When telling a story from multiple points of view (i.e. from the perspective of different characters), you’ve got a number of options, including first and third person. In first person multiple, you have a number of viewpoints, each beginning “I…”. In third multiple, you might be following just as many character threads, but the story is told “he…” or “she…” instead.
Writing in first person multi is… an interesting choice. It tends to raises eyebrows, at least among fellow authors. (I’m rather of the view that readers in general don’t care as much, unless the chosen style works well with the read.) Third multi is certainly more common, and probably throws out fewer challenges, especially for a writer starting out.
So why choose first? And if you’ve decided to embark on a project in first multiple, what should you look out for?
1. Where are you going with this – think about what you’re trying to do with your story and see what fits.
Some argue that first person can take you closer inside the character’s head. I’m not sure that’s true (see Emma Darwin’s great post on psychic distance). My choice to use first person for my novel, Unsteady Souls, was more about the relationship between the character and the reader. I wanted to tell a story from three viewpoints that would gain empathy for all three main characters. Given the (often questionable and morally reprehensible) things the characters say and do, I wanted to create the idea of a conversation with a confidante. I couldn’t help but feel that an account written in first person would read more sympathetically.
If you’re unsure what fits your project, try writing your first chapter (or few chapters) each way and see what feels comfortable. What are the limitations of each? When the words are flowing, do you find yourself defaulting to one or the other? Why do you think that is? It may seem time-consuming to write both ways, but it’s a considerably smaller investment than having to rewrite a whole project if you choose the wrong one for your needs…
2. Building blocks – consider the structure of your story in terms of viewpoints
Using first person precludes an omniscient viewpoint – in other words, you can’t have a viewpoint character who knows the whole story, how everyone else is thinking, feeling etc. So you need to decide who takes which scene. Generally, I kept to the rule that the character with the highest stakes in a chapter or scene would get the viewpoint. For the most part, that was apparent, but sometimes it meant trial and error, and changing things around to see what worked.
Once you’ve got an idea of who has which scenes, think about how this fits with scene and sequel (see K.M. Weiland’s How to structure your novel for great help on this much overlooked topic). If one character has a dramatic event, and another takes the aftermath, that can give you the opportunity to let us into another character’s view of the same event, without having to repeat on the timeline.
3. Voice, voice, voice – be prepared to put in the work
Voice is perhaps the biggest challenge for first person multiple POV. Your character’s voice is his or her lens on the world. To be believable, and interesting, each character needs a distinct – and relatively consistent – voice.
As well as the larger, more obvious factors which can differentiate individuals (such as gender, age, cultural heritage, dialect, class and level of education), there are more subtle markers, such as attitudes, values and interests, which can shape the way they think, speak and behave.
What do they do for a living? How does their experience affect how they see the world? What are their interests – what do they read, what kind of films they do watch? Do they have a primarily optimistic or pessimistic outlook? Are they introverted or extroverted? A worrier or fairly relaxed? Funny or morose?
If one character is artistic and ephemeral, perhaps they might describe a dress as “floating chiffon, ruby red and bejewelled with sequins”. If another is more practical and down-to-earth, perhaps it’s just “a glittery red dress – the kind that sparkles under a spotlight”.
When it comes to speech, do they speak quickly or slowly? In long rambling sentences or short, choppy soundbites? Are they fairly considered in their speech or do they tend to blurt the first thing that comes to mind? Do they use slang or swear a lot? Even if dialect is the same, choice of words and turn of phrase can (and should) differ. One character might say “kept schtum” whilst another says “remained silent”. Remember this applies to dialogue between your characters too, regardless of which viewpoint the chapter is in.
The acid test? You should be able to look at a chapter at random and determine, without too much difficulty, whose viewpoint you’re in.
If you can’t, it might be that the voices aren’t distinct enough, and usually that means that you don’t yet know your characters well enough, or you’re allowing your authorial voice to intrude and cramp your characters’ style – well, styles.
That said, whilst a viewpoint is unlikely to change beyond recognition, the voice can develop as the characters go through their character arc. For example, your heroine might sound less confident when disaster strikes, and more definite when she comes through her trials. But in order to sound like parts of the same whole, hints of that character need to be present – and consistent – throughout.
It comes down to knowing your characters well – fleshing out who they are, what their backstory is and where they’re headed. Depending on how you write, sometimes it may take the first draft to find this out.
4. Acting out – think about how your characters’ actions support characterisation and viewpoint.
The same rule applies to a character’s actions. What are their foibles or mannerisms? Do they click their fingers idly when they’re bored or play with their hair when they’re thinking? In the character’s own viewpoint, this might not be mentioned much, apart from the odd action beat. Perhaps it’s an unconscious habit and, for the most part, he doesn’t realise he’s doing it. From the viewpoint of his love interest, it might be a gesture that she observes in minute detail. For his arch-rival – the antagonist – perhaps it’s a tell.
5. Telling lies – how reliable are your narrators?
In first person multiple POV, narrators are always unreliable – think of eyewitness testimony, for example. If there’s no omniscient voice, there’s no possibility of an unbiased version of events. And that lets you play havoc with the reader. That’s not to say you can’t do in close third person, of course, but I think the effect is more immediate in first. There’s no one to contradict or filter their story, perhaps until you hear the same event from another viewpoint later on. In the bestselling novel, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins uses unreliable narrators to great effect, disorientating the reader and keeping back the truth until the final pages.
How are you finding it?
Have you embarked on writing in first person multiple? Do you have any experiences, challenges or tips to share? Feel free to let me know in the comments.