I love books with multiple POVs, especially those that mix first person with third. They range from upmarket women’s books, including Ann Darby’s The Orphan Game and Mary Sharratt’s The Real Minerva to Japanese classics (Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro) to literary fiction (Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, Suzan Lori-Park’s Getting Mother’s Body, and my favorite of all time, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine).
My debut mystery SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI started off with two POVs–my main character Mas Arai and a Japanese doctor named Yukikazu Kimura. I ended up killing off Kimura’s voice and morphing the character into a red-haired journalist slacker in his early twenties. Mas was the last POV standing.
With my second mystery in the series, GASA-GASA GIRL, again I attempted to add other voices to the mix, including Mas’s good friend, Tug Yamada, a World War II vet with a shortened finger. My dear editor at the time suggested that I stick to the most interesting voice, Mas’s, and I complied. She was right.
I don’t know why I gravitate towards storytelling in multiple voices. Perhaps it’s because I love to look at things from different points of view. A psychoanalyst may posit it’s because I’m the first child of an immigrant and had to understand and interpret multiple worlds for my parents. It may be because I worked as a journalist and had to question people on opposite sides of an issue. Or it just may be my natural predisposition.
With my present project, I’m running into the same conundrum. I was envisioning a women’s book like Whitney Otto’s How to Make an American Quilt or Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale. Again, a combination of first person and third.
Of course, the mystery genre, especially thrillers, implement this method of storyline all the time. I asked members of various mystery listservs about what books they feel did a good job of mixing first person with multiple third-person perspectives.
Here’s a compilation of suggestions I received:
- Donna Andrew’s Turing series
- James Lee Burke’s books
- Jan Burke’s BONES and other books
- Harlan Coben’s standalones
- Robert Crais’s L.A. REQUIEM
- Sue Grafton’s S IS FOR SILENCE
- Joan Hess’s Maggody series
- Joseph Hone’s spy books
- Margaret Maron’s Deborah Knott books
- James Patterson’s Alex Cross books
But in spite of all these models, as I wrestle with my crocodile of a manuscript, I realize that I have to heed my book’s inner voice. One single voice: my main character’s. Unlike my Mas Arai series, which is third person throughout, I’m using a first-person POV of the same character during two different time periods.
And that story with multiple voices–it’ll happen someday with a book I write, but apparently not this one.
WEDNESDAY’S WORD: bakatare (GASA-GASA GIRL, page 84)
Bakatare, pronounced ba-ka-TA-re, can have different versions–bakayaro or just plain baka. They all mean essentially the same thing: stupid or foolish. In high school, I somehow convinced my junior varsity basketball team to yell "BAKATARE" before we started an official game. S.J. Rozan, what do you think?
GO, JANET RUDOLPH, GO: If you haven’t ever read Janet Rudolph’s Mystery Readers Journal, this is definitely the time to do it. Mystery Readers International’s latest issue is titled Murder in the Far East and it’s a doozy. There are articles on Japanese mystery fiction, the four leading Japanese female mystery writers, Asian fact crime, Judge Dee, and author essays. I contributed an essay, and so did Colin Cotterill, Barry Eisler, Dale Furutani, G. Miki Hayden, Peter May, I.J. Parker, Laura Joh Rowland, Eric Stone, and so many others. It’s really outstanding. To subscribe, see the Mystery Readers International website.
SADDEST MOVIE EVER: I recently viewed a DVD with one of the saddest and most infuriating storylines ever. It’s a Japanese movie called NOBODY KNOWS, inspired by a true incident that occurred in Tokyo in the 1980s. Beautifully made with an exquisite performance by a 14-year-old boy who captured Cannes Film Festival’s best actor award in 2004. Also saw CACHÉ , starring Juliette Binoche. This one’s also foreign–French. This film received rave reviews from critics; I thought it was pretty good, but not quite up to the critical buzz. The most interesting feature was actually the director’s interview, in which he expressed that he tries to enter a scene as late as possible and then leave as soon as possible. A great tip for writers. Both these films have a much slower pace and rhythm than most American movies, so if you’re used to a lot of talking and fast cuts, you may find them utterly boring. For me, however, watching NOBODY KNOWS confirmed that deep within my American soul resides a strong Japanese aesthetic.
AND A SAD FAREWELL: I always pictured him playing Mas in a film or play, and now he’s gone.
Thank you, Naomi. Mako. Of Course! Now at last I have a face, and an intensity, to put to Mas! What a pioneer was Mako. And what a lengthy and varied career. Is there anything he couldn’t do well? From slapstick episodic 60’s TV comedy (Yes, I admit it, I grew up on McHale’s Navy) to The Sand Pebbles with Steve McQueen. I think he won an Oscar for that one. And a better supporting performance you’ll never find. He totally lost himself in Po-han’s character. And his career must have lasted 30-40 years. How many can say that? Would have loved to see him on stage. Well, gotta go get a copy of Sand Pebbles to watch with our kids. Best tribute I can think of for an actor.
LA Requiem is one of the finest examples of multi-POV in the crime genre. In my opinion, anyway.
