Friday, June 24, 2011

Switching Narrators in a Trilogy

As I may have mentioned a couple of times, I just finished the final book in Sarah Rees Brennan's Demon's Lexicon trilogy.

From Sarah's blog:
The Demon's Lexicon series has always been a bit of a changeling in the crib. About family in a Time of Great YA Romance, changing narrators every book ('what is the woman thinking? Is she mad?'), a hero of great jerkitude who does not have being in love to excuse him, gay characters, having the word 'demon' in the titles, and full of many other weirdo bad-marketing decisions I have made.

Today I want to talk about how the narrators change for each book, because it's not something I've seen much before and as a reader, I could see clear pros and cons. There will be no spoilers!

There are three narrators - Nick, Mae and Sin, in that order. Each book is told with a third-person limited point of view. We spend the entire book viewing the world from the perspective of the character, but they aren't speaking to us directly.

The first book simply had to be narrated by Nick - someone who knew this world of magic, was in the thick of it, had suffered all his life because of it. But Nick, well, he is the 'hero of great jerkitude' and doesn't like anyone much. Although I think the trilogy could have followed Nick's point of view and still been very good, he is not the kind of guy to talk about things that don't concern him. While some characters could be involved enough with their friends to keep track of what they were up to, Nick just . . . wouldn't. So an entire trilogy from Nick's point of view would have necessarily focused heavily on Nick, to the exclusion of the rest of the world.

Mae, on the other hand, was new to the world of magic, but by the time she starts narrating she has learned enough that she isn't completely green. She's intelligent and insightful and was definitely a good choice to narrate a book that was essentially about getting to know the world better and handling the aftermath of Book One. 

However, in Book Three (The Demon's Surrender), Sin, a minor character in Book One and a supporting player in Book Two, takes over the narration. I loved Sin, but she was somewhat outside the core foursome of Nick, Alan, Mae and Jamie that dominate the first two books. She provided an interesting new perspective and was a joy to read, but as the auther herself has said, it was difficult to write a book where Sin truly cared about the eventual fate of, say, Mae's brother.

As it happens, I feel the third book pulled it off very well - it pulled all of the elements together in a way that didn't feel forced. I imagine it was tough to do, but it worked brilliantly for me as a reader.

As a writer, though, it raises some questions. By having a different narrator, you gain a different insight. But it has to be weighed against what you lose. It may be harder to tie up lose ends. There is a risk that loyal readers won't enjoy the new voice. And it requires far more skill to keep a consistent storyline across three books with different narrators.

The Demon's Lexicon trilogy succeeds, and is definitely worth checking out if you plan to switch narrative voices. But I think it's a big decision, and a very big undertaking.


  1. I'm not sure I could pull it off, myself. I get the desire to show different perspectives, even the need to do so to make sure as much of the story as possible can be told. That's probably why I prefer to write in 3rd-person, so I can have scenes where someone other than my protagonist takes over as POV.

    I admit though, that if I'm reading a book in 1st-person, I tend to get really attached to that character and I'm not sure how I'd handle the ongoing series changing hands.

  2. Sarah used third person limited (pardon me while I edit my original post) but you're with that character 100% of the time, so you do still get attached. Not quite as much as you do with a first-person POV, but still somewhat!

  3. Like most things, I imagine if done well it's a joy and if not - well, you know!

    I swore I wasn't going to add anything to my TBR pile, but what's another three books? :)

  4. Ah, okay. That wouldn't be too jarring to read, then.

  5. Sarah, if you do add them to your TBR pile, I'd love to know what you think - but if your TBR pile is anything like mine, it'll probably be a while :p

    Paul - it isn't, but it still has huge implications for the plot arc. The narrator of Book Two cares deeply about a character that the narrator of Book Three has only met a handful of times. Resolving his story in a way that Book 3's narrator would logically give a crap about must have been pretty hard :)

  6. I can imagine! I have enough trouble deciding how to handle POV shifts within one book.

  7. It'll be awhile to get to on my to be read pile, but the books sound intriguing!


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