010 at 6:39 pm

    The question may not be about narration at all:

    When I told her it was confusing, she lashed out at me about how she was a teacher and it was correct writing.

    It looks like the writer’s issue may be about her ego and/or lack of confidence as a writer. If this person IS a teacher, she should be used to getting feedback and constructive criticism. “Lashing out” because the reader can’t follow the narrative is a rookie move. Don’t blame the reader; blame the writer.

  27. Jacobon 08 Nov 2010 at 7:38 pm

    Is it easier or/and better to alternate between two first person povs or first and third?

  28. Sean O\'Carolanon 22 May 2011 at 1:42 am

    This is an old topic, so I don’t really expect a reply, but what the hell. It helps to just put your thoughts out where you can see them sometimes, though any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

    Anyway.

    I was initially confused about the advisability, let alone the permissibility of writing a novel with multiple first person narrators. Like some of the previous posters, I decided to just slap ‘writing with multiple first person narrators’ into Google. Given that it led me here, I’d call the search successful.

    I’m currently working on my first novel, a science fiction story with a double handful of main characters, but only one main protagonist. Originally, I was going to emulate Dan Abnett’s narrative technique within his “Ravenor” series of novels; basically, only the main character speaks in the first person – all others are written in the third. I tried his method while writing the Prologue chapter; it came out stilted and, well, wrong. It works for Abnett, but not so much for me. Needless to say, that chapter got binned. And with good reason: put simply, it sucked. I’m rewriting it now, and people I’ve asked to compare the two versions universally prefer the current, first person incarnation.

    Now, I’ve decided to use first person narration for every character for several reasons, but primarily because if I can give each character a unique voice, perspective, and feel, then my characters can develop more organically, and more importantly, naturally. If I can accomplish this, not only can I be more descriptive, but I can actually have multiple levels of description. No two people see and describe the world the same way; no two characters would, either.

    I was ecstatic to see someone above refer to George R.R. Martin’s stellar character development within his “Song of Ice and Fire” fantasy series. I’m planning on taking a leaf from his book (Gods be, this is a horrible pun), and naming each respective chapter after the person who is narrating. That may upset some people, but it’s probably the best way to avoid the confusion that would accompany so many conflicting narratives. The only difference here is that where Martin’s characters are written in the third person, mine will be written in first person.

    All the lives of the characters are intertwined: this means a reader will get to see one character through the eyes of another; a friend, a parent, an enemy. This is what allows me to shore up the one of the biggest deficiencies in writing in the first person: omission of details (e.g. only getting one side of a story, lack of ‘bigger picture’ moments, etc). One character is a thread; many are a tapestry. Clumsy metaphor aside, when you factor personal subplots and character interactions, the result is a much richer story. Or a resounding flop. Either way, should be interesting.

    There’s so much more I want to add, but I’m afraid my coherence has already long since abandoned me. I apologize in advance if this post seems like inane rambling; I saw this thread, wanted to comment, but feared that if I put it off, I’d never get around to it.

    I appreciate any feedback, but even if this post disappears into the dark recesses of the internet without ever seeing a reply, I still learned a good bit from those who came before. For that, I’m grateful.

    Best,
    Sean

  29. Ashley Nadineon 20 Sep 2011 at 11:14 pm

    I’ve been sort of obsessed with the idea of writing a novel for a few years now. Everywhere I go, I see ideas about what I could write, or characters that I could create– But I’ve never been able to stick with anything for long.
    Until now.
    I’ve been setting aside an hour every night to write (something I thought I would have to do in order to accomplish anything) but it turns out, I never get tired of writing!
    Before I proceed on this “I should be doing other things right now” tangent, let me get to my questions:
    I’m serioulsly considering having 2 different first-person narrators. I’ve been going on for a while (although not chronilogically, per say) using just one narrator; but it suddenly hit me that I need another voice. And I know exactally who that voice needs to be. But I’m worried that I might not be able to give these characters a uniqe enough tone. Because this is my first novel, I’m pretty pre-occupied with avoiding the rookie mistake of making a main character that’s more-or-less a distorted version of yourself. I feel like adding another charaacter might help prevent this (or at least half-prevent this). My current first person narrator is rather sarcastic (something I find far too amusing in writing) and I don’t want my new narrator to sound, for lack of a better word, bland in comparison. At the same time, I feel like that contrast would be a good thing.
    Help!
    This whole novel writing business is quite complicated.
    But boy do I love it.

    ~Ashley

  30. Tawalon 27 Aug 2013 at 2:17 am

    First off, wonderful post and comments. What a wonderful community and then I started actually paying attention to the names and yeah, deeply humbled. I’m really late in the game so who knows if any responses are out there but on the topic of multiple narrators, particularly when introducing a series, is there a limit?

    I know Song of Ice and Fire has plenty, but can’t recall if that’s how the series started out or if narrators gradually accumulated over time to acclimate reader. Any thoughts?

    Thanks!

  31. Meganon 19 Oct 2014 at 9:36 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’ve been writing a novel for the past six years now(I started writing it when I was twelve. I’m seventeen now.) A lot of people keep telling me that I should switch to third person because of my two first person narrators, but the first person fit the characters so well, and honestly third person just didn’t flow all that well with the characters I had created. It’s very pleasing to hear something like this from someone who has written nine books with multiple first person narrators. Again I thank you for your insight.

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