This is no. 56 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham, The Poisonwood Diaries by Barbara Kingsolver, The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson, People in Trouble by Sarah Schulman, There There by Tommy Orange. All of these wonderful novels use multiple points of view and weave a tapestry of voices, with each character relaying their own version of the story to tell a broader narrative of family, place, or community.
My novel The Prettiest Star, set in 1986, follows Brian Jackson, a young, gay, HIV-positive man, who leaves New York City to return to the rural small town where he grew up and where his family still lives. When I first started writing, I wrote from the point of view of Jess, Brian’s fourteen-year-old sister, about the day Brian returns. Then I wrote sections from Brian’s perspective: What was it like to come back to the home he couldn’t wait to escape? A few months in I wrote a chapter from their mother Sharon’s perspective and suddenly realized I would need all three voices to tell this story of shame, secrets, and silences, and the complicated ties of familial love and betrayal. Writing from Sharon’s point of view gave me another angle into the story—a complicated, troubling one. Sharon is the voice of restraint and denial. She loves her son, but her worry about what neighbors and God will think get in the way.
Despite its reputation, first-person point of view is not easy to pull off. My first creative writing teacher, the brilliant Eve Shelnutt, had very strong opinions about writing, and she warned me to not even try first-person narration until I’d written at least twenty or thirty stories in third person. First-person narration seems easy to write because when it’s done well, the voice sounds intimate and authentic—we believe. But as the writer, you’re making particular choices about diction, syntax, and rhythm, so that you create a voice that sounds natural, but isn’t, most likely, exactly how that character would talk.
Juggling multiple first-person narrators created another challenge: The individual voices must sound unique and separate, yet their differences should not be so obvious that they draw attention to the artifice of first person. For my three characters, in addition to trying to capture their voices through word choices and syntax, I paid attention to their interior lives: How do they think and feel, how do they view the world, and what is important to them? Their emotional timbre and interiority led me to their voices: Sharon’s denial, Jess’s youthful savviness, and Brian’s hurt, fear, and anger. Brian is the anchor of the novel, and his sections were the most difficult to write. A couple years into the process, I figured out that if I framed Brian’s sections as video diaries—he uses a video camera to document his last summer, and directly addresses the viewer/reader about his experiences as a queer man living during the AIDS epidemic—I could set his chapters apart, and reveal him at his most vulnerable, artistic, and honest. Moreover, the dated video diaries serve as a ticking clock; like so many young gay men, Brian will not survive this plague, but he wants to bear witness and document for posterity.
Alternating between characters chapter by chapter also informed my approach to the writing process. Some days, I switched between characters—an hour with Jess, then an hour with Brian. This approach gave me a better sense of how the novel worked as a whole. And it was sometimes a relief to move from one character to another, to get out of one character’s head and dive into another’s. On other days, I spent the hours intensely focused on a single character—immersed in one voice, one side of the story. I followed a similar approach when I printed out a full draft to revise—I read aloud all the Sharon chapters together, then all the Brian chapters, then all of Jess’s. Did the characters’ voices sound consistent? Did they carry their sections? Did the characters have their own individual narrative arcs? Then I arranged the chapters in the correct order and read my novel from beginning to end, paying close attention to how the alternating voices built tension and created momentum.
Writing a novel with multiple first-person narrators was challenging, but it also brought me a lot of pleasure and joy. I tried to fully inhabit my characters—to write from a place of empathy while digging deep into their flaws, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities.
Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including Guernica, Bellevue Literary Review, Green Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program.Thumbnail: Jason Leung