Trusting the multiple first person narrators

Lots of children's books these days are written in the first person point-of-view. In fact, there's been a surge of books written in multiple first person, where the first person narrator is a different person in each chapter or each section of the book. When that is done well, as it is in Wilkie Collins' famous novel The Moonstone, it is incredibly enriching to the book. Unfortunately, many MG fiction writers have jumped on the "multiple first person narrator" bandwagon without being talented enough to make each voice sound different enough to be distinguishable. One might argue that five or six children in the fifth or sixth grade will speak similarly anyway, using the same slang terms and idioms as the other children in their school, and that's not entirely untrue. But the multiple first person narrator device loses most of its value when all the narrators sound alike, and you have to keep flipping back to the beginning of the chapter to try to figure out who is telling the story.

It's important to know who's telling the story, because it's important to know to what degree you can trust the narrator. Many children are taught in school these days to recognize an untrustworthy narrator as one specific kind of person--the narrator who is clearly lying or otherwise manipulating the reader. But as I learned in college literature classes, just  because a first person narrator is not an obviously untrustworthy narrator does not mean that we can take everything the narrator says as the objective truth. The reason for using a first person narrator at all is so the reader sees the events of the story unfold through the narrator's eyes--which means that everything the reader comes to know is coming to him or to her through the vision of the narrator.

And first person narrators are supposed to be individual people, with their own quirks, their own flaws, their own shortcomings, and their own blind spots. All of these things will impact the relative truthfulness of what the narrator chooses to tell the reader. The clues to what sort of person the narrator is are revealed with every word the narrator speaks--just as the more we get to know a person in real life, the more we are able to make decisions (sometimes accurately and sometimes incorrectly) about what kind of person our acquaintance or friend really is.

If a book is being told by one narrator, and you realize that the narrator is mostly truthful and accurate about events, but inclined to be vain, self-centered, and blind about his own desire to be recognized, you will quickly learn that when he says, "The basketball game on Tuesday night was pretty crowded," he's probably telling the truth; but if he adds, "I knew the whole team was looking up to me to lead us to victory, because our team captain is worthless," we know we need to take that statement with a very large grain of salt. A good writer will not leave us guessing for long; we will learn what is clearly true and what is being distorted through the lens of the narrator's personality.

A really well-written multiple first person narrative is going to do the same thing on a much larger scale. In addition to the narrator I've already mentioned, we might have the basketball team captain, who reveals himself to be humble and kind but a bit forgetful and not all that trustworthy when it comes to the details of what happened when, for instance. We might also have the team captain's best friend who doesn't play sports, is logical and precise, but who is only moderately capable of relating what's going on as he's often absorbed in his own pursuits and finds the basketball team's bickering annoying and unrelatable. Other narrators will be similarly treated, so that we know who will tell us the objective truth and who will not. In a good story of this kind, no one will be telling the whole truth; everyone will be just a little blind to the whole story.

So if the story is about a disaster of a basketball game that puts the team's chance of making it to the State competition very slim, we will have to weigh each person's input to find out who was really to blame, what really happened, and what can be done to make things better in the future. Knowing how much to trust each narrator can get complicated, which is why multiple first person narration is not for the faint of heart.

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