Why I’m Tired of Multiple First-Person Perspectives

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I’m officially done. I’m over it. In the 2020s, can we please leave multiple first-person perspectives behind?

It seems like over the past ten years, so many more books have been written in multiple first-person perspectives than before, where two (or more) characters narrate in first-person. I’ve noticed it being especially present in young adult, and though I don’t read it much, new adult. Meanwhile, middle grade and adult don’t have quite as many books with this narrative style.

so what makes multiple first-person POVs so popular?

First, I think we need to look at what first-person does for narrative, especially in stories about young people. Writing in first-person means that the reader is firmly entrenched in the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of one specific character. There’s no going out of a character’s head: the reader knows what the character knows, and nothing more–and ideally, nothing less.

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First-person narratives give a sense of closeness and intimacy with the main character without the barrier of a perceived narrator or using the main character’s names. In short, there’s no barrier. Compare third-person, which can create distance between the reader and the main character, with the benefit of a more flexible narrative style. With third-person, a writer can spend the whole book in one character’s head, switch between many between chapters, or have there be an omniscient narrator. These are, of course, generalizations of narrative styles, and shouldn’t be taken to be 100% true. But this is, generally, why a lot of YA books use first-person.

Using multiple first-person perspectives essentially gets the reader into the heads of multiple main characters in turn, allowing for the closeness of first-person and the flexibility of third-person. Young adult literature tends to be character-focused, with a lot of the plot and themes hinging on the growth of the main character(s). Thus, multiple first-person perspectives should focus on the character growth of multiple characters, from their own perspectives as well as the people they interact with, in an inherently intimate manner.

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why i don’t think this narrative works

Note that I said “should,” because I find that–if this is what authors intend when they write in multiple first-person perspectives–using this narrative style rarely works. Some writers can definitely pull it off, but the vast majority simply make their books far more confusing than they need to be.

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Foremost in my reasoning for this is simple: character voice. More than anything, in first-person narration where there are two or more perspectives, each narrating character must have a distinct and unique character voice, or everything simply falls apart. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written some variation of, “I couldn’t tell which character was narrating,” in reviews of books with this narrative style–I don’t know, maybe I’m just dense, or slow. But because first-person doesn’t use character names to show who’s thinking or experiencing what, the reader needs to be able to figure it out from narration alone. Too often, I don’t find this is true. It takes a lot of enjoyment out of the reading experience to be constantly having to flip back to the chapter headings just to figure out which character is narrating.

Also, I’ve seen more books with not only two, but three or more perspectives popping up lately. Adam Silvera’s Infinity Son has four. Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman’s Aurora Rising has seven. Seven! So much my reading experience was just me asking myself, “Okay, who’s narrating now?” I find it happening to me far too often.

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When characters have the same voice in first-person, it means that the characters aren’t as developed as they need to be. It makes me feel distant and disconnected from the main characters, from their thoughts, and feelings, and motivations, which is antithetical to what I want to be feeling when I read a book. In third-person, it’s excusable for multiple characters to have the same style of narration, because it isn’t them narrating the story. In first-person, it is.

Another reason I find that it doesn’t work is the relationships the characters have to each other. Too often in dual narration, the two narrators are love interests, which is the Worst Possible Combination of narrators. Especially in fantasy or romance, when the two main characters are love interests, and both narrating, it takes a lot of suspense out of the romance while spending too much time on it, which makes romance subplots a slog. I recently read Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin and found the dual narration to really take my enjoyment of the romance away. Oh, this is definitely a pitfall in third-person as well, but there is, at least, more ability to control the narrative and build suspense.

In many cases, these factors make it harder to become immersed in the characters. When neither character has a distinct voice and personality, I care less about them, and that leads to me liking the book less.

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so what’s a solution to this?

The great thing about narration is that there are so many ways to do it. Sticking with multiple first-person perspectives is, ultimately, fine. Despite my snark at the beginning, I am not advocating for it to be wiped out entirely. If it’s what your story needs, then by all means, do it! I emphasize need because many books using this narration don’t need to use it.

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One style I like to see is multiple third-person narrators. Third-person just works so much better for multiple perspectives than first-person does. There’s no confusion. Some might worry that they’re losing the intimacy with the characters by writing in this way, but I find that’s not always true; a strong narrative voice and character focus makes third-person just as close as first-person is, sometimes even closer. And if writers have that distinct voice and developed characters, there’s no need to have separate ones for every character–though it can certainly be done–readers will be just as engrossed in the story and character.

