Thursday, 22 January 2015

The big 'I Am' - writing in the first person



The last three books I have written were all composed in the first person. Two of those books, The Last Dance and Runaway, were the first two books in my Bobbie Blandford series. The third, The Dark Marshes, is a gothic romance that came to me just before Christmas and just wouldn’t go away.



I had written quite a few short stories in the first person, but only one (unpublished) novel, which I wrote one year for NaNoWriMo.

Writing a longer piece in the first person is not an easy option. In fact, when I started writing The Last Dance, after being asked by My Weekly Pocket Novel editor, Maggie Swinburne to write a five part series about a sixties policewoman, I began it in the third person. Three grinding chapters on, I felt that I didn’t know my heroine at all, and the novel did not have the warmth and humour that I imagined it would have.

As it’s set in the early sixties, I wanted it to have a cosy, humorous tone that would appeal to those who lived through that time. I was born in nineteen-sixty-three, so I lived through a lot of the sixties too, and as decades are never really defined by the first year that begins with a nought, the early seventies were very much still the sixties. It was a time I felt I knew, even if I had been very young.

So it was my belief that nineteen-sixty, when Bobbie’s story begins, was really the end of the fifties. The sixties themselves hadn’t really gained their own identity just as my heroine had not yet found her own identity. I wanted to combine the two in the story, so that as the sixties grew to maturity, so did Bobbie. But none of this was coming through in the third person telling of the story. To tell the truth, it was dry and lacking in emotion. I was beset with the worry that I would have to email Maggie and say ‘Sorry, I can’t do it’. Too embarrassed to do that, I worked on ways to make it come to life.

When researching the lives of policewomen in the 50s/60s, I read several autobiographies. One thing that struck me was the warm, self-deprecating tone of their stories. They knew they were trend-setters, but they also knew that they had a lot to learn about surviving in a man’s world. Naturally both autobiographies were told in the first person.

That helped me to work out what I wanted. And what I wanted was for an older Bobbie to be writing about her life, and how naïve and sometimes foolish she had been, but with a hard-won wisdom that came across in the telling. So I decided to go back and change all the third person narrative to first person. I’ll get onto the problems inherent in that later, but it worked for me and for Bobbie. By the time I got back to Chapter Four, I had found the emotion in my story and Bobbie had found her voice.

It made sense that the second Bobbie Blandford novel, Runaway, was in the same first person tone. Returning to Bobbie was like meeting up with an old friend. She was still self-deprecating, but had grown a little. That didn’t mean that she didn’t still make mistakes. She did, and probably will again! But that’s what I love about her.

When it came to The Dark Marshes; a gothic romance which came to me whilst I was shopping for Christmas food in December 2014, I suppose I must have been in the first person zone, as it naturally began that way. But there was a major difference. The Bobbie Blandford novels are all told from Bobbie’s point of view. The Dark Marshes is told from several points of view, but still all the first person. It is basically an epistolary novel, made up of journals, letters and notes gained during an investigation.

I had real fun writing it, and working out how I was going to create those different first person voices. For example, a pair of elderly identical twins write as ‘one’, and everything is ‘we’ including their dialogue, where they always say ‘we said’. Then I have a heroine who may or may not be mad, and I had to make it that even she is not sure about it. There’s a maid, called Nan, who has to ‘speak’ very differently to the heroine and the twins, so she uses a lot of contractions. Finally, there are a couple of male narrators, and they have to sound a bit different from each other. I have made it a bit easier for the reader by putting sub-titles stating who is seeing what. But the real trick was in trying to write it in such a way that the reader will know that the voice had changed.

So they are my credentials for writing a blog post about writing in the first person. But what you really want is tips on doing so. I don’t have tips, but I do have pros and cons. Will that help?

Pros

It’s easier to stay in pov when writing in the first person. When writing in the third person, it’s easy to switch from one to another without realising you’ve done it. Now you’ll probably read loads of novels published in the third person that switch all over the place. But the fact is that those people know what they’re doing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it can just look messy. So if you can write in the first person, you can stick to that one person’s pov and you’ve solved that problem of head-hopping.

You can have an unreliable narrator, who misleads the reader, and either lies or withholds important information. This adds to the drama of the story, and can lead to some great twists at the end.

A first person narrative feels more intimate. You are in someone’s mind, and therefore you can help your reader to feel everything your character is reading. You can also have the benefit of the character writing in hindsight, and this helps when writing cliffhangers. Your character can hint that they know what’s going to happen next, whilst keeping the reader on tenterhooks.

