52. Point of View Part 4: Multiple First-Person

Author: Nola Published: about 1 month ago.
Tags: POV, first-person, point of view, voice, multiple first-person Category: Writing tips

A major disadvantage of first-person point of view is that we only see things from one person’s perspective (see Part 3). One solution is to use two or more first-person viewpoints. This has many of the advantages I mentioned in Part 2 (i.e. we can get inside the head of each character and identify with what they’re thinking and feeling). If more than one character is using ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘my’, however, it’s easy for the reader to lose track of who’s thinking or acting. Here are some tips for using multiple first-person POV.

Make it Easy for Your Reader

Readers are less likely to get confused if you state the name of the focal person at the start of the chapter or scene. Books that do this include The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult and The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. If a novel includes letters written by different characters, indicate the author of each letter at the outset so that readers don’t have to wait for the final salutation to see who wrote it (e.g. From Lancelot to Guinevere). Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows do this to great effect in their quirky novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

In addition to headers, Marie Lu uses different fonts to distinguish the two main characters in her young-adult dystopian novel Legend. This makes the transitions even more obvious.

Fantasy author Carol Berg advises against introducing alternate voices too late. If a reader has invested a hundred pages in the first-person narration of one character, they may feel betrayed or tricked if you suddenly swap to another first-person viewpoint.

Use Different Voices

Author Jordan McCollum argues that strategies to identify the speaker will mean nothing if each character doesn’t have a distinctive voice.

Even bestselling books are not immune to this problem. Paula Hawkins’ blockbuster The Girl on the Train is written in the first-person perspectives of three women, but they all sound fairly similar. As author and blogger T. K. Marnell notes, ‘Paula Hawkins has a great voice [but] that’s the problem. She has a great voice … all of [the characters] sound like Paula Hawkins’.

Jodie Picoult does a better job in The Storyteller where she uses the distinct voices of Sage, a young woman trying to hide from the world, and her Jewish grandmother, Minka, who survived the Holocaust. Their personalities, and the times in which they lived, give different flavours to the way in which they recount events.

Ensure You Have a Good Reason

Although multiple first-person POV is great for providing different perspectives, it takes skill to pull it off effectively. Therefore, weigh up whether it’s the best approach for your story. Would your novel benefit from the unique voices of the characters? Then go for it, but ensure they really are distinct. Do you need each of the characters to see a different part of the puzzle? Then show us what they see, but as Berg notes, be sure to add new elements to the narrative rather than just replaying the same events through different eyes.

Have you come across any good novels that have used multiple first-person viewpoints? I’d love to hear your comments.

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