Friday, September 19, 2014

Mixing Things Up

Photo by Craighton Miller, via Flickr
In my last posting, I outlined the merits of using Third Person Omniscient narration if, like me, you’re a writer who enjoys working on large canvases. That said, if your novel features parallel plot lines and an ensemble cast of more-or-less equally important characters, there’s no law that says you can’t Mix Things Up, either by using multiple First Person narrators, or by utilising both First and Third person narrative technique in alternating sections of the same book.

Mixing Things Up is not a post-modern innovation.1 This trend was spear-headed by the celebrated Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) in his hugely-successful sensation novel The Woman in White. More recent maestros in the use of mixed narrative voices include two writers of Young Adult fiction: Jonathan Stroud and Elizabeth Wein.

Stroud’s exemplary work is a four-volume fantasy set in parallel gaslight version of Europe.2 Here, all social and political authority is vested in an elite cadre of wizards who derive their power from their ability to control a variety of “demons” summoned from a realm that the demons themselves refer to as “the Other Place”.

The first volume features two focal characters: a 5000-year-old djinn named Bartimaeus and a 14-year-old wizard’s apprentice named Nathaniel. Nathaniel’s side of the story is conveyed in Third Person. By wonderful contrast, Bartimaeus addresses us in First Person so that we get the benefit of a mature, often abrasive intelligence commenting on events as they unfold. The effect is nothing short of marvellous.

Elizabeth Wein’s internationally acclaimed single-volume Code Name Verity (2012) likewise features a combination of First and Third Person narration. Set during WWII, the novel’s two focal characters, Julie and Maddie, are young female aviators united by their love of flight. Julie’s portions of the narrative are conveyed in First Person; Maddie’s in Third Person. Using this mixed technique enables Wein to intensify the narrative tension to fever pitch.

The first chapter, presented from Julie’s First Person angle of vision, is absolutely riveting.3 Within the space of three paragraphs, we learn that she’s a prisoner of war, under interrogation by a German officer:
After the ridiculous deal I made with SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer von Linden, I know I am a coward….

Here’s the deal we made. I’m putting it down to keep it straight in my own mind.
“Let’s try this,” the Hauptsturmfuhrer said to me. “How could you be bribed?” And I said I wanted my clothes back.4

The other side of the story is conveyed via Third Person Maddie’s reminiscences of flying planes from air-field to air-field under the direction of the British High Command:
“Tyro to ground,” came the call from the training aircraft. “Position uncertain, overhead triangular body of water to east of corridor.” …

Maddie shook her head, swearing unprettily under her breath. “Oh my sainted aunt! … How in the name of mud is [a bomber-pilot] going to find Berlin if he can’t find Manchester?”
Utilising both angles of vision, Wein is able to construct a compelling back story that culminates with Maddie defying the odds to enter German air-space in a bid to rescue her friend.

Which brings us to the bottom line: when choosing your narrative angle of vision, don’t feel obliged to subscribe to the latest fad in “literary fiction”. Use what works for you!


1 On the contrary, Collins is adapting aspects of the epistolary novel, a form introduced into the English literary tradition by James Howell (1594-1666) in a work entitled “Familiar Letters” which is a subjective chronicle of romantic adventures.

2 The four novels which comprise The Bartimaeus Series are The Amulet of Samarkand (2003), The Golem’s Eye (2004), Ptolemy’s Gate (2005), and The Ring of Solomon (2010). I highly recommend them.

3 Fellow-members of the Wayside Writers’ Group were privileged to see this work in manuscript before it was contracted. We practically had to wrestle it out of one another’s hands.

4 I defy anyone to resist this opener. But don’t take my word for it. Read this novel for yourself.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


  1. I enjoyed the Bartimaeus series immensely, but I prefered Nathaniel's narration; Bartimaeus began to grate on me after a while, particularly in the fourth book where there is no Nathaniel to counter and temper the relentless egotism and preening of Bartimaeus's narrative.

  2. I don't mind mixed POV if done well. If done poorly, or I don't like one of the POV characters, then it is an early death on the discard pile. I particularly hate random POV characters in first or third close up popping in to have a word..

  3. Having POV options opens doors to stylistic choices that can make our works unique. The bottom line is stated very nicely at the end of your post, Debby: "Use what works for you!"

  4. I tried first and third in my current work, the one that goes live at the end of the month. I couldn't find a good way to write in my antogonist's voice and thought I'd put him in first person to differentiate him, rather than use He all the time. It failed miserably, mainly because he entered as the killer later in the book, though he's there early on as his character. I'm not opposed to trying it again, but the first person character has to start at the beginning. Otherwise, it's just a contrivance. Thought-provoking post, Debby.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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