First Person Present Tense With Multiple Narrators?

Anonymous 11/10/09 asked the following question in response to Blue: First Person Present Tense at its Best:

Hopefully this is not a ridiculous question: is it acceptable to write in FPP [first person, present tense narration] through multiple characters? To rotate the narration through the experiences of different characters throughout the story?

Yes, that's certainly acceptable, although there would be challenges. You'd probably want to write the voices with different styles to differentiate them. But this seems like a good question for my readers. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of multiple first person, present tense narrators? Can you suggest any books that do this?


  1. Reposting Amitha's response from the Blue thread:

    It's fairly common to write from the POV of several characters in first person but for some reason the only book I can think of off hand is Marian Keyes's book "This Charming Man" (I know, chick lit! but fairly good one). The book is basically about 4 women's relationships with one man, told from FPP by each of the women. One of the characters (spoiler alert) actually turns out to be an unreliable narrator and she tells a warped story to herself and to the reader. (And one of the characters sounds a bit like Bridget Jones which I wasn't too impressed with)

    I agree that you have to make sure each character has a unique voice and take care that you do this well. I think Keyes did this fairly successfully in her novel. It was problematic that she had 4 different characters, though, because the more characters you add, the harder it is for your readers to stay engaged (and the longer your story becomes).

  2. This is particularly relevant for me at the moment as I'm writing a novel with four viewpoint characters that rotate in chapters! The most challenging thing for me has been deciding whether the chapters should follow a strict sequence, or whether I can deviate from it. And I do deviate! Essentially, the complex thing has been in deciding how much 'talking time' to give to each character. The story moves naturally away from some of them talking in equal amounts, so I've had to accept that it's not an exact science. This is only the first draft, too, so it's definitely something of an experiment. I'm not sure yet whether it'll be a successful experiment, but I'm trying at least.

    A clear example for me is George R R Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' epic fantasy series, which has numerous characters relating the events taking place across Westeros and the eastern continents of his fantasy world. In his books the device serves as an excellent way to hold the story together across an entire, vastly complex world where the story is not at all linear. Having so many characters must be difficult to juggle, but it means that the storytelling is very subtle and some characters come to the fore in the later books that have been on the back-burner for quite a while. Martin also narrates his prologues from the viewpoints of unique, one-off characters not seen elsewhere in the books - mainly because they tend to die in the prologues!

    Another example is Joanne Harris's first novel, 'Sleep, Pale Sister'. The events in this novel are more closely held together, but the different viewpoint characters all have *vastly* different voices - something Joanne Harris does excellently - and they all add a different perspective to a complex, deeply psychological plot which also has a strong dose of magical realism at its core.

    It's a huge challenge writing in this way, but once I begin the editing process I'm hoping to put its real advantages to use as I shape my story and characters further.

  3. The classic example would be Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury." Three sections of different 1st person POVs, then the close 3rd person closing section. Each voice is so remarkably, disctinctly different, though, that even were the narratives intertwined, readers could likely still tell the speakers apart.

    Then again, head-hopping in close 3rd person is also very, very effective. See Hemingway's "Francis Macomber" as an example of the elegance and grace with which one can skip from perspective to perspective (even through a lion's mind!).

    Either way works, and either way can be beautiful.

  4. If you've got the chops to pull it off, sure. Aside from the ones mentioned by other commenters, I've read two such books recently that provide a useful contrast.

    First, the Time Traveller's Wife, which uses multiple first-person POV to astonishing effect. The author (whose name I can never spell) did an amazing job of portraying two truly different people through both their own and each other's eyes. Great, great job, and a really fascinating story.

    Second, Return Policy, by Michael Snyder. He uses three first-person POVs to tell his story, but I felt he didn't have quite the skill to keep all three characters truly distinct. There were times when I got pulled out of the story because I got confused during dialogue sequences as to which character was speaking--they sounded too much alike. It's never good to pull your reader out of the story like that.

