May 11 2009

How to Do Multiple Narrators and POVs with Style

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.

46 responses so far

46 Responses to “How to Do Multiple Narrators and POVs with Style”

  1. Marissaon 11 May 2009 at 1:58 pm

    On the contrary, one of my male characters would be highly likely to start a chapter with ‘I hate high heels.’ ;D

    Although it would have to be in dialogue, because I’m writing in the third person…

  2. Holliequon 11 May 2009 at 1:58 pm

    Hmm. I’ve done multiple-POV stories before. I agree that getting a unique character voice is crucial. If your narrators will make the same comment on every scene, what’s the point in having two narrators?

    Unfortunately character voice can be quite difficult to do in some cases. I find description pretty tricky to inject character voice into. I normally think in terms of Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, in which Poirot asks each of the suspects to describe a room in detail. Each of them remembers the general layout of the room, but different aspects of it drew their attention in particular (a thief notices some Egyptian jewellry, etc).

  3. B. Macon 11 May 2009 at 2:01 pm

    I’m not sure why a male would hate high-heels. Since males are never asked to wear them, it’s not something that crosses our minds. In contrast, many guys do hate ties.

  4. Marissaon 11 May 2009 at 2:16 pm

    Males are asked to wear them more often than you realize, but their dignity and the laughter that would ensue generally ensure that they never comply.

    The most recent example: I never wear high-heels, but what my friends call my ‘superpower’ is the ability to sprint in them on the rare occasions that I do wear them. A guy friend told me that’s simple, so I challenged him. So he wore high-heels.

    And a few guys have told me they hate high heels for the sheer purpose of not getting kicked in the crotch with a stiletto heel.

    Wow, this is probably not the part of that entry you wanted readers to latch onto, so I’ll stop now. Hahah…

  5. B. Macon 11 May 2009 at 2:37 pm

    “Males are asked to wear them more often than you realize.” What!

  6. Alice2on 11 May 2009 at 4:17 pm

    4. ONLY SWITCH NARRATORS AT CHAPTER BREAKS.

    Dumb question. Does this apply to switching characters in third person?

    I’ve seen some writing that switched characters between scenes, but I’ve seen it advised against.

    I want to show a particularly crucial bit of interaction between some of my major characters. But they aren’t with my protagonists, and it isn’t long enough to be an entire chapter.

  7. Beccaon 11 May 2009 at 9:14 pm

    I’m reading Soon I Will Be Invincible now, and I think the most annoying thing about it is how the two narrators’ voices are so indistinct. Somehow, an evil genius scientist and a half-cyborg sound exactly the same. Yeah, that’s realistic… :S

  8. B. Macon 11 May 2009 at 9:48 pm

    I also have trouble with voices. I’m a literary person and haven’t been well-exposed to working class dialects. (I was born in Cicero, a part of Chicago that is best-known for Al Capone, government corruption and murder. But we moved away when I was 5 or so). So my characters often sound white-collar even they shouldn’t. Agent Black is pretty much my default voice.

    One possible solution is giving the character’s voice a really brief origin story. For example, Agent Orange learned English through a thesaurus, which makes his voice sound very alien and strange. “Greetings!”

  9. B. Macon 11 May 2009 at 10:03 pm

    When you say switching characters, you mean switching point of view, right? Yeah, I would recommend switching POV only at a chapter break. Tom Clancy and a few other authors sometimes do mid-chapter POV switches, so this isn’t an absolutely lethal blunder, but it seems pretty rare and kind of tacky to me.

    I don’t think that switching mid-chapter is the best way to handle what you have in mind. In addition to the usual concerns about disorientating readers with mid-chapter narrator/POV shifts, I think that this passage might not feel coherent with the rest of the chapter. What’s the bit of interaction you want to show?

    I could probably provide better advice if I knew more, but here are some possible ways to handle it.
    –Beef that interaction up to a page (250 words or so) and do a one-page chapter.
    –Have one character relay it to the POV as backstory.
    –Have a character eavesdrop or spy on the conversation.

  10. Yogion 11 May 2009 at 10:47 pm

    I’m doing Multiple Narrators, and Belinda and Riley meet in a grand total of five chapters, according to my work plan so far. Is that all right? :S

  11. B. Macon 11 May 2009 at 11:11 pm

    How many chapters do you have? If your novel only has ten chapters (averaging around 6000 or 7000 words), then five would be enough. If you have 50-75 chapters (1000-1500 words), then five would probably not be enough. As a rule of thumb, if the two narrators are protagonists, I’d recommend having them share at least 20% of the book. If one of the narrators is the villain, then I think you could get away with significantly less. Maybe 10%.

