YA novels are composed by many different aspects and formulas that make them the genre that they are, young protagonists, complex (and often pointless) love subplots or triangles, dystopian type societies… And one component that I very often see and very much throughoutfully despise: First person switching Point of Views.
If you didn’t skip your middle school literature classes, you surely are aware of what a narrator is: The voice who tells the story and the determinant of the point of view. If the narrator is a full participant in the story’s action, the narrative is said to be in the first person. A story told by a narrator who is not a character in the story is a third-person narrative.
But narrators do so much more than just telling your story, as the type of narrator you use can do so much more for you. YA novels tend to focus on the likability of their main characters (often turning their protagonists into Mary Sues, sigh) while doing the least amount of work possible and thus it has become a very common occurrence for these types of authors to choose first person narratives because of several advantages they always wish to exploit:
➜The spoon feeding of your main/secondary character’s ambitions, thoughts and motivations through letting them explore their thoughts.
➜The cheap shot at immersion with your readers by allowing them a generic character. Because of how hard it is for main characters to describe themselves without sounding like they’re roleplaying on Omegle (F, 20, brown hair and green eyes) most authors avoid giving characters a clear description of themselves and more of a blank slate personality that’s described through other characters (“But MC! You love going to the movies with us ! Are you really going to pass on hanging out to help rescue animals instead?”)
An overplayed phenomenon in romance oriented YA is this precise blank slate main character who attracts the handsome, new bad boy in school and he finds himself unnaturally drawn to her. This is nothing but lazy play for uncaring readers— Your reader projects onto the main character and swoons as her love interest is here to sweep her off her feet and thus become too busy fangirling over how sexy the love interest is and how much you root for him. (Bonus points if you thought of any novel that wasn’t Twilight, because I could easy list a few many, many more)
It’s cheap, its lazy and its such an over used YA trope.
The bias of first person narrators, as the stories are filtered through their brains and emotions. Thus, making it easier to be able to quickly flag characters as “Good guys” and “Bad guys” without having to spend any time developing them as to us to figure it out by ourselves.
➜The unbelievable ease by which first person narrators are able to dump exposition on you without having to resort to the intelligent pacing and logical cohesion of explaining the world as events unfold and make it properly that third person forces you to do.
➜If the novel is thoughtful or intelligent enough to include some good mysteries or complicated plot twists, a character’s musings are a simply way to spell out what’s going on and move on without allowing the reader to discover it for themselves.
Now at this point, I have only spent some time describing why I think a first person narrator is lazy— Not even mentioning the more obvious disadvantages like self-indulgent novels can become within the narrator’s emotions by overreaction and making everything about themselves, the limiting POV by not being able to create action where the character isn’t present, making perspective and perception on the bigger picture almost impossible, the lack of focus and inability to work on secondary subplots as you’re only focused on one story thread, the unreliability of the narrator because of the bias of its brain (which in cases this can be worked wonderfully into a novel, but this is what I call a literary device for non-lazy authors) and the extra time needed to be spent figuring out the narrators voice without being out of character: Alas, a “creative” mind like Tahereh Mafi’s Juliette using heavily complex and scientific terms in her descriptions. Then again, just like Mafi, many YA authors don’t care for this later point and tend to ignore it all together.
But notice how I mention the “limits” of what a first person narration can do to your novel, and backtrack on the immediate thought that’s plaguing your head: “But Hime ! That has a very easy solution !” And it does ! It’s precisely the object of this essay this fine morning: Multiple Person POVs.
If you haven’t clued in into what they are just yet, allow me to explain. Multiple Person first person POVs is a phenomenon that occurs when you narrate a tale in first person, and then switch up the character narrating most commonly when entering a different chapter i.e. Maria narrating chapter one, and Pancho chapter two and Pedrito chapter three and switch back, back and forth. Surely, this phenomenon solves many of my aforementioned problems like: The limiting view of only one person’s bias now extended to multiple, the new found ability to throw some focus and spotlight into other character arcs and subplots and the convenience to narrate situations that are going on outside the main character’s perspective.
If you are doing this, let me tell you one hard truth: Your novel most likely reads like fanfiction.
Those who have spent their years in Wattpad surely understand what I’m saying. There isn’t anything more distracting than beginning a novel and first thing reading the character’s name on top of your page. It is very, very off putting.
It’s lazy, and when not developed properly, really brings out the amateur in a writer. You might think that many readers of YA don’t mind this, and that is the cold hard truth, but there are many other writers and readers out here that still value writing as an art form and not as a self indulgent check-list of how to get a best seller. Put effort into what you do.
