6.16.2013

Multiple personalities

"No, it's my turn to tell the story."
Since finishing What Comes Next, by John Katzenbach, I've been reflecting on the challenges of writing multiple narrators. Writing an unreliable narrator is hard enough, but I wonder if writing in more than one unique voice isn't harder. The best book with multiple narrators I've ever read was Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. The Poisonwood Bible was narrated by five women and girls, between the age of around five up to middle age. And every single one of them sounded like completely separate personalities. They're so different from each other that it's incredible to believe that they were written by just one author. This would probably be a good place for an "authors are crazy" joke, but I'm too impressed. 

What Comes Next and a bunch of other books I've read lately try to do the same thing, but they don't quite hit the mark that Kingsolver set. I understand why an author chooses to tell the story this way. It keeps the pace of the book moving. We're not waiting for one character to discover what's going on or get around to telling the whole truth. The challenge, though, is getting your reader to believe that the characters really do have unique voices and perspectives. I don't think enough writers go far enough in differentiating things, such as the narrators' dialects and idiolects and cultural background. It's the little things that add verisimilitude. 

In talking with an acquaintance at work about this recently, I identified a few writers who spend too much time in each characters' head. Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin, among others, spend so much time in each characters' head that it's easy to lose track of everyone. As the acquaintance put it (approximately), "I read about a character and get interested. Then the author switches to another character that I don't care about as much. Then I get interested. Then the author switches again. By the time they get back to the first character, I can't remember what was happening."

It's hard to hit the sweet spot between too much and too little detail. (Isn't that really the challenge of writing, anyway?)

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