  12. Yogion 11 May 2009 at 11:46 pm

    The story is going to be around 20 chapters, so five would be enough, as it is 20 %. And she is the villain, of this piece at least, so I guess that will be enough. Thanks. 😀

  13. B. Macon 12 May 2009 at 3:59 am

    Ok. That sounds fine. Good luck.

  14. Wingson 12 May 2009 at 10:25 am

    The majority of HTSTW is in Meg’s POV, but there is one Pierce-centric flashback and one scene in Connor or Darren’s point of view. It is partially 3rd person, but the speaker’s (Meg) thoughts and inner feelings are depicted.

    -Wings

  15. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 13 May 2009 at 12:54 am

    I’m rewriting in third person, but before I switched between Isaac’s POV and third person for other characters like Amy Belle, Rana and Will. I found it too jarring, plus Isaac sounds too much like me even though we share very, very few traits. Since he’s not a girl, it gets confusing for me because I have to think “what would a guy do in this situation?”

    I isolate little bits and stare at the words, imagining that I don’t know whether the speaker is a girl or boy. Much of the time it sounds feminine, so I have to go back through and change details. For instance, a girl is more likely to see a colour and think “That’s a nice shade, not too light or dark” buy a guy will probably say “It’s blue”. At least the guys I know. XD

    Now that I write 100% in third person, the transition between settings is much smoother.

  16. B. Macon 13 May 2009 at 1:28 am

    I agree that guys are less likely to use floral language. I think a male narrator typically sounds more believable when he sounds something like Ernest Hemingway (crisp and elegant) rather than Anne Rice (literary and flowing).

    Then again, many authors (male and female) can make long paragraphs of description interesting. For example, I’d say that Pratchett and Rowling and Clavell and Frederick Forsyth and Patricia Wrede make it happen. It can be risky, though.

  17. Davidon 13 May 2009 at 5:26 am

    i am thinking of changeing pov from time to time lets hope i can do it styleishly

  18. Gurion Omegaon 13 May 2009 at 4:36 pm

    The suggestion to add the character’s name under each chapter heading by who narrates it, can’t that get repetitive?

    I was thinkin’ that if (high chance I will) I shift between multiple POV’s, it’ll only be the characters that are essential to the plot. After all, nobody will necessarily focus their concern about what a minor character does while the hero is elsewhere.

    Maybe I’m wrong…

    Uh, I was thinking that the POV will generally be 3rd person limited (for the MC). And when the perspective shifts, it will go to 1st person, for the other character. I’m probably only gonna keep the POV shift to a three character max.

    How bout’ it?

  19. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 13 May 2009 at 5:15 pm

    “The suggestion to add the character’s name under each chapter heading by who narrates it, can’t that get repetitive?”

    I’ve seen it done well before. In the book “Lee Raven: Boy Thief” it switches between at least four POVs. It shows who is speaking by putting their name, but it is not always just “Lee Raven” or whoever is speaking. Here as the headers for the chapters:

    The Story According to Lee Raven, the Boy Thief

    The Story According to Mr. Maggs, the Bookseller

    The Story According to Janaki, Mr. Maggs’ Assistant

    Continuing the Story According to Lee Raven

    Continuing the Story According to Mr. Maggs

    Continuing the Story According to Lee Raven

    The Story According to the Book

    The Story According to Nigella Lurch

    Lee

    The Story According to Billy Raven

    The Story Continues According to Janaki

    The Story Continues According to the Book

    Continuing the Story According to Nigella Lurch

    The Story Continues to Continue According to Lee

    And According to Janaki

    Nigella Lurch Continues Her Version

    Continuing According to Lee

    According to Nigella

    According to Billy

    Continued By Mr. Maggs

    According to Julie Mordy

    According to Mrs Lurch

    According to Janaki

    The Story Continues According to Finn Raven

    According to Lee

    According to Janaki

    According to Lee

    Mrs Lurch

    Mr Maggs

    Janaki

    Lee

    Nigella

    Lee

    Lee Again

  20. B. Macon 13 May 2009 at 5:27 pm

    “The suggestion to add the character’s name under each chapter heading by who narrates it, can’t that get repetitive?”