I, too, love multi-POV, but… ONLY WHEN IT’S DONE RIGHT. Meaning, only when it should be used.
I’ve read many stories where the author combined first and third, seemingly for no other reason than they thought it would be fun to do it. Or something. And the books were very disappointing.
Just as some books should only be told in first person, and some only in third, not every story should be told in multi-POV.
But, again, when it’s done right, and creates a seamless flow to the entire story and characters, I love it.
Another first person/third person author is the incredibly talented Tess Gerritsen [The Surgeon, The Apprentice, et al]. First-person is italicized from the killer’s POV.
I’ve used it for two books. FIFTY CENTS FOR YOUR SOUL begins with the death of a horror film director, told in third-person, then goes back to the very beginning of the filming, told from the first-person POV of a young actress [in the horror film]. Flashback chapters about the director, his sister, and the film’s scriptwriter are all third person.
EYE OF NEWT was more challenging. It begins with a third-person chapter about a hanging in 1692 Salem, then embraces two first-person POVs: Sydney St. Charles, my present-day witch, and Chastity Barker, my 1692 witch [and Sydney’s ancestor]. Chastity’s story is told via journal [not unlike blogging – grin]. However, the next-to-last chapter – when the historical mystery gets solved – is written in third-person.
Does anyone understand the above? I haven’t had my second cup of caffeine yet.
Yes, Mako. I even sent him SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI on a lark, hoping that maybe it might spark some ideas. I was going to follow up with him this year, and then he fell ill. My husband and I caught SAND PEPPLES last week on cable–I don’t know if it was a weird coincidence or if it was broadcast in his memory. The fight scene was classic, and I was so amazed that he do so much with such a character. I was privileged to see him multiple times on stage, my favorite being his depiction of Mishima.
My silly dream was a Mas Arai made-for-cable or PBS movie that would bring together the old standbys: Mako, Pat Morita (maybe as Wishbone), Robert Ito (he played Quincy’s sidekick), James Shigeta, George Takei, etc. Of course Mako and Pat Morita are now gone.
Enjoy SAND PEPPLES. Mako would have liked people to remember him from his work.
I’ve noticed that in a long-running series, the author inevitably tries the first/third experiment to mix things up. And sometimes the technique falls flat. I didn’t realize how hard it was until I tried it. To make it seamless–yup, that’s the key. And if two characters are interacting with each other, whose POV do you take on?
Oh yes, Tess Gerritsen. THE SURGEON kept me up all night, first because I had to finish reading it and then because I was quaking that someone was going to carve up my insides! She’s a master, for sure.
I’m working on my first cup of coffee right now so I’ll get back to you later.
I love multiple POV because it gives me a chance to not only present alternative motiviations and actions – and it also allows me to create (I hope!)a more complex plot. First person leaves me feeling (along with the character) I don’t know the full story. I hate that.
Mako: RIP. A fine actor.
Interesting views on a difficult subject. I’m lazy,I guess, and stick with 3rd, but maybe sometime later I’ll try first. I think it take s a defter touch — like Elaine said, sometimes in first I don’t feel like I’m experiencing as much of the story as I’d like. One place where this wasn’t the case was T. Jefferson Parker’s THE FALLEN. Brilliantly done.As always, Naomi, I’m finding the layers of your mind fascinating!
I like third person, too, because the narrator, the invisible storyteller, can set up the scene for the reader. But I’m having fun with first person. I’m interested in exploring the nature of the unreliable narrator; wasn’t it used to a devastating effect in FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON?
And about the layers of my mind? It’s all sedimentary rock, honey. Not much use at all–maybe just to geologists and rock collectors!
Pshaw! Your mind is a lush, tropical garden. I dare anyone to refute that!
I think Naomi’s mind is filled with such a rich crop of stories – she’ll keep us captivated for many years.
Okay, guys, thank you, but enough of that. I think I just solved a writing problem, so I’m in a much better mood. It’s interesting that each book needs a different strategy. Man, I went down two wrong paths and it just wasn’t working. It’s amazing how many pages you can fly through when you know you’re going in the right direction. Let’s see how long this ride will last.
Enter late, leave early is an old screenwriting “rule” that has been around for decades. It’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever learned in this business.
I even wrote a post about it over on my blog.
It’s all about momentum, keeping the reader turning those pages, and cutting to the meat of the matter.
Glad the director spoke of it.
Ooh, thanks for that great list, Naomi!
Printing it out right now.
So the screenwriting rule is international! Maybe I needed it to be told in French with English subtitles before it got into my head. I love all those bonus features in DVDs, especially the director’s commentary and interviews. TWILIGHT SAMURAI is also a great movie (slow-moving, however–my husband kept saying, “What’s with this samurai? CPA samurai? It would be better on Saturday Night Live.”). In interviews, the director and actor compared their movie to LAST SAMURAI, and I thought that the decisions they made were interesting.
Simon Wood’s post today is helpful, too.
Naomi,I read your post on Wed and forgot to comment. Argh.
The 1st/3rd challenge is so interesting. When it’s done well, it’s wonderful. When it isn’t, it becomes very distracting.
You, my dear, are master enough to succeed at that technique if that’s what any of your books demand.