Well, I thought that I’d talk about rotating first-person narrators today – since, to my dismay, the book I’m reading at the moment uses (a thankfully rather mild) version of this modern narrative technique.
If you’ve never heard of this narrative technique before, it’s a style of first-person narration where there are several narrators and the story switches between them every chapter or two.
Yes, it’s a style that supposedly allows writers to use both the omniscient perspective of third-person narration and the intense immersive immediacy of first-person narration. However, rather than being the best of both worlds, it is the worst of both worlds.
This is mostly because it tends to ruin the immersive nature of the first-person narration due to jarring changes between narrators, and because it still limits what you can and can’t show (when compared to third-person narration).
So, here are some better alternatives to rotating first-person narration. Yes, most of these still involve multiple first-person narrators, but they’re more intuitive to read than standard modern “rotating narrator” narration is.
1) Letters, Journals etc..: One way to introduce other narrators without breaking the immersion and narrative flow that comes from using just one narrator is to include the other narrated segments as letters, journal entries etc… This way, they’re something that the main character could still theoretically see or read, but they don’t involve any jarring jumps between perspective characters. After all, when you’re reading a letter, you’re still you. And the same is true for your narrator too.
The only thing that I would say about using this style of multiple narration is to make sure that you clearly signpost when your story’s letters, journal entries etc… begin. Ideally, you should differentiate them from the main story through the use of italic text, or a different font or something like that too.
And, yes, this is a very old narrative technique. If you don’t believe me, then read Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” – this novel mostly consists of letters, journals etc… by different characters, and the multiple narrators work really well because you get the sense of reading a collection of documents, rather than eerily jumping between different people’s consciousnesses.
2) In-depth third-person narration: If you want to show lots of things happening in different places in an in-depth way, then using third-person narration that focuses heavily on what a particular character is thinking or feeling is a much more “ergonomic” way of doing this. This also has the bonus of allowing you to use a single, consistent narrative voice- which means that it is easier for the reader to follow the story.
If you want a good example of this, then read G.R.R Martin’s “A Song Of Ice And Fire” novels. Each chapter usually focuses on a particular character but, because Martin uses third-person narration instead of first-person narration, the jumps between characters and locations feel a lot more natural and organic than they would do if he’d used first-person narrators instead.
3) Don’t repeat your narrators: If you absolutely must use multiple first-person narrators, then use the format to full advantage!
In other words, don’t repeat your narrators. This might sound like it would make the inherent problems with rotating narrators even worse, but – surprisingly – it doesn’t. This is mostly because using a totally new narrator for each chapter or segment of the story means that your novel reads a lot more like a short story collection, rather than 2-3 novellas that have been awkwardly grafted together.
A great example of this narrative style is Max Brooks’ “World War Z”. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve read it, but it’s a novel that follows a UN official in the future who interviews the survivors of a zombie apocalypse. Because there’s a new narrator for each chapter/interview, the novel feels like a really cool short story collection. Seriously, if you want to know how to use multiple first-person narrators in a good way, then read this book!
4) Framing story: One way to avoid breaking immersion whilst including multiple narrators is simply to include an old-fashioned framing story. In other words, your narrator listens to another character narrate the main story. This way, you get all of the benefits of multiple narrators, whilst also having a single consistent “main” narrator too.
This technique also feels more “natural” than modern-style rotating narrators because it mirrors the traditional experience of sitting down and listening to someone tell a story.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