May 11 2009
1. Make it clear who’s narrating which chapter. The biggest problem with multiple narrators is that it’s hard to keep track of who is narrating a given chapter. One way you can fix this problem is by placing the character’s name below the chapter heading. Or you can use blatant demographic cues. (For example, someone that starts a chapter by saying “Damn, I hate high-heels!” is probably not a male). Some publishers even sign off on a tiny picture of the character below the chapter heading. Do whatever it takes.
2. Give your narrators substantially different personalities. This is particularly important for narrators because we will be spending a lot of time with them. If the narrators have essentially interchangeable personalities, it will be painfully obvious to the readers. It will help if your characters tend to act and think through problems in different ways. For example, Agent Black is a federal agent that hates to rock the boat. If he had to do something risky, like taking a shot at a criminal with a hostage, he’d be more inclined to think in terms of “how can I get authorization to take the shot?” or “how can I solve this problem without risking the hostage?” A renegade would be more likely to think in terms of “if I take the shot and the hostage gets killed, how do I make sure I don’t get axed?”
3. Give them different voices. Personality describes how a character thinks and acts, but his voice is how he sounds. Play with their language in a way that makes them sound genuinely different. Perhaps one is better-educated or dumber or terser or more comical or more prone to go off on tangents or whatever. Please do not use multiple narrators unless you can give each narrator a distinct voice.
4. ONLY SWITCH NARRATORS AT CHAPTER BREAKS. Switching narrators mid-chapter is so jarring and hard to follow that it will probably kill your manuscript. If you want to change narrators, just start a new chapter! Remember, if you have a situation that’s important enough to justify a change of narrator or POV, it’s important enough to justify a new chapter.
5. Please have the narrators interact. A story with multiple narrators or POVs shines when the narrators share scenes. We’re so familiar with both characters that the interactions between the characters should be really special. For example, the Superman/Batman series revolves around the relationship between the two title characters. In contrast, Soon I Will Be Invincible gives the two narrators astonishingly little time to interact. They only share one scene, which was quite disappointing.
6. I highly recommend sticking with 1-2 narrators or POVs, particularly if you’re a first-time author. It’s really hard to handle three or more narrators, so publishers might be wary. If you’re considering a very ambitious project like that, I’d recommend saving it for your second book.