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!