    Umm, it would go something like this.
    Chapter 1: LIFE, DEATH AND THE MANHATTAN MANGLER.
    Lash

    Chapter 2: IT CAME FROM THE DEPTHS OF MICHIGAN
    Agent Orange

    Chapter 3: ARE YOU READY TO ROLL?
    Lash

    Etc. I wouldn’t recommend actually putting the narrator’s name in each chapter; I think that could get very repetitive.

  21. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 13 May 2009 at 5:27 pm

    “Then again, many authors (male and female) can make long paragraphs of description interesting”.

    I was practicing that last night. I tried to describe a view of the ocean and got this:

    “There were three shades of blue, distinct but similar. The first was the ocean, dynamic and powerful. Darkness had been creeping in as the sun set, and now it lay awaiting the next day, but not at all patiently. It splashed against the jetties, bemoaning the loss of the warmth the sun provided.

    The second was an island in the distance. It was uninhabited by humans and thus had no lights, so it looked a deep midnight blue. A thousand gulls were sat at the water’s edge, calling out to each other and flexing their wings like sails on so many of the ships that had been wrecked around the coast.

    The third shade of blue was the sky, so dark it was almost black. Millions of stars were studded around, giving a very small amount of illumination. If one were to observe closely, they would see them reflected in the ocean, their images distorted by the movements of the water”.

    I’m happy with it, but practice makes perfect!

  22. B. Macon 14 May 2009 at 3:07 am

    Gurion, I would highly recommend keeping it consistently third person or first person.

  23. Gurion Omegaon 14 May 2009 at 11:02 am

    Highly recommend keeping a consistent narrative….I dunno. Whovian (can I call you that?) did a excellent job in the post above…I’d like to try that. Of course I’ll only change the narrator in times when it is convenient to the plot, like maybe the first and last chapters in a Part are narrated by another character.

  24. C. S. Marloweon 01 Jun 2009 at 1:43 pm

    And every time I read this article, I get *such* a huge urge to write a story where the narrator is male and the first thing out of his mouth is ‘I hate high heels!’ And yes, because he’s wearing them. I can think of a few reasons for him to be wearing them…

  25. Tomon 01 Jun 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Lost a bet?

  26. Ragged Boyon 01 Jun 2009 at 4:13 pm

    Were you the one that posted the line where the guy had the ability to run in heels? That seems pretty funny to me.

  27. B. Macon 01 Jun 2009 at 5:16 pm

    Maybe his girlfriend complains a lot about how hard it is to wear heels, and he wants to show her how it’s done.

  28. Ragged Boyon 01 Jun 2009 at 5:55 pm

    “Maybe his girlfriend complains a lot about how hard it is to wear heels, and he wants to show her how it’s done.”

    Haha, crazy visual.

  29. notsohottopicon 01 Jun 2009 at 7:36 pm

    I’ve actually done a story based on multiple point of views. It wasn’t particularly hard, but everyone’s motives and train of thinking must differ. Their justification for their actions must differ, and their narration must drive the plot further, rather than act as a recap of what just happened.

  30. B. Macon 01 Jun 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Hmm. If you are thinking about 2+ perspectives, I think it’s particularly important to create characters that are so well-defined that they don’t need to explain where they’re coming from. I once saw a show about the Supreme Court where a justice started a sentence with “As a liberal, I believe…” Ick. That doesn’t sound believable or smooth. If Agent Orange ever started a sentence with something like “As a highly eccentric and faintly jingoistic mutant alligator, I believe…”, my editor would shoot me in the face.

    However, as the amount of characters rises, it gets exponentially harder to define each character so clearly that you don’t need to resort to cheating. For example, I have a good idea what Batman or Superman would do in a given situation. Their personalities and morals are well-established. But I’m never sure about what Aquaman or Plastic-Man would do. At least as far as I can tell, they don’t have very distinct personalities.

  31. Marissaon 21 Jul 2009 at 11:55 pm

    I was giving a bit of advice, but I tripped over something I needed input on, so I told them I’d ask.

    Why is it wrong to switch from third person PoV to first person occasionally?

    I know to advise against it, but I can’t put into words exactly why, besides that it jars the reader, so I said I’d ask B. Mac and the rest of you.

