Multiple Narratives

Multiple Narratives

This blog expands an earlier one changing the point of view of a narrative. I’m a fan of first person narrative for its intimacy and immediacy.  However it can pose a technical limitation in restricting the PoV available to the author i.e. he can only describe the world through the eyes of a single character.  This limits the information that can be conveyed to the reader and the material available for the story.


Of course it’s open to the author to add further PoV’s – even additional narrators – but this can mean some difficult transitions.  In a third party narrative, the author floats like god above the action and the reader accepts that the author sees all and knows all.  In a first person narrative, however, the narrator is embedded in the action and limited by time and circumstance.  The reader, so to speak, confronts the narrator face-to-face and, if the narrator disappears to be replaced by another voice, the reader is shocked to lose a friend and puzzled as to where the new guy came from.


Some authors overcome the problem by ignoring it.  The American crime writer, James Lee Burke, in his Dave Robicheaux novels, switches between first person and third person narration according to whether Dave is present at the scene or not.  I admire these novels, but this particular aspect always jars with me.  Where do these detailed and atmospheric third party descriptions of scenes come from if Dave wasn’t there to witness them?


The problem is somewhat different if multiple first person voices are used.  I readily accept the presence of a single narrator, but when multiple narrators appear, I find myself asking: How did these guys get together to tell me this tale?  Also, unless I am prepared, I can be confused if the “I” in one chapter is not the same as the “I” in the next i.e. I may not immediately recognise the switch.


In fact I’ve used multiple first-person narrative on at least three occasions, and these are my techniques for getting round the dissonance.

  1. I have a dominant narrator who carries the main storyline.  This acts as an anchor to fix the reader’s position.
  2. I attribute the secondary narratives at their beginning.  This is the technique used in epistolary novels – whether Clarissa or Dracula.  I tell the reader at the start of the relevant passage who the narrator is and how the narrative has come into existence e.g. because it is in the form of a letter.
  3. I try my best to give the different narrators their unique voice.