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She said, He said: Novels with multiple narrators

A sales rep friend posed this question online today:

I have a writer friend who is looking for YA (or adult) novels that are told in alternating voices. She wants examples where each character has a chapter and they go back and forth between points of view. It’s a bonus if the characters live in different time periods.

The varied responses from the people who answered her, and the fact that I’m working on a YA novel told from various view points, made me reflect on that topic.

A co-worker once lamented about dual-narrator novels, saying something to the effect of, “Unless it’s written really really well, it’s a cop-out” (I’m paraphrasing greatly here). After I heard her reasoning, I admit I judged dual-narrator novels more harshly, despite writing one of my own.

The way I defend my own writing is that I didn’t want to tell the entire novel from a third-person omniscient narrator POV, and both main characters are, ya know, main characters with two distinct voices, so…mine works (I hope).

But what really makes a novel work with multiple voices and in which cases is it unnecessary to the plot? A lot of novels have more than one main character, or really important secondary characters; why should they not all have their own voice? Often scenes are told from the POV of a character other than the main character, but almost never in first person. It is the omniscient narrator that allows the reader to gaze through the eyes of a secondary character, and it abundantly clear that the POV of the primary protagonist is the central focus.

Of course, I’m also confusing this subject by talking about POV (point-of-view), voices, and narrators, and all that doesn’t include various storytelling formats such as diary entries, letters, phone conversation transcripts, and the recently more common emails and text messages. Where do all of these fit into the subject of multiple narrators?

While I don’t have concrete answers to the questions I’ve posed, here are some books to hold up as examples for things I think they do particularly well.

My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger (9780142413432, $8.99, Penguin) is my go-to favorite for multiple narrator/multiple format storytelling. This is a YA novel about three contemporary teenagers. The novel exhibits three different main character points-of-view, with plenty of secondary characters, texts, emails, IMs, diary entries, and expository scenes.

Another favorite contemporary YA novel that switches not only narrators, but also time periods, is Printz Award-winning Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta (9780061431852, $8.99, Harper). Warning: It makes me sob (good tears) every time I read it; it’s that good.

A new, not-yet-released YA novel told by dual narrators is Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (9780525421580, $17.99, Penguin, Pub. Date: April 2010). Interestingly, the two different view points are written by two different authors.

My favorite adult novel, though sadly out-of-print, is Letters from an Age of Reason by Nora Hague (9780060959852, Harper). Told in alternating sections, letters and journal entries chronicle the relationship between a white American living in England during the Civil War years, and the high-yellow former slave from New Orleans she falls in love with.

Also told in letters, is a non-fiction book, 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (9780140143508, $13, Penguin), which covers the decades of correspondence between Helene, the American author, and the people from the bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road. Also adult.

Similar to 84… is the best-seller The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (9780385341004, $14, Random House). Also about an American author corresponding with British people, this takes place right after WWII, and delicately showcases the friendships and budding romance. Also adult.

Nora Roberts, also writing as J.D. Robb, often writes scenes from a secondary character’s point of view, though it is always clear who the main character is. Her more romantic novels are almost always told primarily through the woman’s point of view, but a great strength of her novels are the scenes that are seen through the man’s eyes. In her J.D. Robb …In Death mysteries, not only does the reader see Eve Dallas’s and her husband Roarke’s POV, but scenes from various victims’ POV are often presented as well.

For another great mystery, read
Darling Jim by Christian Moerk (9780805092080, $15, Henry Hold (MPS)), told from the POVs of a postman, a dead woman and her diary, and a live woman and her diary, among others.

I’ve noticed YA fantasy novels have a propensity for being told with dual narrators. Here is a quick list of books I’ve read that showcase dual or multiple narrators that are currently on the store’s shelves:

Hearts at Stake (9780802720740, $9.99, Walker & Company (Bloomsbury, MPS)) and Blood Feud (9780802720962, $9.99, Walker & Company (Bloomsbury, MPS)) by Alyxandra Harvey

Incarceron
(9780803733961, $17.99, Penguin) by Catherine Fisher

Leviathan
(9781416971733, $19.99, Simon) by Scott Westerfeld

Sorcery & Cecelia, or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot
(9780152053000, $6.95, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer

Witch & Wizard
(9780316036245, $17.99, Little, Brown & Co.) by James Patterson & Gabrielle Charbonnet

Do you have any examples of novels of this ilk you’d like to share?

-Rebecca

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Discussion

One thought on “She said, He said: Novels with multiple narrators

  1. Nice post. Another recent good example of using alternate voices is Jumping off Swings by Jo Knowles.For me using multiple points of view works when the voices are distinctly different. Fomr the group you listed, My Most Excellent Year is a great example of that. Of course the granddaddy of them all is Sound and the Fury by Faulkner. That first chapter is impenetrable until you find out who's talking, and then KABAM, the whole book blows you away. I know that it's not YA fiction, but it's great writing.

    Posted by Peter Littell | March 12, 2010, 3:42 pm

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