Dual POVs are the most common occurrence of this phenomenon, and usually indicate a clear romance between both parties. This is by far the easiest and the laziest because it avoids having to go through the trouble of really giving each of your main characters a voice: One is a boy, and one is a girl. They do boy girl things until they encounter each other and then think about each other when they are apart. Fun.
Problem arises when the same lazy author I’m describing attempts to add a third or more POVs into the story and everything goes down into a shit show. If you’re not taking the time to give your character voices, then you will most likely turn your lazy cop out into an unpleasant read. Characters will become nothing but names blending into each other you will force your readers to have to constantly remember to tell them apart (A big problem I encountered with The Thousandth Floor but still gets half a pass because the story sort of premised revolving around these five characters- It was just done very, very incorrectly).
Narratives who do this tend to become very convoluted between every minor character and major character that they book switches to. Authors tend to forget the main point they were trying to make and get derailed between the myriads of new character thoughts, and motivations, and glances into their brains that are simply not needed in the story. You’re spending less and less time with the main characters that the reader came in for in the first place. In fact, the biggest pitfall that authors using this system fall with is very simple:
The simple possibility of ending up with readers liking one POV dramatically more than they like the other. Imbalance occurs between POV characters who are given equal amounts of time on the page and the experience becomes tedious and unpleasant.
Most authors who do this switch and jump between characters only to make sure they cover every piece of action away from the main character and I am tired to say this, but it is simply a cheap cop out that doesn’t push the writer to find a creative way to present all the information it wishes to convey through their book.
So enough complaining, what would you do?
Third person is my go to answer.
It doesn’t mean my personal stories are all written in third person, but allow me to explain why I would always recommend going for this style.
It forces you to be creative.
Not only that, but you can very well achieve the same advantages from a first person perspective with a third person perspective, along with several other advantages.
Most writers choose to include elements of first-person points of view by mentioning character thoughts and feelings without using ‘he thought’ or ‘she felt’ next to italicized text. This allows for more intimacy whilst maintaining different perspectives and helps break down the distance between the narrator and the characters. In fact, through the third person can still think, feel and experience, but so can other characters.
I believe writing is all about the subtleties, about showing and not telling and third person can work wonders for multiple POVs without even feeling like a multiple POV. Here’s some examples on novels who did it right and novels who did it wrong and why
Novels who did it right:
The Raven Cycle Series by Maggie Stiefvater
The Raven Cycle series tells the story of 5 boys looking for sleeping King in the magical, rural Henrietta. Each chapter opens on a third person limited view focused on a different character. Each book discretely changes main character focus by giving one of the 5 characters more screentime than the others. This is barely noticeable, making it a very subtle and pleasant change. Nevertheless of a great plot, the story is also very character heavy and fully immersive. I perfectly know each and every one of these complex and intricate characters, I’m familiar with their voices and characters and switching their focus to each other was pleasant and almost unnoticeable ! … All achieved through the third person.
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
Carry On is a multiple first person POV novel that just did it right. The novel doesn’t take itself too seriously in its plot and its mostly character driven. This story in fact depends on it constantly switching out narrators for us to really understand what was going on in characters heads as that was the important part of the novel, not what was going on outside of them and in the plot. As the plot was their feelings, their emotions, their thoughts… A really amazing read that almost didn’t bother me with the constant narrator switch (as I really couldn’t bring myself to care for the bits with the Mage, Nico or Ebb, all minor characters that resulted distracting to me).
Novels who did it wrong:
Pure by Julianna Baggott
Is also an ever jumping first person multiple POV novel that constantly distracts itself by distancing itself from the main two characters and showing distracting, minor characters POV.
It also suffers from another of the aforementioned problems where for a good 100 pages of the book, one of the main characters is completely insufferable and his chapters result bland and heavier to get through.
The Thousandth Floor by Katherine McGee
Because this book is all about a web of character driven drama, the first person multiple pov approach to it should be making sense. But it is the lazy and effortless way its written that makes this bad, for the characters lack voices of their own or any sort of distinguishing features other than their names. It makes the reading tedious and just hard and complicated to keep up with who is who. It’s like having homework on a Friday.
Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth
The book is completely incoherent— It is a duality that begins as a third person POV when following Akos, but turns into a into a first person POV when following Cyra, the second main character. It is distracting, frustrating and beats any sort of advantage from using third person or first person as a narrator.
Akos is a blank slate and to make it even worse, his story is told through third person as if we weren’t emotionally disconnected enough as it is because the author refused to convey his feelings and character through action.
So ! What do you think?
Are there any other books you’d consider did the third-multiple person POV right? Or more rants about who did it wrong and resulted distracting? I’d love to get more thoughts and examples !