  32. B. Macon 22 Jul 2009 at 12:37 am

    The short answer is that switching between 1P narration and 3P narration is extremely disorienting. I suspect it would get a cold reception from publishers.

    In fact, the only time I think a third-person story could get away with a switch to first-person is if the story cuts to a diary entry or a letter or some other writing from the character. We’re reading something from the character’s perspective, so it’s kind of first-person, but it’s smoother than having a character start addressing the reader in a story that had been third-person.

  33. Tomon 22 Jul 2009 at 2:49 am

    For a long time, the comic book series Spider-Girl spoke in SECOND person whenever the eponymous character was thinking. For example ‘you wanted to be just like your dad, Spider-Man’.

    Needless to say, this got very annoying very quickly. The re-booted version uses first person, thankfully.

    I always wondered what the reason for this was…

  34. B. Macon 22 Jul 2009 at 4:24 am

    If I were sympathetic, I’d probably say the reason was that they wanted it to feel punchy and immediate. Or maybe they wanted to try something new and fresh.

    If I were less sympathetic, I’d guess that it was because the writer lacked experience and/or empathy. It should have been obvious that it would grate on a reader’s nerves over time.

  35. Tomon 22 Jul 2009 at 5:22 am

    Actually it got less annoying over time as I got used to it (or should I say YOU got used to it :P). I just glossed over any use of the word ‘you’ and substituted the word ‘I’ mentally.

  36. thablueon 07 Dec 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Thanks for writing this – I knew if I looked hard enough I’d find a thread on this topic somewhere on the site! 😀 Brilliant.

    I am having trouble with the 1st person present/3rd person present switch. Rue’s voice comes to me in the very definite 1st person present. I tried switching everything to the 3rd person present (wouldn’t it be so cool if there was a software program that could do the tense switch for you!) – but it just didn’t work when I read it. So I’m leaving her chapters 1st person present. Which presents me with a problem. How to deal with the other major characters.

    I could keep everything from Rue’s perspective of course. Then I have to deal with her finding out about the bad guys, etc all from what she learns as we go. Which is fine, but I am afraid it would get boring for the reader. Another isue with this is the possible lack of suspense – I am trying to write an action/thriller here. *sigh*

    On the other hand I could keep every major character’s bits in the 1st person present. My hesitation here is that I have at least four major characters. I think that could get very confusing for the reader. The plus to doing this is it might be an easy way to have the readers sympathize a bit with each character – even the bad guys – which is something I want.

    The way I have it now is that everything that Rue “writes” is 1st person present, while anything about anyone else is 3rd person present (which presents the side issue of having a narrator – meh). I’m not entirely happy with this.

    Anyway – I’ll keep on keepin’ on – and any advise is very very appreciated!

    ~thablue

  37. Newton 20 Apr 2011 at 12:19 pm

    Hello everyone 🙂

    If anyone is thinking of switching POVs or switching between third and first person narration, I would recommend taking a look at ‘The Bartimaeus Trilogy’ by Jonathan Stroud, which switches between the two main characters’ POVs really effectively.

    When following Nathaniel, the narration is in third person and when following Bartimaeus, the narration is in first person. The first person works really well because the character has a very distinct voice and is very funny at times, and it allows the reader an insight into the world that the human character would not ever experience.

    Also, although there are some chapters where the two characters are separate, if my memory serves me correctly, during most of the book/trilogy they are together in the same scenes – so different POVs can work to enhance shared situations, not just as a way of conveying action that would otherwise be missed by single character narration.

    Newt 🙂

  38. Wingson 11 Nov 2011 at 11:58 pm

    As per usual, I’ve hit a bit of a snag.

    My flagship book, That One Superhero Novel That Is Still Untitled After 3+ Years (God I Suck At This) has three general narrators.

    Narrator One: Darken, mercenary and (mostly?) neutral party in the underground war between heroes and villains. He’s not picky about his employers (though to his credit he generally avoids assassinations and other jobs involving killing), though he’s not as stoic as he thinks himself to be. He’s sarcastic, rebellious, and secretive even to himself – never know who might be listening in, after all.

    Narrator Two: Hikari, unofficial leader of B-list superhero team The Six, and a superheroine herself. Straightlaced, polite, and generally even tempered, though that’s begun to erode under present tensions. Bent on avenging her murdered fiancee, to the point where she’s almost obsessed. She lives by an extremely strict moral code: everything is black and white to her, and Darken is a flaw in the system.

