Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Writing Class - Alternating First Person Point of View

Many of the novels I read in 2010 use alternating first person points of view. This means that the story is told, in the first person, by more than one narrator, the viewpoint generally switching back and forth between two or more characters.

It’s a popular form of storytelling, both generally and in YA novels in particular, but it’s problematic because of the difficulties involved in doing it well.

An example of alternating first person point of view done well is Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and in this case, there is a simple reason for its success; the novel was written by two different people. The two characters who narrate the story are both called Will Grayson, but as each Will Grayson was written by a different author, the reader is exposed to two distinct voices.

That is not to say that an alternating first person point of view only works where there is more than one author; however, it takes a highly skilled author to pull it off.

In some of the novels I read last year, the characters’ voices were so similar that I found myself constantly reading back or skipping forward to figure out which character was currently narrating the story. This happened even with stories that were told by characters of different sexes, and was particularly apparent where the narrators were of a similar age.

In some of these books, as if in anticipation of this very problem, each chapter had the name of the narrator at the top of the page. While this is certainly useful, it’s more of a cop-out than a solution, since the narrators should sound so different that the possibility of confusion should never arise.

Jodi Piccoult is an example of a writer skilled in voice. While there’s a consistency to her authorial style, she manages to create distinctive voices. Her book My Sister’s Keeper (told from 8 different points of view), exemplifies her mastery of voice and point of view.

The key lies in knowing your characters, hearing their voices in your head, understanding the way they think and the way they speak.

If you allow your characters to narrate their story, their whole identity must be expressed through their narration. It goes without saying that an eighty-year-old woman will not sound the same as an eighteen-year-old man. Their use of language will differ.

Bear in mind that if your characters are not different enough to sound different, you might have a deeper problem of character and characterisation. But not necessarily – it could just be that you’re not yet a brilliant enough writer to handle alternating first person points of view. If this is the case, you might be better off writing in third person point of view.

I’ve chosen to write about this very specific problem today as I’ve seen so much of it lately and it’s been on my mind. (Next week, I’ll write more generally about point of view.)

Have any of you noticed this problem, too?


  1. A huge topic Robyn and you've obviously given it alot of thought. For what it's worth, I think getting voice right is one of the biggest challenges an author faces. Whether you're writing from the POV of a character or writing as the omniscient narrator you must spend time getting the voice right, it's the only way to gain the reader's trust. The written word is nothing if not 'voice'. jx

  2. I agree, Jen. The problem with alternating POVs is that you have to get more than one voice right. But I also think that alternating POVs is still easier than omniscient narrator, which in my view is hardest of all.

  3. Agreed! I’ve read 200+ books (YA, fantasy, etc.) with alternating point of views, all written in the last 5 years (what’s up with that trend, anyways? It has to GO).
    In practically every case, the effect of that narrative choice was simply to make me take a step back and feel detached from the emotional aspects characters went through or to take away the subjective perception of facts and the mystery which is the a priori appeal of the 1st person voice.

    For example, when Person1 asks herself, “what could he possibly be thinking, looking at me with those kind of eyes?”, we don’t get emotionally involved nor wonder too much about it the way she might do, because we get the answer to what he thought about when he looked at her in the next chapter or couple of pages, which we know will be written with Person2’s point of view.
    While to me it makes me feel more like watching two robots talking to each other than humans, I can kind of see the appeal.

    When you think about it, it's like watching a Columbo movie: you already know who did the crime at the very beginning, so you get to sit from your higher point of knowledge and think you are smarter than Columbo while watching him try to figure it all out... to me, it makes the whole thing quite boring; however, Columbo was a huge hit that ran for years, so that kind of format must appeal to a wider audience in desperate need to have all the answers now instead of facing the tragic anxiety of perhaps, maybe, having to figure it out.