#125: Developing a Secondary Character Within First-Person POV

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m doing the pre-work/planning/worldbuilding for a novel I’m super excited about. I’ve already written one of the scenes that first showed up in my head and gave me the idea for this story, because I was having a rough time getting into my writing groove the other day and my excitement for that scene helped get me past it.

The problem is the POV. I wrote that scene in 1st person, and there are a bunch of scenes that also beg to be written in 1st person.

But near the end of the novel, there’s going to be a section where my protagonist is out of the action for a little bit (captured by the antagonist), and I know I want to include the scenes of discord and chaos among her followers in her absence, and the planning that leads up to her love interest wrangling the secondary characters into infiltrating the base to break her out. It’s a pivotal moment for the LI, in fact, so I can’t just leave it out.

Which leads to my difficulty, because of course that’s the weakness of 1st person—you’re tied to only what your POV character can see and hear.

Is there a way to reconcile these? Or am I trying to have my cake and eat it too?

I really, really want the sense of immediacy/intimacy afforded by 1st person narration, plus 3rd person would mean playing the pronoun game since the protagonist and her LI are both women and both use she/her pronouns. I hate the pronoun game at the best of times, and the idea of an entire novel full of it is giving me preemptive headaches. But the bit while the protagonist is out of commission is so necessary to the LI’s arc that dropping it entirely leaves me floundering, and the idea of including it via the LI telling the protagonist about it after the fact strips it of a lot of the emotional impact and urgency.

So I’m really stuck trying to find a way to navigate the contradiction here. I’m hoping that with your help I might be able to get everything I want here instead of having to sacrifice some part of it.

Thanks!

—Jadelyn (they/them)

Dear Jadelyn,

If the love interest’s arc is so important, then it sounds like you have two protagonists. One might be a primary protagonist and the other secondary, but approaching it that way from the start will help you ensure you give both characters the development they deserve.

I suggest including several scenes from the perspective of the LI, starting fairly early on in the book. That way it won’t be a surprise to readers when that particular pivotal scene is from her perspective, and she’ll be central enough to the story that the peak in her emotional arc hits home.

The technical challenge will be differentiating the two voices sufficiently that readers really get a sense of the characters’ differing personalities and views of the world. Ideally, even if you write them both in first-person POV, readers should be able to tell almost immediately who’s narrating. Another option is to write the LI’s scenes in third person. If there aren’t all that many of them, you can probably grit your teeth and deal with the pronoun issue—and that may not be as bad as you think. You’ve got an ensemble cast anyway, which I assume is pretty gender-diverse, so you’ll get plenty of practice making it clear which “she” you mean.

Splitting narration between two protagonists is a very common technique in romance novels, in which each character has an emotional development arc that drives the overall romantic arc, so you might try picking up a few of those and seeing how they work. One of the major benefits is showing a particular event from multiple angles, making it clear that the protagonist’s viewpoint is limited and her interpretation may not be the best or only one. And of course you’ll get to watch the protagonist and the love interest—or the two protagonists—get closer to each other and see things in each other that they may not be able to see in themselves. It’s a great way to keep readers emotionally invested.

I hope that helps you see a way to get everything you want out of this story and give both your central characters the development they need. Keep following that spark of excitement and see where it takes you.

Happy writing, and happy New Year!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

2 thoughts on “#125: Developing a Secondary Character Within First-Person POV

  1. Thank you for helping reframe that for me – you’re right, they’re more of a primary protagonist and secondary protagonist than a protagonist and their LI. Your mention of romance novels in particular made me remember that one of my favorite books ever, a kind of fantasy/romance hybrid similar to how I see my new story developing, uses pretty much exactly the technique you mention – the primary protag is in 1st person, and the secondary protag/LI is in 3rd person. I think that’s probably the route I’m gonna go with it.

    Thanks again!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s