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I really love -- and most of time write in -- first person point of view.

The novel I'm writing is somewhat different from what I'm used to. I have four main characters -- I don't see any of them as more important than the others -- each one of them with his own separate plot (even being related some way to fulfill the story).

Like I said, I like to write using first person. I was thinking to title each chapter with the name of the dominant char -- since each chapter will be told from a single character point of view -- and write the contents in first person.

Example: Mark - The Wishing Well

My doubt is: does this work, or it can be too confusing for the reader to deal with different characters in different chapters, all using first person point of view?

I have seen this type of subterfuge -- chapters titled with character names for more than one main char -- but always from 3rd person point of view. I'm really not sure if I should go on with first person or just drop it, using instead 3rd person.

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  • Do (any of) characters 2,3 and 4 appear in a chapter that is centred on character 1? It may be a difficulty if the reader suddenly finds the character they thought was the narrator being talked about in the next chapter.
    – Fortiter
    Jul 28, 2013 at 0:56
  • Yes, they probably will some chapters but, of course, in that case they will be referred as any other character. Jul 28, 2013 at 9:17
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    @Fortiter I can think of at least one story I've read -- and sorry, at the moment I can't recall title or author -- that switched between husband speaking first person and wife speaking first person. It wasn't about their marriage, but there were a few places where each would describe the same incident from their own point of view, and you'd get a chuckle how they completely misunderstood each other. (I think if this technique was used for a story that WAS about the relationship, you'd have to be very careful not to overdo the he-said/she-said and make the story trite.)
    – Jay
    Jul 29, 2013 at 13:25
  • he-said/she-said is not my real intent here. It's just a matter of style, not contrasting points of view. Of course, some chapters explain others, but I don't want to force the reader to deal with two different points of view of the same thing. I just want to tell a linear story with its chapters told in first person. It shouldn't be quite straight forward in the normal 3rd person way. My only real concern is that the reader will see a lot of "I", but the "I" is not the same person. Each chapter will have a different "I", explained in the title. Jul 29, 2013 at 14:01
  • Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak is told in first person POV with more than one main characters.
    – user14786
    Aug 6, 2015 at 1:04

13 Answers 13

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I've read at least one book which successfully did this; the author just titled each chapter "Bruno" and "Melusine," depending on whose perspective it was. The timeline was mostly chronological, although there was some overlap so we see how one felt about the other's actions. It worked perfectly fine for me.

It's not subterfuge. Label each chapter, throw in a time stamp if you want to be crystal clear, and you're fine.

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  • Time-stamp is something I prefer not to use, but I liked your answer and I'm really into using character names in titles in this case. Btw, in the book you mentioned, can you tell me if the author only titled the chapters BRUNO or MELUSINE, or he add something more like BRUNO (The Avenging Sword)? Jul 29, 2013 at 9:26
  • @Psicofrenia It was just "Bruno" and "Melusine." Ooh, and I even found the book for you: Roberta Gellis's Fires of Winter. amazon.com/Winter-Casablanca-Classics-Roberta-Gellis/dp/… Jul 29, 2013 at 9:58
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    There's a lot that can be said about writing in multiple first-person POVs, but this is certainly the answer to the questions "can it be done?" and "Does providing the POV's name in the title make things clear?". Yes and yes - it's a quick, straightforward solution. I've seen it used more than once; it's always served its purpose and it's never been a problem.
    – Standback
    Jul 31, 2013 at 8:13
  • I wrote something like that once and it went fairly well, even if the "temporary protagonist" wasn't introduced a bit into the chapter - you assign a new name and you make it clear that is a new person. Make sure to adhere to rules of clearly distinct naming. No similar-sounding names, starting with the same letter etc.
    – SF.
    Jul 31, 2013 at 9:30
  • Animorphs did this in some of its book (typically the Megamorphs titles, with each chapter noting the narrator and showing a picture of their cover art from the book).
    – hszmv
    Nov 28, 2022 at 14:41
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If you need a great example of this, read As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. Each chapter was told from a different 1st person POV character, and the chapters were labeled with just the character's name. The voices are very distinctive, and after awhile, I didn't need to read the chapter title to know who was narrating that chapter.

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I think this is a terrific, creative idea, but you have to be very skillful to pull it off. I agree that each character has to be rendered very distinctively. Ken Kesey did something like this on his novel Sometimes a Great Notion which is a wonderful family saga where different points of view are distinguished by italics and normal fonts.

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  • I would really like to get a tattoo with “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” ;-) Yes, I agree with you... I'm not sure if I'll make it with success but, on the other hand, I won't know if I do not try. In the worse case, I can open the trash bin and start over in 3rd person. But, I'm confident I'll manage to write in first person with multiple characters. Jul 31, 2013 at 10:45
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As lonehorseend said, it's important to make sure characters seem different - but adding the character's names is very important.

