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I'm writing a novel. My main character - Bob - is the first-person narrator. However the 2nd character - Larry, his travel buddy - has a few deep conversations with Bob.

Bob tells anecdotes. They usually last about 15 pages or so.

I'm now halfway. And I'm wondering if I should "make" Larry tell an anecdote of his own. He'd be telling the anecdote to 6 people, which are all sitting around a table.

This would mean changing the narrator so that Larry can tell his own anecdote in the first person to the 6 people.

Should I?

Should I go back and make Larry tell at least one more anecdote near the beginning of the book so that the reader can expect it further down the road?

Or should I just make Bob tell all the anecdotes, and no one else? (In order to avoid switching narrators back and forth...)

Please note that no one else but Larry and Bob would be telling anecdotes, which means that there'd be max 2 narrators throughout the book.

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    "Dracula" changes narrators, there is precendent.
    – Chenmunka
    Aug 11 at 16:35
  • Story within a story is a popular literary device.
    – Alexander
    Aug 11 at 18:26
  • I think multiple 15 page inserted stories might be a bigger problem, but I've heard of it being done. Good luck. Have you considered switching to third person instead?
    – DWKraus
    Aug 22 at 2:50
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Can I use multiple first-person POVs?

Yes. Of course, you can use multiple first-person POVs... you just do it...

But how do you do it?

The biggest problem with multiple "I"'s in the story is going to be reader confusion. How do you make sure the reader knows who's narrating on every page, even in every sentence?

What I've seen of multiple first-person narratives, is that they seem to be divided up into clearly separated sections of the story.

For instance, the same event is told by several people. Each narrator gets a section and the previous section is finished before the next one is started, so they never "bleed together" in the text. (An example, not a book, but the principle is similar, would be season 2 episode 11 of Colony, "Lost Boy").

Or otherwise use separated sections but not retelling the same story ("Cloud Atlas" for instance).

One "kind of" example is One Thousand and One Nights. There is one narrator telling stories in third-person POV (Scheherazade). Sometimes in these stories, a character becomes a narrator in another, inner, story (a story in the story... in the story...) You might get ideas from how the transfer of narrative between these stories work.

Another common variant of divided-up stories is the short story collection. Being a collection of short stories, it's definitely ok to use multiple first-person narratives. (You might want to check out "The Decameron"—I've likely read it in school, but I don't remember exactly how Boccaccio deals with several characters hidden away in the countryside... maybe you could deal with your travelers' anecdotes in a similar way...)

If you don't divide it up, you need to make it possible for a reader to define whose narrative they are reading (for instance after picking the book up after a pause).

Use such elements as:

  • Narrative voice
  • Plot and problems—if one narrator is having trouble at work and the other is hunted by the mafia, their plots and problems could identify who was who.
  • Other characters present only in one narrative
  • Locations only used in one narrative
  • Timeframe
  • Genre (Cloud Atlas)
  • Style (Cloud Atlas)—for instance, each narrative comes in different styles (letters, e-mails, diaries, blogs, chats, etc.)

Especially the voice can be effective in identifying who's narrating, and it should still be unique regardless of if you use multiple first-person or third-person narratives, or even if the character is a narrator or not.

Things you should try to avoid:

  • Switching narrator in the same scene or chapter
  • Relying solely on scene or chapter headings to inform the reader who the narrator is

Will it work to use multiple first-person POVs?

To figure out if your multiple first-person POVs work you can do one or several of:

  • Use beta readers to tell you if they got confused/liked it or not/etc.
  • Put the first draft away for a few months and then read it. If you wrote something confusing or otherwise bad, you'll likely notice.
  • Have an editor look at it (likely a developmental edit or evaluation), they should be able to tell you if it works or not.

Is it common to use multiple first-person POVs and should I do it?

No, it's not common to use multiple first-person POVs in the same story, but it does happen.

If you should do it or not is hard to say. If it's your first story, I'd recommend against it. It's not as easy as doing a single first-person POV.

In your example, maybe you could do Larry's anecdote from Bob's POV? It would be a different perspective on anecdotes and it could help the overall impression by adding variety.

If, however, you decide to use two first-person narrators, then yes, by all means, introduce the concept early on, in order to not make Larry's scene seem an odd man out. You may even want to look into using Larry's POV even more often, even every second chapter, and that way establish a system to assist in figuring out who's narrating.

Transform it into third-person

One way to go is to transform the perspective into a third-person POV.

Writing a scene in first-person POV and then transforming it into third-person POV is also a great way to understand how to write deep, focused third-person POV scenes. Doing it for a whole novel would just mean more work, but likely also higher quality.

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Many novels use multiple fist-person narrators. Sometimes this works well, sometimes it does not. This depends on the writing style and skill of the author.

It often helps to have the style and "voice" of each narrator recognizably distinct. It is also usually desirable for there to be a reason for switching narrators. It also helps to make it clear to the reader when the narrator changes and who the narrator is, in my view.

Several novels by George V. Higgans, including At End of Day, Bomber's Law, and Kennedy for the Defense include lengthy anecdotes told as near monologues in various voices, some by the book's narrator, some not. in my view thy work well, and several critics have agreed.

The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg has four first-person narrators. They change once per chapter, mostly in rotation. I find this works well.

The Embezzler is a novel by Louis Auchincloss tyhat consists of three first person accounts by three separate characters of the same events, the second narrator having the first account before him and reacting to it, and the third having the first two at hand. This gies multiple perspectives on the events and the motivations of the characters, and worked quite well in my view. Of course, Auchincloss was noted for stylistic effects and character portrayals.

Note that it is possible in first person writing to record an anecdote told by another and heard by the narrator. An extreme example is "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County". There is a fist-person narrator but except for a short framing passage the story consists entirely of a series of anecdotes told by Simon Wheeler, who is technically not the narrator, but is the voice largely heard by the reader. The story has been very popular since it was first published in 1865.

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