Conventional wisdom used to dictate that popular novelists should write in the third person. It’s a convention that has been broken successfully many times; nonetheless there ARE difficulties for the writer in telling a story from a first person perspective, particularly when more than one perspective is involved.
The main problem is one of character development. Third persons can be described for the reader either by the author or through the eyes of a first person narrator. Thus we can know the color of their eyes and hair, other physical characteristics, and their personality traits. We can also know where they live and what they do. However, it requires more skill to give the reader a sense of the narrator’s character and appearance because description must be done more subtly. When several narrators are involved, each “voice” has to clearly convey a sense of itself or the reader will become confused.
My own method of dealing with this is to use distinctive linguistical gimmicks to identify each of my characters, as well as the conventional tactic of employing different typefaces in the text.
In my book “A Garden in Africa” the first-person narrator has been kept deliberately in the background. Very little is ever revealed about this person beyond some basic biographical details; this is so that the character of the narrator never attracts attention from the book’s heroine. Another “voice” is employed occasionally throughout the book; that of an acerbic aunt who brings a different perspective to people and events. This is important so that the narrator – and by extension the reader – can gain a deeper insight to the characters and their motivations. I used a different typeface to express the aunt’s “voice” so the reader could immediately understand that the perspective had shifted. To distinguish the voice of the aunt from that of the narrator I gave her the typical linguistic expressions, including slang, of her earlier time.
Other perspectives were introduced here and there throughout the book, expressed as quotes drawn from the narrator’s memory or from letters. Again, I was careful to distinguish these by the language used – especially slang which is always an effective way of signifying a particular era and social type.
I always feel more comfortable writing in the first person and this is probably because most of my work has been gardening books where one is communicating information directly to the reader. I’m also aware of the pitfalls involved, especially the difficulty of making the narrator interesting to the reader. Unless, of course, the narrator is NOT the central character in the book. Jane Eyre has to capture the reader’s interest. Nelly Dean does not. So when telling my tale from differing perspectives I’ve had to evolve ways of doing this to help keep my readers in the loop.
I hope this post will help other writers who are faced with the same challenge.