The idea of writing a novel with many narrators began growing in my mind years ago. I blame it on Faulkner, specifically on The Sound and The Fury, which I read at an impressionable age. "Caddie smelled like trees." Yes, that may have been the line that suckered me in. The beauty, the puzzle-like complexity of fitting the various stories and voices together. And it didn't look that hard. How about this ENTIRE CHAPTER from As I Lay Dying: "My mother is a fish"? I mean, REALLY.
I suspect this was all hanging around in the back of my mind when I made the step from short story writer to novelist. Like the teenager with artistic aspirations who looks at Jackson Pollock and says, "Nothing to it," I remembered the mother and the fish and thought, "How hard can it be?"
Okay, so I was wrong. Instead of teasing out one line chapters, I ended up battling a three-headed novel. Think Cerberus frothing at all mouths. Think Hercules chopping at the Hydra. On the bright side, I have learned a few things, and I'd like to pass them along to anyone out there who's feeling Herculean.
My lessons of the Hydra:
1. MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SALT MINE.
More narrators means more work. No question. You need to know each of your narrators very well. Think out each of their back stories, mannerisms, quirks, fears. Know everything about how each one views the world, looks, moves, ties shoe laces.
2. FIND THE VOICE. ER, I MEAN, THE VOICES.
Of course, a strong voice is something that every novel needs. In a novel with multiple narrators, the work is doubled (or tripled or quadrupled or… well, I’ll stop there.) If you’re like me, you have a “home voice”, a voice in which you feel quite comfortable. Great. A place to start. Now you have to find homes for the narrators with whom you may not be so comfortable. You may want to make lists (or Excel spreadsheets, depending on how many narrators we’re talking about) of the narrative characteristics of each voice. Does Jezebel use a lot of contractions, slang, obscenities? Okay, then maybe Francoise should not. Take note of things like sentence structure and try to differentiate. May I suggest only ONE run-on-sentencer per book?
3. THE BRAIN IS THE SEXIEST ORGAN.
I wrote that just to keep your attention.
HOWEVER, distinguishing the brains of your characters – their habits of thoughts and interests -- is an easy way to help your reader differentiate them and feel comfortable with each. Does Charro think about food all the time? Fine. So that’s her thing. Not that your other narrators can’t ever fondle a french fry or covet some chocolate cake, but you might want to exercise restraint with regard to how often you indulge them. Perhaps Sven is a daydreamer, and other characters need to nudge him back to earth. Clementine? Uh HUH. That girl always has one eye out for a good-looking man. Her sister Emma, not so much. Emma likes her solitude and feels a bit splenic when she sees that someone has unsorted the spice rack. So, think carefully about what a particular character notices, obsesses over, ignores.
4. SEPARATE WHITES, DARKS AND BRIGHTS.
By which I mean, watch for the bleed – one voice bleeding into another. Especially that “home” voice, the one that comes most easily to you. That voice is the serpent in your little fictional Garden of Eden, sliding along, appearing out of nowhere . . . So easy and inviting. Revise with an eye on the serpent.
A few other devices I found helpful.
a) Music. I listen to music while I write and developed a “play list” for each narrator. For example, one of my narrators is Brazilian. I listened to Brazilian music only when I wrote his sections.
b) Word clouds. Vocabulary is another way to differentiate voices. Your character from Maine calls his orange soda “tonic” while his friend in Atlanta quaffs an orange coke. You can use a word cloud generator to see if the vocabularies of your narrators are distinct. And then weed and replant accordingly.
c) Write/revise in narrator clumps. It may help to write or revise all the sections of a particular narrator together. More consistency.
So there you have it, a few of my suggestions for taming the beast.