This is no. 35 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
Before I became a writer, I was first an insatiable reader. From Curious George to Little Women to The Lover, I can mark the trajectory of my development as a writer against my reading choices. A particularly memorable turning point happened when I was eight years old. While at the library, I came across a chapter book called Morning Girl. The cover showed a young girl with dark brown hair and bare shoulders swimming in the open sea, and I picked it up because of the striking image. As I began reading, I fell for Morning Girl’s lush, bright voice as she described her fondness for waking early and searching the beach for seashells. I felt keenly for Morning Girl when her parents favored her younger brother. I had a younger sister, and I understood the mean yellow streaks of jealousy.
The shock came when I turned to the next chapter. At the top of the page was the name Star Boy. This chapter, I realized as I read, was narrated not by the titular girl, but her younger brother. I remember the confusion I felt and how quickly it was replaced with giddy wonder. Up until that moment, I hadn’t known that a book could have multiple narrators. Morning Girl tore writing open for me: For the first time I recognized that writers were in control of how the story was told and that the possibilities were endless.
I’ve gravitated toward novels with multiple narrators ever since, so when I started writing If You Leave Me, I knew I wanted to try this format. However, I needed to make sure having multiple perspectives would serve my goals. My central character was Haemi Lee, a sixteen-year-old refugee in Busan at the start of my novel. Did I really need the voices of her best friend Kyunghwan, her suitor Jisoo, her younger brother Hyunki, and eventually, her eldest daughter Solee? Thankfully, yes. After some examination, I realized that having multiple narrators allowed me to show the secrets characters were hiding not only from each other, but also from themselves. By alternating these voices, I was able to investigate how one event could be interpreted in various ways, depending on the character’s temperament and circumstance. For example, Haemi, Kyunghwan, and Jisoo all hungered in Busan during the Korean War, and yet their resulting traumas are each unique due to differences in class, gender, and family expectations.
If You Leave Me spans sixteen years, from 1951 to 1967. Multiple perspectives also gave me the best means of capturing the landscape of Korea during this tumultuous time. Through my five alternating narrators, I was able to write about an ROK soldier in the Korean War; a college student in Seoul in the years afterward, when dictators ruled the nation; a factory worker forced to meet with a matchmaker; a mother yearning to escape her rural community; and a young daughter growing up in post-war Korea, when the vestiges of violence took on new forms.
When my students say they want to write a novel with multiple perspectives, I’m secretly elated. However, I always remind them of the potential pitfalls. More voices may make your story feel fragmented, which can lead to readers preferring one character over another. In order to avoid this, it’s important to value each perspective equally. If you as the writer dislike one of your characters, the reader will feel that animosity in your words. The solution? Know your characters deeply on and off the page—know their desires, tics, fears, sexual preferences, favorite foods, secret dreams, worst habits. Develop them until you know them as intimately as a friend, in all of their complexities. In the end, I hope having multiple narrators in If You Leave Me enriches the reading experience. Haemi Lee’s voice is the center, but the four characters around her provide a lens not only into the larger history of Korea, but into Haemi’s complex, difficult temperament.
In my final Craft Capsule next week, I will talk more about Haemi and the necessity of “unlikable” female protagonists.
Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from the Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.