Multiple Points of View: An Analysis of Revolver by Duane Swierczynski
Rotating third-person limited, also known as third-person multiple points of view, is any narrative that shifts from one character’s POV to another. This technique is ubiquitous in fiction today.
It does offer some advantages over other POVs. Unlike third-person limited or first-person, it allows the author to approach a story from multiple angles, freeing the writer from the shackles of one character’s view of the story. Rotating third-person also avoids the booming authorial voice associated with omniscient perspective, which has fallen out of fashion.
In a way, rotating third-person seems fitting for our times: with the flood of information today, multiple points of view on the same story are always available. A singular perspective seems less dynamic and stuck in the past. Bouncing around among many characters’ perspectives, never settling on one, appears to be a trend in movies and TV as well.
The problem is that multiple points of view may alienate readers. It’s easy to confuse the reader as they travel from one character’s brain to another. It’s more difficult to establish a compelling voice when the narration keeps bouncing around as well. The reader may begin to wonder: who does this story belong to? Which one of these characters is at the center of this book?
I would argue that most stories are best told in either first-person or third-person limited. A writer’s best tool is their voice, and establishing voice in these narration styles is easier. These POVs make it immediately clear who the main character is and what the main character wants, which will be the center of the book’s conflict.
But there are occasions where rotating third-person is the better choice. I’ll be examining what I consider to be one of the best, Revolver, by Duane Swierczynski.
Swierczynski has used a structure that makes the POV stable and predictable: three characters tell the story with each chapter rotating to the next character. This may sound simple but what complicates things is that each narrator is in a different era. The first chapter is from Stan Walczyk’s perspective in 1965; the next is from his son Jim’s in 1995; the next is from Jim’s daughter Audrey’s perspective in 2015. This Stan-Jim-Audrey pattern is consistent throughout the novel, with the clockwork perspective shifts making things easier for the reader.
The rotating point of view is essential for the story Swierczynski is telling. Philadelphia cop and Polish immigrant Stan Walczyk and his partner are shot in a bar in 1965. Thirty years later, Jim goes into the family business and becomes obsessed with tracking down his father’s killer, who he believes is out on parole. Twenty years after that, Audrey, who’s on the verge of failing her graduate program in forensics, returns to her hometown and reopens the case of her grandfather’s death, becoming convinced that she can uncover the truth about the case.
The result is a fascinating novel that tells the story of a family haunted by this murder and a city divided along lines of race and ethnicity.
With three narrators sharing the story equally, you might assume that there isn’t a main character. In one sense, it’s accurate that all three have separate character arcs and play significant roles. But as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that this is Audrey’s story. She’s the one who’s reopened the case that everyone wanted to leave in the past. She also has the most distinct voice of the three narrators. Here are the opening paragraphs of Audrey’s first chapter:
Audrey Kornbluth, twenty-five, hasn’t set foot in Philadelphia for over two years.
She hasn’t seen her father, aka the Captain, in over three. Word is, he’s shaved his beard because it went gray. Which must be weird―she’s never seen him without facial hair. Whatever. Either way, he’s no doubt the same old grim asshole.
This comes on the heels of a chapter from her father Jim’s perspective set twenty years earlier. In that chapter, Jim appears to be a loving, dedicated father and not a “old grim asshole.” The story shows how he changed over the years, how a combination of police work, alcoholism, and his fixation on his father’s murder warped his personality.
Audrey’s voice provides a contrast to her father’s and grandfather’s. In this scene, Stan Walczak has sat down to play a piano at a church while he and his partner are waiting to interview an informant.
They don’t keep a piano in the house. For Stan music is in the past, and belongs there. A reminder of a life he’s left behind to have a family. A family man shouldn’t be out nights, playing Tin Pan Alley tunes for drunks.
The generational gap between the narrators also makes the rotating perspective work. The narrators are distinct from one another. If you had, say, three narrators that are all middle-class white guys in their forties, it will make it difficult for the reader to tell them apart. Here, Stan’s perspective that a “family man” doesn’t go out “playing Tin Pan Alley tunes for drunks” sets him firmly in the time period he’s a part of.
The multiple points of view Swierczynski adopts fit the story, not the other way around. This is the most compelling way to show the changes in a family and in a city over three generations.
It’s a complex story that demands a complex point of view. Before you begin writing in multiple characters’ perspectives, it’s worthwhile to ask yourself why it’s the best choice. Swierczynski does this by fitting the narrators into a structure and ensuring that each plays a crucial role in the plot.
Chris Rhatigan is a freelance editor and publisher of All Due Respect Books. He has worked on novels that have gone on to win the Anthony Award, the Independent Publisher Book Award, and The Beverly Hills Book Award. He also runs the crime fiction magazine All Due Respect. He is the author of five novellas and two short story collections. He lives in Philadelphia. Find out more at his website, chrisrhatiganediting.com.