Thursday, March 11, 2010

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 fo
rth 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 e
ffect 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

5 comments:

Lexie said...

You know I don't have any I can think of off the top of my head, though I know that I've read books like that. Oh! DUH! Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater--its told from Sam and Grace's POV's in alternating chapters.

Honestly I enjoy them better when its two separate authors writing the different characters (like Sorcery and Cecilia or Will Grayson, Will Grayson) because then it feels more like they are separate entities. I don't have anything against the same writer for both sides (or more), but I suppose its like audio-books and me--its easier to visualize when I know its 2 or more people reading instead of one.

Francoise said...

William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" is the story of Addie Bundren as she is taken to her burial place.

Each chapter consists of the thoughts of one of her relatives in the funeral procession.

It is a difficult book at times because the flow of thoughts of each narrator does not always explain the events. Sometimes, you discover the explanation, 20 pages later, through the thoughts of another relative.

A quite interesting way to present a narrative. I am studying it right now and I'm glad I found your blog here to add some titles to my reading list.

Anonymous said...

also Kenneth Fearing's "The Big Clock"

Sherryl said...

Some I have on my shelf are: "When Dad Killed Mom" by Julius Lester, "Flipped" by Wendelin van Draanen, "The Named" by Marianne Curley.
I like two narrators but they have to be really different voices, and there has to be a good reason for why there are two (e.g. they see what happened in totally different ways). The difficulty for the author is keeping both stories interesting, so the reader doesn't start skipping one of them!

Anonymous said...

Cathy Ostlere's novel-in-verse KARMA uses two narrators: 15-year-old Maya and 17-year-old Sandeep tell their love story set against the terrifying events that follow the assassination of India's prime minister, Indira Gandhi.