Think of series like Call the Midwife, where Vanessa Redgrave’s warm tones tell us what’s going to happen, then ends by telling us what has happened. That bookend works so well in the context of a drama, and makes us feel as if we’re sitting by the fire with Vanessa as she reminisces about her life as a young midwife. Writing in the first person narrative does that with your reader.

This is what I’ve tried to do with the Bobbie Blandford books. I’d like to think that my readers imagine that they’re sitting with an elderly Bobbie, perhaps having a cup of tea and some of her favourite date and walnut cake, as she tells them about her life as a young policewoman. It also allows for the odd anachronism. In one novel I have Bobbie musing that ‘In those days we didn’t have Sat-Navs’. I felt that was a good way of connecting the modern reader with the sixties.

Cons

The main con is that not all publishers like first person novels/short stories. It’s always best to check their submission guidelines.

If you write in the first person, your main character can only know what they know. They can’t know what other people know or are thinking, and neither can they know, first hand, about events that happen when they’re not there. This can lead to…

The narrative can be quite ‘tell-y’ in nature. If your character is not there for an event, then they have to be told by others, and/or they have to relay what they’ve been told. It is impossible for them to be everywhere at once. This can sometimes lead to…

A contrived situation where your main character just happens to overhear every conversation, or witness every crime/event as it happens. To be fair this can happen in third person narratives too. Like Hercule Poirot, who just happens to be sitting in the next booth as a young couple plot a murder. In real life the sleuth doesn’t just happen to be in the right place at the right time.

In my Bobbie Blandford books I have tried to make the latter work for me, so that the things Bobbie does not know become important to the story. And even if she’s told something, it may not be what actually happened. We all know about the effects of Chinese whispers. A lot of times she’s not told or involved in things because people underestimate her and/or treat her as the young probationary policewoman she is. As her sergeant says to her in the first book, she can’t expect to nab a big murder case in her first year of probation!

Sometimes a story just comes to you in the first person. If it does, go with the flow. Occasionally you may start, as I did, in the third person, and find you want to change. That can cause problems when editing. It is important to alter all the pronouns and tenses to suit the new first person narrative. It is much easier to start with first person, but don’t let that put you off changing if that feels right for the story. Just make sure the story is word perfect before you send it out.

Sometimes you may want to mix it up a bit and have some third person narrative and some first person narrative. That’s fine too, as long as you’re clear about the reasons you’re doing it.

Recently I read a novel in the first person where the narrator did seem privy to conversation that s/he could not have known. Somehow it worked. But again, I think it’s because the author knew what s/he was doing, and those sections worked seamlessly. It could have come across as a bit clumsy.

A big ‘no no’ used to be that a first person narrator could not turn out to be dead. Novels like The Lovely Bones challenged that somewhat, though it’s still a bit of a cliché if the twist at the end is that the narrator is dead. The Lovely Bones makes it plain from the beginning that the narrator is dead. There are ways around this problem. If your first person narrator has kept a diary or written letters, this can be used to chart their path up until the moment they died. The first person novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo had the main character telling their story right up until they were just about to die. A bit like an opera singer belting out that last song before dropping dead!

Even in third person, your main character can’t know everything that’s happening around them, but it is possible to switch to another third person pov to show the reader what is happening elsewhere.

Any choice you make needs to suit the story you’re writing. Use the points of view to inform the story, so that if it’s first person, it’s because the narrator can’t know everything that’s happening around them.

These are my own thoughts on writing in the first person. Please do share your own tips and tricks, or any problems you’ve encountered when using this form.


6 comments:

  1. This is very interesting and most helpful in informing an important decision in planning every novel. Thank you, Sally!

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  2. I've just thought of a question. If I write a sequel to a novel written in the third person, can it be in the first person or is that a 'no no'?

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  3. Good question, Miriam! I think you can do whatever you want if it's what works for the story. Lee Child switches his Jack Reacher novels between third and first person on a regular basis. Stories set in Reacher's past tend to be first person, whilst present day stories are in third person. So there's definitely a precedent for doing it.

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  4. I often use 1st person in short stories, but when I've tried it in novels they've ground to a halt (although that could just be coincidental)

    Usually I don't make a deliberate decision to write in 1st or 3rd, the stories just come that way.

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  5. Good article, Sally. Miriam pointed me here as I'd asked whether I should write in 1st or 3rd voice for a second YA novel. I think I'm leaning towards 1st now with maybe a little of the unreliable narrator thrown in. Thanks for a good read.

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  6. I'm glad you found it helpful, June. Good luck with the novel!

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