Who’s telling?

On June 2, 2013, Emma wrote, I’m writing a trilogy with 3 main characters. It goes across three generations, so a new MC is introduced in each book, but the one(s) from the previous book(s) are still present and very active in the story. So here’s my question: I’ve been telling the story in first person from the POV of the first of the three women. I feel like this trilogy is very much her story, much more so than the story of the other two, but they’re essential to the plot. The problem is that during the second and third books there are major plot developments that happen when one of the other two characters are around, but this person isn’t. The voice I’ve been using isn’t really a “I’m telling this in my old age” voice, so would it be bad to have her tell the events in the order they happened and just later say “he told me all that had happened since our last meeting” or something to that effect? Or would it be better to have her talk to a person who was present and say “He began to explain what had happened” and then launch into telling the events normally? I don’t want to tell all the stuff that happens in dialogue, because there’s a ton that goes on, and it would just be confusing. Or do you think none of those really work and I should add another narrator in each book? Like, in the first book I’d have one narrator, in the second I’d have two, and in the third I’d have three? I’ve thought about telling the first book from the POV of the first of these characters, the second book from the POV of the second, and the third from the POV of the third, but I think that wouldn’t capture how it’s the also story of the first character’s life, and I’m not sure that my idea about adding another narrator with each story would really show that either, although it would be better than doing each book from a different POV. 

A little later she added this: Here’s a quick example of sort of what I’m thinking of doing: 

‘woke in the hospital with Eric by my side. ‘What happened?’ 

‘It’s complicated,’ Eric said. 

‘Ok, tell me.’ 

Eric sighed and began to explain everything that had happened. 

After I’d passed out, Lily had taken charge. ‘James, call an ambulance,’ she’d said. ‘Eric, come here.’ When he knelt by me she asked, ‘do you think she’ll be ok?’ 

…[more happens]

Eric finished telling his story. ‘Like I said, it was complicated.'”

But instead of a few lines in the story there would be pages and pages, or maybe a whole chapter. Do you think that would be weird, or could it work?

The trouble with telling a story in first-person, as we all discover, is that our POV character can relate only events that happen in her presence, unless she has super-powers and can see and hear at vast distances. But there are other workarounds besides super-powers that we can use now and then.

I like variety when I’m reading, so you might go from, “It’s complicated” to a section called Eric’s Account, which might have extra-wide margins to distinguish it from the rest of the story, and it could be told from Eric’s POV. When he’s finished the margins go back to normal and he says, “Like I said, it was complicated.”

We can repeat this techniques with the accounts of other characters, and after the first one, they won’t surprise the reader.

Or, Eric can write to your MC, let’s call her Jackie, and tell her about events that happened in her absence, and we can put the whole letter in our book. The fun is that the letter will be in Eric’s voice, from his perspective, and loaded with his opinions. We can interrupt here and there, if we like, with Jackie’s thoughts and then return to the letter.

We can intersperse newspaper or magazine articles that reveal events from a more neutral viewpoint. We can have Jackie sleuth things out and maybe interpret events incorrectly. She can discover physical evidence and interrogate the players, and we can use a playscript format for the interrogation to liven things up. Jackie can visit a psychic, one with real powers. The psychic and Jackie can look in a crystal ball and see happenings play out in pantomime. In Ella Enchanted, I gave Ella a magic book for just this purpose. If we’re writing fantasy, we can invent a tiny being, or more than one, who can be Jackie’s spies, or, if she doesn’t want spies, who can act on her behalf without consulting her first. Or whatever else we like, talking trees, magic seashells that allow people to hear at great distances, clouds that change shape to portray events. Anything our overheated imaginations can produce.

If this isn’t fantasy, we can use technology: phone bugs, surveillance cameras, YouTube.

Writing is weirdly light on rules. Whatever works is good, and often we don’t know if it’s worked until we’ve tried, and sometimes not until we’ve asked someone else’s opinion.

A more traditional option, the one I’m using in Stolen Magic, is to write in third person. In Stolen Magic, the chapters that Elodie is in are written from her perspective, even though the narrator is third person (meaning that Elodie’s thoughts, and only her thoughts, can be revealed). The chapters she isn’t in are from the perspective of either the dragon Masteress Meenore or the ogre Count Jonty Um. Since the overwhelming majority of chapters belong to Elodie, she’s clearly the MC. I chose to do it this way for a reason that’s similar to Emma’s. Both Meenore and Jonty Um have to leave Elodie, and what happens to them is crucial for the plot. In an earlier version I told everything in first person. Meenore’s, Jonty Um’s, and Elodie’s chapters were from their first-person POVs, but I couldn’t get the ogre’s voice. He’s smart but not a natural with words, and he came across as stupid in his chapters.The third-person voice is neutral and represents each of them accurately.

