Writing in Dual 1st Person POV

I'm in the midst of revising my 2013 NaNo novel (A STOLEN THRONE), which is a dual first person POV narrative. The revisions are going well so far; I expect to have the second draft finished and off to my CPs within the next two weeks. With my writer brain fully immersed within this type of story structure, I've been thinking a lot about POV. So, I decided to put together some of the hows and whys of writing in a dual POV.

The first thing I have to say in regard to point-of-view is this: every editor, agent, writer, and reader has different preferences when it comes to POV. As such, it is my strong opinion that writers should not choose a point-of-view simply because it's "popular." Above all else, you should write in the POV that best serves the story you're trying to tell. Please don't pick a POV just because you think it'll make your story stand out, or because it's the current trend. Pick the one that best serves your story. *Steps off soap box*

Let's assume, if you're still reading this, you think you have a story that should be told as a dual narrative, in first-person POV. If that's the case (or you want to know how I decided to go that route with my NaNo novel), read on.

First, to determine whether you need a dual narrative, ask yourself these questions:

  • What does each POV character (herein referred to simply as your MCs) contribute to the story?
    • Do the MCs stories directly intertwine (think the back and forth POVs in romance)?
      • Does the reader need to know both sides of the story there?
  • Are their stories separate but loosely connected?
    • If this is the case, is there a strong enough reason for the stories to be in the same book? (Just so you know, "because I want them to" is not a strong enough reason.)
  • What new information does the reader get from being INSIDE this MCs head? Is it important enough to give that MC their own POV? Or can we get that information as an "outsider" looking in?
  • Would the story be damaged or fundamentally altered if you cut the second MC?

In writing A STOLEN THRONE (AST), these were some of the questions I asked myself as I tried to decide whether I wanted to add my second POV character. When the story idea first hit me back in the summer of 2013, I only got one side of the story (Maren's story). As I plotted it out, I realized there was a whole second story (Katherine) that, while only loosely connected with Maren's journey, was absolutely essential for my readers to know, to make the consequences bigger. Even now, as I'm revising, I find that both separate POVs make sense as stories on their own, but tied together, they both become deeper and richer. And I think that should be the goal of a dual narrative.

All right, so you've decided you need a dual narrative for your story. But should you write them in first person or third? Ask yourselves these questions to find out:

  • Are the voices distinct? Can you tell who's speaking from the tone of their POV?
  • Does writing them in third inhibit their personality on the page?

I'm sure there are other questions, but those are the ones that mattered to me most when making my decision with AST. I actually thought about this a lot while drafting. I knew if I wanted to write their POVs in first person, that they needed to "sound" like very different people. During one particular day of agonizing indecision (writers out there, you know the feeling I'm talking about), I actually tried to write a chapter in third person. And let me tell you, it was awful. Awful! The words wouldn't come and everything felt stilted and wrong. It was probably the worst hour of the entire month of NaNo. But after that, at least I knew without a doubt AST needed to be in first person.

So, you've decided that dual first-person is the way to go for your story? Excellent. Here are some important tips to keep in mind.

  1. To make life easier on your future agent/editor and readers, consider sticking to one POV per chapter. A chapter break helps your reader step out of one head and into another without getting lost.
     
  2. Along those lines, consider using the name for that chapter's POV character as your chapter title so we know whose head we're in.
     
  3. Try reading a random paragraph or page out of your book. Can you easily tell whose POV you're in? If so, excellent! If not, consider what you can do to make their voices more distinct. You wrote them, so if you can't tell them apart, your readers won't be able to either.
     
  4. Search your MS for issues of "head hopping." If you've made the commitment to write with two first-person POVs, make absolutely sure you're only communicating things those MCs would know, think, or feel. Stay out of other people's heads!
     
  5. Send your revised MS to a trusted CP or beta reader (or four). Ask them who they think is the "real MC." While there's no right answer (since the hope should be that both MCs capture their attention), if all your feedback tells you that your readers get bored with your second POV character and constantly want to get back to the "real story," then you've got a problem on your hands. And another round of revisions in front of you.

In AST, I (mostly) alternate between my MCs every other chapter (following points 1 and 2 above). I'm still in revisions, but fully intend to do the whole "read a random page" test, and I always (regardless of POV) check for head hopping. And that last point? Asking my CPs which is the "real" story? That's next on my to-do list. I'm terrified of their answers (and a bit curious to see who they might like more), but I know it's a vital step before this MS is ready for agents. If folks are bored when they read Katherine's chapters and can't wait to get back to Maren's side of the story, I've failed at my job. While I do want the reader to be eager to get to Maren's next chapter, I want them to feel the same about Katherine's story. So on that, I'll have to wait and see what the CPs say.

A tip for differentiating your MCs voices:

In some ways, the hardest part of this whole dual first-person narrative thing is making sure you have two very distinct voices that stay consistent throughout. As such, I thought I'd share the revising technique I use with these types of stories. It may not work for you (or the particular story you're working on), but I hope it helps.

Whenever I revise, I print my entire MS. Yes, I know it kills a lot of trees, but it's the only way I can do it. My brain works differently when I'm writing versus typing. Anyway, with AST I did my normal read through, looking for all the big problems with the MS, etc. But before I got to the nitty gritty of fixing those problems, I split the MS in half by POV. I revised all of Maren's chapters first, then all of the journal entries from Will, and then finally all of Katherine's scenes (I currently have three chapters left to revise for Katherine's stuff).

Doing it that way, I could make sure each voice was separate from the others, and consistent with itself. I'm almost done with this portion of revision, and it's definitely helped me keep the two MCs as very separate, distinct characters. Once I type in all the changes, I'll read it all again, back in order with the alternating POV chapters, and make sure everything works, make sure all the puzzle pieces fit together.

And that's it! I hope some of this was helpful as you embark on writing or revising your own dual first-person story. If I missed another important tip, please leave me a comment below and let me know!

-Isabel