    If you have the skill to show the characters well, multiple first-person can be a wonderful POV choice. But it is a technically demanding choice, there's no mistaking that.

    You might also find this article on POV selection, from my blog, helpful:

  5. I just got back from the Backspace Writer's Conference, and this is an issue that came up. Several people in my workshops had novels with multiple POV's, and the agents highly encouraged these people to rewrite their novels from a single POV. One person had 4 POV's, and the agents were very nervous about the idea. Even someone with only 2 POV's is currently rewriting to a single POV -- and her writing was very favorably received. She got a manuscript request directly from the agent during the workshop -- on condition that she rewrite to a single POV.

    I believe using multiple POV's can be amazing if well done; however, it does require a lot of skill. I think that most first-time authors might have a difficult time getting an agent to take their book if the agent knows it uses more than one POV.

  6. A YA example of this - Charles de Lint's "The Blue Girl". I learned a host of what-to-do's and what-not-to-do's from this book. I still can't decide if I like it or not.

    Like most people, I believe multiple FTP POVs can work--just not for everybody. POV switching in general is a beast of a thing; the best recent example I've read (which is also YA, come to think of it) is Kaimira: the Sky Village. Part of the reason it works is because the POV characters are different genders, in very different places, with superficially different problems. As they come to realize they're dealing with the same thing, their voices actually grow more distinct.

    Personally - I stick to a single POV as much as possible. It's hard enough to get to know one character; juggling two or more, and giving them depth, is exhausting. That's not to say I won't write more than one POV - I have a draft that switches between two girls - but it took me a very long time to realize the story simply couldn't function with one narrator. Even now, I'd write it in one character voice if I could work out how...

    How do you feel about switching points of view, Livia?

  7. Wow! This is a great site. I'm going to naviage around it this weekend focusing on Point Of View as this is an area I struggle with in my writings.

    Stephen Tremp

  8. Peta -- I havn't seen it much, but I usually like it when a story switches POV. It's kind of fun to get into another character's head when we've been seeing them alot from the outside. The examples I can think of are third person though - -Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth has some really nicely developed POV characters.
    The only first person narrative I can think of is Twilight, and the unpublished short stories Stephenie Meyer posted on her website from Edward and Rosalie's point of view, and I actually liked them as well.
    It's super hard to pull of in my own writing though -- just because it takes so much effort to get into a character's head. I have my protagonist K pretty figured out and it's easy to write her, but when I get to the T scenes, it takes me twice as long and doesn't come out as well.

  9. Jodi Picoult's MY SISTER'S KEEPER was written in first-person with every chapter switching among one of the seven primary characters. By the middle of the book, I felt so lost that sometimes I'd have to go back a few pages to remind myself who "I" was. I think it would have been okay if the sections had been better delineated; for example, if Part I had been told from one character's POV while Part II had been told from another's, I would have been fine. But constantly switching threw me off. I'd say if it's important to your story to have more than one POV, try it out but approach carefully. Keep in mind that your readers will need to be able to follow whatever it is you decide to do and "I" is an indistinguishable word that can be confusing.

  10. I'm reading one novel at the moment which is mostly first person from one perspective, some parts third person (following other characters), and then just occasionally first person from some other perspective. I can't help suspecting that's an editing slip-up! I think I'd find it confusing to read multiple first-person narrative unless the voices were extremly distinctive.

  11. A great example of multiple first person narrators is Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein', with sections written in the voices of Walton, Victor, and the monster. It's a great read anyway, and uses devices such as letters to create a sense of realism.

    Another good example is 'Arthur and George' by Julian Barnes, based on the life of Arthur Conan Doyle. This switches between a small selection of voices chapter by chapter, to great effect.

    Both are use use multiple first person narrators in very different ways, but both do it in a way that adds to the experience, instead of being confusing or taking away from being able to enjoy the novel.

  12. Hey. One great example that I read not too long ago could the the Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver - it tells a story of a family's more from Georgia to Africa and all the struggles along with it from five different points of view - the mother and her four daughters.