Case in point - go read some of the I Am Number Four novels, particular the second and third novels. They swap (in third person) to different characters, without even using asterisks as breaks. It's nearly impossible to determine which character is which, and it makes for a very confusing read.

Even if you have to fall to traditional tropes, make your characters unique. Eg, have a 'bitter and moody' character, a 'mysterious past' character, a 'ditzy, but means-well' character etc. Overplay it a little bit, but the reader will clearly understand the differences between the POVs.

To be honest, I would go with placing the character's name at the start of the chapter - if you even think for a moment that a reader might get confused, then don't be ambiguous about it, and put the name there. There's no harm in putting it in.

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  • I saw "I Am Number Four" movie and, after that, I just decided I didn't want to get nothing more from the series ;-) But of course, each character will be really differences from the others so, I believe it's easy to tell by the way they act/speak who they are but... Even so... I was really concerned about that specially because, in 3rd person, you will "Karen turned on the the radio" and in 1st person you will only say "I turned on the radio". Simply by having the 3rd character exposed makes it easier to know who are talking and acting. Jul 29, 2013 at 9:22
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The key with first person point of view is that your character's voice has to come through. So if you write three separate first persons, they all have to sound different meaning the writing style has to be distinct for each one. You can't just slap a character name on the chapter and hope your reader can go by that alone if there is no other context or way to distinguish who's speaking.

It might be easier to choose a main narrator, write that one in first person and then write everyone else in third person.

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  • I really don't like to use a narrator. It's related to my writing style. Normally, my main char tell the story so he is also the narrator but I don't like to have a specific narrator outside this scope. Jul 29, 2013 at 9:23
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    Me neither. I should have said choose the character with the most story to tell and give him / her the first person point of view. Jul 29, 2013 at 11:37
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I am currently also writing in first person with multiple character point of views.. at two instances the stories overlap.. it's really not too difficult to do.. tricky, but not too difficult. The trick is not to switch too quickly between characters, as with 3rd person. Using 1st person is a brilliant way to really get inside each character's head, especially if they are very different. My 3 main characters are worlds apart. Darian is witty, sarcastic, clever and a deep thinker Ynara is very observant, but clear-cut. Asjghar is angry, bitter and vulgar.

I have chapters with their titles and then subheadings that indicate in whose head you are at the moment..

On another note I am currently reading a series of novels that read in first person as the main character. When you follow any of the other characters it is narrated in third person. I think it is wildly creative, but she neglects to let you know right away who you are following. Can be frustrating..

I wish you all the best in your writing journey!

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There's a French sci-fi novel, "La Horde du Contrevent" by Alain Damasio, that does exactly this.

Actually, it's even more complicated than that: there's ~15 protagonists, and each of them may be the (first-person) dominant char for ~10s paragraphs. When there's a switch, there's only a symbol (not the name!) of the new speaking character. But there's more: the feat is: each character has a very specific style of speech (poetic, slang, scholar, "normal", funny, ...).

At first, you're a bit lost, but after a few chapters, you can easily guess who is speaking simply by reading 2 ou 3 sentences. This also make you know the characters as if they were in your real life.

This is a huge piece of sci-fi (everyone I know who read it loved it), and the author has a real linguistic talent. I think it may be translated to English in the next months/years (I wish good luck to the translator!)

The main point is: don't add too much information. Trust the readers. They may love guessing what's happening; this may even be a huge appeal of your book. Don't tell too much, show.

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I have read a series that alternated between two to for main characters every chapter or so an it was really well written. It was all in first person and it didn't get confusing at all each time it would switch character point of view it would tell you which character it was turning to. The series is called The Wolves of Mercy Falls it is really good at that kind of story telling method.

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I've definitely seen it done and enjoyed those books. Done right, it's not confusing but you need to separate by chapters and label by name. If people aren't paying attention, they may not realize who is the subject of the chapter until a little while in but that's something you can't help.

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I just published a memoir called Cultivating Crime, The Dark Side of Legal Marijuana about the two years my law partner stole from our company and the fallout. I labeled each chapter with our names, but I told his side in third person and I also italicized his chapters.

I am currently finishing a non-fiction about the Robin Hood GameStop debacle from the perspective of two 23 year-old Gamers. I wrote both in first person and found that it was clear when they were conversing or, in some instances, not as important to delineate who said what. I am the third character, the narrator written in first as well, my actual role was as their mentor.

So far no editor has had a problem following the story and they find the characters compelling and genuine.

Good luck, I hope you find peace with four first person characters!

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In my opinion - although it has been done,and quite expertly - as others have pointed out, it does make for a strange... reading. There are four characters? Ok, how about adding a fifth, that somehow knows all their stories and tells us about it? Or have them - if the story setting allows of course - talk about all their stories over a meal or a friendly gathering. Or in the true style of "teenage detective stories" have each have their own adventure, but make them cooperate and meet and exchange ideas and tales so that the plot is resolved by all as a group. Again, all that is any good if the story/genre permits.