    Narrator Three: Masochist, self-loathing hemokinetic and member of the Six. A pacifist who was originally placed on the team to keep him under surveillance – after a brutal attack by another blood manipulator a little over a decade ago, the government would rather keep all potential threats under watch. Concerned for others to the point where he’s stopped caring about his own safety, and he’s slowly starting to withdraw in upon himself completely.

    I usually write third person – I prefer it, and I’m generally better at it than first person. However, when I try to write in third for this story, I keep coming up bland. It’s a similar problem to one of Twilight’s; with gripping scenes turning plodding and too much telling as opposed to showing. However, first person might get confusing, especially as POVs start switching more frequently.

    What do you recommend?

    – Wings

  39. ShyVioletson 12 Nov 2011 at 5:57 am

    Well I’ve read several novels that switch off every chapter and it works pretty well. Alternately you could switch mid chapter as long as its obvious you are doing so. If each character had a very specific voice (and it seems like they do) then it shouldn’t be a problem telling them apart. Male and female 1st person POVs tend to be easier to tell apart then POVs from characters of the same gender so just be careful with the two male POVs.

    Hope this helps 🙂

    PS: if you really want to you can switch to third person POV when the characters are all together to avoid confusion but that could disorient readers.

  40. vvhs89on 18 May 2012 at 11:53 pm

    I would like to do something where I switch POV between two characters (both 1st person POV). The two MCs (Adam and Davis) know each other, and they interact sometimes, but they spend most of the book apart, and they interact with different characters, but their choices and successes/failures have an impact on what happens to the other MC. Does that seem workable?

  41. B. Macon 19 May 2012 at 5:30 am

    “…they spend most of the book apart, and they interact with different characters…” If I were evaluating your manuscript, I’d have some reservations about the coherence of the story and perhaps whether the characters feel like they’re part of the same plot.

    “…their choices and successes/failures have an impact on what happens to the other MC.” Okay, that sounds like it could work (depending on execution), but why not have the main characters meet in the first half of the book?

    Also, I would recommend checking out Changing Places–the two main characters don’t interact much early, but I think that the plotting is well-executed and coherent. (Additionally, although the characters don’t interact much early, it’s obvious how the two are connected as part of the same story: they’re both professors going through similar experiences on an academic exchange program).

  42. vvhs89on 19 May 2012 at 8:43 am

    They do meet pretty early on. Within the first few chapters, and several times throughout the book. I was thinking that after the White House gets bombed and Adam escapes the Secret Service, his friend Sophie convinces him that he’s been set up, and that he should get help, so he goes to Davis (who is also a superhuman) and Davis agrees to assist him in investigating the matter. Adam and Sophie decide to go on the offensive in order to keep some of the heat off of Davis and the small team he assembles. Does that seem workable?

  43. Scarlet Wizardon 29 Oct 2016 at 2:26 pm

    Hello again, B. Mac!
    I’m currently on the second draft of my comic book script (written in third person POV), and I had thought about writing future drafts in first person (it’s kind of a fictional autobiography). I’m wondering whether this is workable or not, considering it would be difficult to switch back and forth from first person (the hero’s POV) and third person (which tells the story of the villain). Do you recommend this?

  44. B. McKenzieon 29 Oct 2016 at 7:15 pm

    “I’m wondering whether this is workable or not, considering it would be difficult to switch back and forth from first person (the hero’s POV) and third person (which tells the story of the villain). Do you recommend this?” No — I think the cost of changing from 1PN to 3PN would be high. Maybe high enough to scare away a publisher that might otherwise have wanted to proceed. I think the easiest fixes would be telling the villain’s story either through the hero’s perspective or also making the villain a first-person narrator. (Alternately, taking the hero’s 1PN scenes into 3PN but that’d probably take more time).

  45. Scarlet Wizardon 30 Oct 2016 at 8:45 pm

    Ok. I’ll probably just write one draft telling the villain’s story through the hero’s perspective and another draft making the villain a first- person narrator, and go over them both to decide which one is best. I’d also like to email the final draft to you for a review if you have the time. Thanks BM!

  46. B. McKenzieon 30 Oct 2016 at 9:12 pm

    “I’d also like to email the final draft to you for a review if you have the time. Thanks BM!” Sounds good. I can be reached at superheronation-at-gmail-dot-com.

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