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Dr Manjiri Prabhu
Tuesday , August 21, 2012 at 12 : 00

First person multiple


Sometimes, the first person can take the 'voice' of several characters in a novel. Put simply, it means that the same story can be told by more than one person, at different times in the story, unraveling different angles in the story. Which also means that this is a very exceptional and very difficult narrative style. Not simply because of the manner in which the narrative runs, but also because each voice that speaks has to be distinct in speech, and faultlessly faithful to that particular character. This is especially true if the narrative runs through several characters.

One perfect example of this kind of writing is the famous classic 'The Woman in White' by Wilkie Collins. This book is a classic mystery, masterfully narrated by an extremely well drawn out string of characters. The novel begins with the first person singular narration of Sir Walter Hartright. After his departure from the scene of action, another character Vincent Gilmore takes over. Then Marian Halcombe takes up the narrative, followed by her uncle Frederick Fairlie. Each character contributes to the story, including the doctor, the housekeeper, the cook and remarkably even the tombstone has something to add! No character is small or unimportant or inconspicuous enough to take the story forward. What is really unique is how each narrative has a completely different voice of that character, how the characters never stray from their inherent nature and how each one reveals the story in a very interesting and captivating manner. Collins himself has described this narrative technique as "resembling the depositions in a courtroom from successive witnesses, whose separate testimonies accumulate to give a complete view of the case." In short, the construction of the novel out of separate, sequenced, first person narratives.

Another excellent example is "The Moonstone' by the same author. This is supposed to be "the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels." This novel too unfolds in the form of several first person narratives. Collins has used a technique to show "how his characters attempt to 'complete' narratives from fragments of truth or report or personal observation available to them." Thus the novel goes from the first person singular narrative of the House-Steward Gabriel Betteredge, through the narratives of several characters to end with that of Sergeant Cuff.

The first person multiple, as we can call it, is not very commonly used. It requires a certain insight into the characters, command over style and can be tricky to handle. But if you have the confidence to weave a spell out of different characters, why not give it a try?

More in the next post. . .

You can write to me at contact@manjiriprabhu.com


More about Dr Manjiri Prabhu

Dr Manjiri Prabhu is an academic, author of several novels, a short filmmaker and an animal lover. 'Imagination To Ink' is her 16-part series on writing and its aesthetics.