So that’s another consideration when we switch first-person POVs: the voice has to shift, too. In Emma’s case each woman has to have her own voice. However, if that’s no problem, then this is a perfectly fine way to go, too. If Jackie gets most of the chapters, it’s still her story.

One more option is to switch from first person for the chapters Jackie is present in to third for the chapters she’s not. The reader will adapt. Again, Jackie needs to have a voice that’s distinct from the narrator’s. The reader may be confused for a paragraph or two, but he’ll catch on. We can clue him in by starting the first third-person chapter with a segue like, While Jackie slept fitfully in her hospital bed, across town in a perfectly appointed studio apartment, like the velvet interior of a jewel box, Lily paced.

Here are three prompts:

• Let’s not waste that last sentence: While Jackie slept fitfully in her hospital bed, across town in a perfectly appointed studio apartment, like the velvet interior of a jewel box, Lily paced. Write what comes next, in third person, but from Lily’s POV.

• Next, write it in first person, again from Lily’s POV.


• Now let’s imagine that Lily is pacing because her attempt to kill Jackie failed. If you didn’t think of that too, rewrite Lily’s chapter in first or third person with that in mind. Then write a chapter that takes place in Jackie’s hospital room or that happens soon after her discharge. This chapter is from Jackie’s first-person or third-person POV. Follow this with a chapter starring Eric. Keep going if you like.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thanks for the advice! I had a hard time because my story is told in first-person, present-tense, yet there were other characters {and the reader} that needed to know about her past. I solved that problem by allowing her to tell them the story…in an independent block of italicized text. However, when she needed to know the stories of others that she'd been separated from, they told her their stories as dialogue. That way, I could stick with her voice all the way while branching out into the past and the simultaneous stories of others.

  2. Thanks for this post Mrs. Levine! I have had the same problem. I have these places where I think one character would be better than another, but I think "But Ellanie is supposed to be the MC. It's HER story." Thanks a lot, this post will help me clear up this problem.

  3. Oh, I just, (about an hour ago) realized that I'm in a predicament. One of my MCs was kidnapped by her best friend (also her lady in waiting) and taken to he safety of her (the best friend/lady in waiting's) fortress. As it turns out, I decided that Richelle (the LIW) and her family depend very heavily on the sea. Anyhow, the point of this is, I know very little about ships, and about 3/8s of the book is spent on a boat of some kind. I've tried to research it, but so far, no luck. (Google is failing me.) I need to find a ship that isn't too big, that is reasonably fast, that won't need too many crewmembers required and with large quarters for passengers. (It's the marquis's [Richelle's father] personal pleasure ship.) What type would it be? I don't want to invent one, because my knowledge of boats as I already mentioned (aside from canoes and kayaks, which will in no case work for this story) is fairly limited. Does anyone know where I can find a good website with lots of info about ships, or perhaps a book, or several books, or if anyone is a ship expert here, perhaps just tell me what type ship meets closely with that description and I'll look it up. All and any help will be appreciated.

    • I haven't read this book: Patrick O'Brian's Navy: The Illustrated Companion to Jack Aubrey's World, but look it up on Amazon to see if it may be what you're looking for. I read quite a few in Patrick O'Brian's series and loved them. Can't remember, but I think they were high school level and up. They're 19th century nautical adventure stories, so this companion book may be helpful. Good luck!

    • There's also this link to a Wikipedia page that has a list of historical ships with a brief description-also has links to most (if not every) of them if you want more info

    • The Caravel looks small enough-then again, I'm not writing the story! 🙂
      And now that I've looked it up, I'm just scrolling through some and saw that so…haha Yeah.

    • Okay, great! Thanks, I'll see what I can find. And yes, I have the caravel on my list of possibilities, which, at the moment, is still fairly small. Thanks a million!

    • Thanks NoelleWei8, the Caravel is my chosen ship. I decided that the marquis is a major genius when it comes to ships, so he made a few minor adjustments, and I'm no longer sailing in troubled waters, so to speak. Thanks Mrs. Levine and Noelle, your help has been invaluable!