Another option is to simply cut the number of perspectives there are. A lot of books with two narrators can be done with one–obviously, if there are two characters on opposite sides of a war, this doesn’t quite work, but if characters are largely beside each other and working together the whole time, then I would much rather lose out on some scenes and thoughts from the other character than have a less cohesive, more repetitive story. Less is more, sometimes, and lessening the number of perspectives make a plot more focused, make character development stronger, and provides a better experience all around.

One I don’t see quite as much as I’d like to is alternating first-person and third-person narrative styles, which is a good balance. I’ve even read books that combine this with second-person–Fans of the Impossible Life by Katie Scelsa has three narrators, but uses a different perspective for each one, and it brings out their characters so well.

I definitely get why so many books choose to use the first-person narration style, even with several different characters. I understand why a lot of readers like it, and why it works for a lot of people. But I’d definitely like to see more variety in narration styles when it comes to multiple main characters, because there are so many books I feel could be tightened up.

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what narration style do you prefer reading?

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11 thoughts on “Why I’m Tired of Multiple First-Person Perspectives

  1. Ahhh this post puts into words something that’s bothered me for so long but haven’t been able to properly articulate! I love it, and I completely agree. Having multiple first person narrators, especially when there’s not enough distinction between their voices, can get so confusing. I can’t even imagine reading SEVEN first person narrators. When there are multiple POVs in a book, I find it so much easier to switch when it’s in third person, maybe because it feels like more effort to remind myself constantly who the “I” is referring to. (Especially when there are really short chapters that are head hopping all the time.) I feel like not enough authors realize that, and I think there are lots of creative things to be done with POVs, like you mentioned.

    Wonderful post, well done!!

    1. Thank you!! And I agree with you on the short chapters, I find short chapters happen a lot even with a lot of narrators, and it’s just confusing??? Aurora Rising had characters who would narrate a few paragraphs at a time and I simply do not have enough brain power for that.

  2. I’ve done multiple first person, but as an exercise in trying to show the different thinking between a man and a woman on the same event. I agree that it’s overdone and horrible if not done right.

  3. This is such an interesting discussion and I loved the way you wrote it so much. It is never something I have thought about too much you are right about seeing people write that multiple first person views can be confusing especially as making distinct character voices can be hard. I do like it but I would say that is do have many flaws and certain authors can pull it off better.
    Third person perspective is good and I think you are right that these other perspectives should be explored more as they have a lot of strength.
    I really loved this discussion and I think you covered it all. It was a great read!! ❤

  4. Wouldn’t you know that right after I read this post I start reading a book with two sisters both speaking in first person. You are so right on with this problem.

  5. Multiple first person POV is its own special art form in my opinion. In Serpent and Dove, I still can’t figure out why Reid had a POV. I would go out on a limb and say that about 70% of the book was told from the girl’s POV (I totally forgot her name), and we only got Reid more toward the end when there was no other choice but to switch to him. That book in particular I think would have been waaaaay better suited to third person.
    I personally love the multiple POV in the second book of the Chaos Walking trilogy when it switches between the two main characters who are experiencing very different things and have VERY different voices. HOWEVER, bruh, I hated when a third POV was added in the third book of that series.
    It depends on the author, which is why I always hesitate with first person stories. It’s hard to mess up third person, but it’s easy to mess up first person. The strength of the author really comes through if they can master the multiple POV first person narrative.
    That was lengthy, but overall I totally agree with you. A little less jumping POVs in the 2020s would be much appreciated!!

    1. Serpent and Dove was one of the books that spurred this rant!!! I definitely think that Reid’s POV was only useful towards the climax, and, I don’t know, I found both their voices very irritating, which may not have happened in third person?? The narration is only one of many gripes on that book, though, I didn’t like it very much haha.

      I agree Chaos Walking did an excellent job–it’s a very unique series, though, and he really sets the different POVs apart when they get added. Three is edging on too much, but at least it was unique, I feel.

      I definitely agree that third person is easier–it seems harder, but yeah, like you said, it’s easier to mess up the narration in first person. I do get more frustrated with narratives in first person.

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