I read a book recently that will remain unnamed. The book was entertaining, and at its core was a pretty darned good mystery with some fantastic twists that made the ending a payoff for the ages. I enjoyed it from start to finish.
But I just couldn’t shake some negative feelings about the narration. This particular book, you see, was entirely first-person narration (“I did this, I did that, I thought this,” etc.) with a crucial tweak: multiple narrators. This meant each chapter had a different character telling a different scene in the story. In this case of this book, all the narrators were suspects in a murder. And as the clues fell into place, it became clear that every one of the narrators was keeping secrets … and could ultimately be the murderer.
But here’s the thing that kept bugging me: all the narrators sounded pretty identical. They didn’t have enough flavor to distinguish themselves, so I found myself continually flipping back to the beginning of the chapter to ensure I was imagining the right person telling the story in my head. That lack of distinct “voice” caused the multiple narrators to mix together.
There’s nothing wrong with this book, just like there’s nothing wrong with using multiple narrators in a first-person story. But—and I think this is a big but—you need to ensure their voices are distinct. This isn’t easy. It requires a lot of practice. It requires an intricate understanding of narration. And it requires some serious background work.
1. Identify why you’re doing this
Why does your story need multiple first-person narrators? You gotta have a reason, Dear Writer. And it should be compelling. Are the narrators separated from each other? Do they come from drastically different backgrounds, thus ensuring every scene is interpreted differently? Are they working against each other or with each other? Keep in mind that your audience will need to mentally keep the narrators separate, which requires extra work. Reward your audience for actively reading!
2. Make sure the narrators’ voices are distinct
This is the most important step. The characters you choose to tell the story need to come out. Watch the incredible movie Knives Out. Think about how differently the narration would sound from the mouth of Inspector Blanc, compared to the snarky Ransom Drysdale, compared to the kind-hearted Marta Cabrera.
Everyone speaks a little differently—use this. For example, I say “ain’t” all the time at home, but not at work. I don’t have a huge vocabulary; I get by on a thesaurus way more than any professional writer should. On the other hand, my wife uses a lot more big words (she read a dictionary for fun once, so she’s got me beat there!). She’s a farmer, I’m a teacher. The way we would narrate midwifing a calf (which we’ve both done on our farm) would be drastically different. For example, I—the city slicker—would be much more grossed out by the various fluids on my hands and clothes … she would be much more professional in her narration given the fact that she grew up on a farm!
All of this does not mean simply using a few different slang words or lazily switching up how often narrators use contractions. First-person narration has to embody the character’s language and personality. The best way to explore this is to write dialogue. Let your narrators get together in a room and talk for awhile. What differences pop up? If you’ve developed your characters well enough, they should begin to distinguish themselves the more they talk. You should be able to take out all the dialogue tags and still know exactly who’s talking.
3. Come up with a killer plan
This is arguably the hardest part of the entire process. Every chapter needs a reason for existing with a specific narrator. As if planning out chapters wasn’t hard enough to begin with! Now, you have to make an even more crucial decision: who tells this part of the story? A single mistake here can come back to bite you during revisions, potentially throwing off the entire novel! So what do you do?
I have an idea I’ve used, and it’s an idea tried by other authors as well. It’s not going to make you happy, though. Ready? Are you sure? OK, here it is: write the chapter in third-person narration first. Get a sense for what happens in the scene, then think about which character in the scene will tell their version of what happened in the most compelling way. Imagine a dinner scene with all your narrators. Who’s got the most interesting perspective? The most important perspective? This kind of planning can go a long way.
Sometimes, it’s good to learn from the best. Try these five super-distinct novels to get a better sense of how authors approach “voice” in first-person narration.
- When No One Is Watching — Alyssa Cole wrote an awesome thriller about disappearances taking place in Brooklyn. Cole switches between two narrators: a black woman and a white man. Her writing is absolutely fantastic.
- Cloud Atlas — David Mitchell crafts a sci-fi epic that uses multiple narrators from different time periods. Beyond daring and innovative, taking obvious care to ensure the narration is distinct and realistic for its time period.
- The MaddAddam Trilogy — Margaret Atwood uses third and first-person narration. Read the entire trilogy to see how she utilizes both, and when she uses them to show unique perspectives!
- Getting Mother’s Body — Suzan-Lori Parks is a master storyteller. The unique voice of her narrator in this classic is a testament to her greatness.
- The Shadows — Alex North switches between third and first-person narration at crucial points. While it may feel jarring at first, this is becoming a more commonly accepted form of narration, so it’s worth studying from the best.
Ken Brosky is the author of two YA series, The Grimm Chronicles and The Earth-X Chronicles. His short stories have been published in Portland Review, Mystery Weekly Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, among others. He also blogs for Suspense Magazine and manages Pure Fiction, a free newsletter that features book reviews and writing tips. He has an MFA from the University of Nebraska-Omaha, and teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.