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NOTE: I've seen this question asked when the POV is third but not first.

I write psychological thrillers that move quickly and focus heavily on what is going on in the mind of the protagonist. As such, I write in present tense, first person POV.

This hasn't been a problem up till now. But in the novel I'm working on at the moment, I have two protagonists, each with their own first person POV chapters. However, in a few chapters, they'll meet.

It doesn't feel right switching to third as this it creates a sudden and jarring distance that I don't want (I tried it with a chapter and it felt like reading a different book suddenly).

I think the best option is to pick the stronger of the two protagonists and write the scene from her first person POV. But I'm wondering if that's going to be jarring too, given that readers will have gotten accustomed to hearing the inner thoughts of the lesser protagonist.

Any advice/tips/suggestions for how to handle it?

  • @Alexander Good to know! Thanks! If George does it, I guess I can too! – GGx Jun 19 at 6:41
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    First person plural ;-) – gerrit Jun 19 at 12:36
  • @gerrit ha ha ha... you funny guy! It would certainly make for a novel novel!! – GGx Jun 19 at 12:38
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    It could potentially be cool to write 2 chapters, one from each perspective, either that or it would be terrible. – DJ Spicy Deluxe Jun 19 at 21:51
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Personally, I have a strong dislike for multiple first person POV. With that said, I'd say your option of following through with one character's POV is best.

It's not uncommon to have the same scene told first by one character and then by the other. You need to work hard, however, to not make this repetitive or confusing. The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is based around a conceit where the narrator literally inhabits the first person POV of several different characters throughout the novel. The author does a great job of presenting the same scene and the same characters through different eyes in ways that make it continually fresh and new (and not just a rehash).

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    Thanks Chris... out of interest, why do you hate multiple first person? I mean, yeah, when it's done badly and all the characters sound exactly the same, but if it's done well...? – GGx Jun 19 at 6:43
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    It breaks my immersion, and my identification with the narrator. My subjective experience of single first-person POV is to live the story with the character. When the POV changes, my experience is being told the story by multiple characters. It's a reminder of the artificiality of the construct. – Chris Sunami Jun 19 at 13:13
  • The immersion is proving tricky, that's for sure. I've never had this problem before. My 1st person scenes have all required the protagonists to be present in my previous novels. I started this novel in 3rd because there are parts of the story the protagonist can't be there for and I can't even re-engineer the scenes for her to be there because she's agoraphobic and can't leave her apartment. Her agoraphobia is causing me a real headache!! :) – GGx Jun 19 at 13:31
  • But I'm losing the immersion with 3rd as well. It just doesn't have the same emotive depth and I'm feeling the distance of 3rd. You don't want that in a psychological thriller. What to do ... what to do ... – GGx Jun 19 at 14:15
  • If it were me, I'd stick with your agoraphobe's POV and let her and the reader experience the other scenes only second-hand --if at all. I feel that could actually be very effective for a thriller. Of course, it would be challenging to keep it engaging, but an interesting challenge. – Chris Sunami Jun 19 at 15:16
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Animorphs did this often. (Mostly in the Megamorphs line of books, which were co-narrated by all the characters, though a few of the main series books would make the switch when the narrator couldn't tell the full story. Main series books would announce the perspective flip early on to make it less jarring.)

Normally the chapter would open with the new Narrator and his or her related cover art. The switch was made to an appropriate narrator for the next sequence of events and not in any particular order. If two back to back narrators shared the scene, the hand off would occur because the first character was unfit to tell the story further OR because the second character was the better person to explain what's happening. To my recollection they would not do the same event from a different point of view.

As a rule with my POV switches though, I would recommend that they occur infrequently between characters that shared scenes and rather switch to another scene that is not experienced by either of them.

  • +1 for the animorphs reference! I think of it every time I see a question about POV on here – tryin Jun 19 at 5:53
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I'm not certain how I would handle it and I've never read a multi-first person novel, so I am not sure how such a novel would normally read.

I'm currently re-reading a 1st/3rd alternating viewpoint book. It always is a little jarring to switch characters, because of the 1st/3rd switch. But it works, and as an aside, the first person chapters/character are more immersive than the 3rd person chapters. Possibly, this author faced the problem you face and opted to make a character 3rd. I don't know.

In the chapters that are in third person (again, one of the two protagonists with a complete arc), there is no 'jarring' sense of seeing the other character (in whose own chapters he is 1st person) now appearing in 3rd.

So, I think that aspect of it (suddenly having a viewpoint character appear 'not in viewpoint' which is what I believe you are concerned about) can work, but as I said, it is possible this author started with two first person protagonists and switched. I don't know.

Answer: Here's my instinct: I'd keep 1st/1st, but recommend looking at the voice of each character and making it as extreme and distinct from the other character's as possible. Also, pay attention to each 'viewpoint switch' (chapter beginnings, presumably)--to anchor the reader. What you want is for the reader to be firmly in the right head, that's all, and the rest will flow.

Keep two first person viewpoints but clearly make the voice of each distinct.

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    Thanks DPT, super helpful, and confirms my feeling that the switch from 1st/3rd can be more jarring than a switch in character. Fortunately, my characters couldn't be more different, so I'm not worried about them sounding the same. I might title the chapters with the character's names to really ground the reader, though as they are so different, I'm not entirely sure that will be necessary. I'll play around with the draft. Thanks for the help. – GGx Jun 19 at 6:49
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Although, I'm not convinced that I would enjoy reading fiction with multiple first-person perspectives like this, I think you might be able to take inspiration from successful non-fiction narratives where the facts of the story require two viewpoints of the same scene.

What works best is usually to pick one person (let's call him "Adrian") as the "dominant" view, with offset (e.g. indented) sections from the perspective of the other person ("Briony"). Sometimes these are introduced with a phrase like "As Briony later told me:"; other authors will start Briony's words with a mention of Adrian's name, to show it's no longer his words.

It's a few decades since I last read it, but I'd recommend Touching the Void by Joe Simpson for this kind of treatment. For shorter stories, you could probably find a few in the archives of any good mountaineering or caving magazine.

  • Thanks Toby, I've read Touching The Void, it's an amazing book. – GGx Jun 19 at 8:39

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