Maybe I am not the typical reader, but stories that change POV - especially when not deemed necessary - seem to give the impression of reading several novels with the same subject. I do get this impression in movies and also in games, where I instinctively find it harder to suppress my reality-checks when I am forced by the story to change character. I can follow and identify with the narrator,maybe, in some cases- but then with no reason for my conscience to jump into another character is an exercise that somehow becomes tiring.

Sure there are some great works that did that... But the Japanese have a proverb that goes something like this: Who sees Mount Fuji and does not climb it, is a fool. But then it continues: Who has already been on top of Mount Fuji once and climbs it again is also a fool. (That's not to say it is not beautiful in real life or that the bike treks up there are not worth it, but it seems in ancient times there was a small shrine at the top, and nothing much else, but anyone climbing there would praise it to Heaven and back, just to make other people do the arduous trek and find two twigs and three stones).

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The Animorphs Series did this in two ways depending on the book. All of them were first person narrator only, but of the Main Line series, the narrator of each book was assigned a book in a rotation (with six characters, 4 characters would narrate one book in every five and the remaining two would narrate 1 book in every 10. Jake would get books with numbers ending in 1s or 6s, Rachel would be 2s and 7s Cassie would be 4s and 9s, and Marco would be multiples of 5s (5s and 0s). The character of Tobias would narrate books ending with 3, and Ax would narrate books ending with the 8s.). Later in the series, the two characters that got one book in 10 were given a proper order in the rotation, so each would narrate 1 out of every 6 books in Jake, Rachel, Tobias, Cassie, Marco, Ax order.

Non-mainline books retained the first person perspective but would alternate narrators in chapter (with no order, as story dictated which character was featured in the next chapter) with each chapter also naming the character who was narrating and showing a smaller picture of them from the cover art (the series never titled chapters). The Megamorphs line would feature the main six characters telling the story as needed (One book where Jake "dies" cuts him out after his death chapter... due to time travel, he's back for the ending).

The Chronicles line, which often featured secondary characters in stories that were prequel to or contemporary with the main line stories would usually feature a single narrator, although the Hork-Bajir Chronicles featured 4 narrators of whom, only Tobias was a main character and even then, he only narrated the framing device (that being the main plot was a story that was being told to him about the Ancestors of a group of allies from the alien race of the Hork-Bajir).

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Okay, this is an old question, so I'm sure the asker has already finished a whole series of novels in the meantime. But perhaps other participants might find this useful.

The basic answer is of course that yes, it's absolutely possible to write in first person while switching between two or more narrating characters. It's been done times and again by many writers (one instance that comes to my mind is a series of detective novels by Josef Škvorecký but I don't suppose he's widely known internationally), and it has been done masterfully.

To avoid confusing the reader, it's best to give each narrator a whole chapter before passing the mic to another. Definitely don't change narrators without at least a section break.

It's also likely to be confusing if you start to change narrators after establishing and having the reader get used to there being only one. If you switch narrators from the start, you don't run into this. Switching suddenly at the start of chapter sixteen is not very advisable unless you have a good reason stemming from the events in the story, and even then it's a good idea to spend a few paragraphs on making it clear what you're doing and why.

Naming the narrator at the start of chapter doesn't harm, but I'd caution against relying on it. For one thing, a lot of readers will just not pay attention to such a label. And if you play your cards right, it's unnecessary anyway.

What really helps here, and also makes this form of narration so much fun, is to have each character speak in their own, subtly distinct style. So make very sure that each of your heroes speaks - or writes - the way that fits their characterisation (and doesn't accidentally slip into the way their colleague would talk). If I remember right, the MYTH Inc. volumes of Asprin's Myth series did this pretty well. There's no way one could ever mistake Aahz for Gleep. (Though I admit I actually read it in translation.)

Between style and content, it should generally be clear who is speaking without any real need for labels.

First person with multiple narrators allows for possibilities that other narration forms don't lend so well to.

One thing that might be fun to consider is whether the text is a sort of collage of each protagonist telling the story from their perspective in turn, or whether they can hear each other talking and perhaps react to what's been said. Do they want to correct each other? Clarify with more detail? Take offense? Even start interrupting one another?

Another potentially interesting thing is reliability of the narrators. Maybe all of them are reliable. Maybe some are unreliable narrators who give themselves away in the same ways a single unreliable narrator would. But maybe, just maybe, there are unreliable narrators, but we don't know who it is. Their accounts contradict each other, but we're left wondering which of them is the truthful one (if any) and which is either mistaken or lying - up until the resolution, or even forever, after the whole story ends.

All in all, first person with multiple narrators can be a great and powerful form of storytelling. It can be immersive, thought-provoking and a lot of fun.

If paired with the right story to tell, because no one form fits all.

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