  4. I've just finished writing 10,120 words within the last three days. A lot of it was rewriting scenes from first person to third (I'm changing POV), improving other things as I went, but a lot of it was also new, and I haven't been working forward on my first draft in a long time. It felt so good! I just thought I'd come over here and celebrate a little!! 🙂 Not to mention take a break. 😀
    Elisa, I liked your list of character quirks last post. You just may have helped to inspire a character that came to me out of the blue the night before last. He's a very small creature, kind of like a gnome, who's in charge of a small group of other "gnomes," and when I wrote his first line of dialogue, it came out as "I think YOU'D never stop talking if I wasn't here, you jithernathies! Come and help the poor slinshuk, if you want to prove you're not more powerless than that schnizelquik said!" From that moment he's been a blast to write. Thanks for getting me thinking about quirky secondaries! 🙂

  5. Okay, another question…What about politics. I'm a republican and conservative, and I feel pretty strongly about my beliefs. It's not like I'll get all over someone for being democrat or socialist, (I know and like plenty of them) it's just that I really believe in what I am. Anyhow, the libraries are SO full of socialist writers and socialism is getting pretty popular and one of my characters is very conservative. And very opinionated. Even more so that me! And I'm worried that she'll step on people's toes and make them mad. It's not like some writers don't do that to me, but some people are a lot more sensitive to people who don't agree with them than I am. I don't want to change Mahala, because she's just herself and changing her would make her someone entirely different. She just wouldn't be my beloved character being different; but I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. At the same time, changing Mahala would mean changing my story, and also it would mean that I'm watering down my beliefs. I hate it when other people do that. I don't want to be a hypocrite by doing it myself. What am I supposed to do?

    • Elisa: You know what, I'd say just go for it. Not everyone will agree with you, but that's okay. It never works to try to please everybody. No matter what you write, somebody out there won't like it or won't agree with you… but there will be lots of people who will, and they will appreciate your honesty and conviction!
      Author Bryan Davis once posted this on his Facebook, and I thought it might help:
      "…Don’t write with offense in mind. Write what’s on your heart, what makes you cry or laugh or bleed within. Pour out your passion, and don’t worry about what others will think. If you write with concern about backlash from readers, you won’t please anyone, including yourself…"

    • Ah! Got my comments mixed up!

      In Anne of Avonlea, it says, "…Gilbert, having tried to please both sides, succeeded, as is usual and eminently right, in pleasing neither." (One of my favorite books.)
      It's your story–write it the way it you think it should be written. Don't worry about what other people think. It'll work out. : )

    • Thanks guys. Well, if Mahala offends people, well, let her. She's who she is, and if people are that sensitive, they aught to read cushiony, soft-talking, froofy novellas. Oh well. (Yes, I'm feeling a little rebellious right now. And a little ashamed of cowering from possible readers. Fooey on them!)

  6. SO, I was reading the comments to the last post, because I didn't have internet last week (my family just moved) and I was going to reply to Elisa's question about culture, but then I thought, "Oh no! What if she never reads these comments again?" So I decided to comment on this post.
    I think you said your problem was your cultures were too similar? My suggestion is, just like characters need odd things about them–character quirks, cultures do, too. (Culture quirks?) You could add weird little rituals, or clothing (which would probably depend on location)… yeah. So, sorry if this confuses anyone, answering a question to a different post…

    • Aw, thanks Bug. Yes, I love quirks of all kinds. I have un-knotted some of the problems in my cultures. I realized that I would have to tweak my cultures, (Okay, change them a lot) though I wanted the to still have heavy dependency on the sea, so now the first culture is made up of dark-skinned people who live in boat villages. (That's the best way I can describe it, the people live in boats similar to canoes, in groups.) The second was made up of many pirates, and wreckers. The third was mostly made up of merchants (most of them very greedy.) I hated making the changes, but now I've grown rather fond of them. Oh, and thanks again, I like the idea of having weird rituals. I cooked up an idea here and now. Something about cats on ships…

  7. Oh, and Bug, YOU LIKE ANNE OF GREEN GABLES?!?!?! Good for you, I'd lost faith in the youth of these days. Honestly, they scorn such wonderful old-fashioned, good, moral building books, and read the garbage that floods the shelves of our library's shelves over and over and love them. UGH! I say. Half the girls I know (and nearly ALL the boys) wouldn't be caught dead holding a book such as "Anne of Green Gables" (and its sequels) and Little House in the Big woods (or IT'S sequels). Honestly.

  8. A great example of mixing POVs and narrative styles is The View From Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg. There are 4 main characters and one third person narrative that weaves together each of their first-person stories. The narrative style alternates between third person, in showing events that all are present for and setting up each individual's personal story, and then each person tells his or her story in first person. When I first read it I was a tad confused, but I quickly adapted because each character's voice is so distinctive. The cool thing that the reader, as well as the characters, learn is that each of them is linked by other minor characters. It's a very good read.

  9. This is a great read on the problems and solutions regarding POV. I know in my own writing, POV is one of the hardest things for me to use effectively… in fact I'm having trouble right now and need some help!
    A while back I wrote a short story about an extraordinary man. The whole story was narrated by a young person who met and observed this extraordinary man. The problem I've run into now is that I wish to expand upon this story and write about the extraordinary man quite a bit more, but I don't want to take the original narrator along for the ride! Somehow I need to switch the POV from the young observer to the man himself. Any ideas as to how I could do that most smoothly?

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