Week 27

I really enjoyed writing this week. The threads of a difficult chapter came together suddenly and very satisfyingly, and I finally got back to the bones of the story, the flashback. My main character’s voice came back more bumptious than ever (sorry, hearing Danny Baker using that word has made me use it wherever I can, that and bozo), and I wrote a lot, not all good, but a lot, and as many nice ideas came out as flat ones, and I made a note to expand and improve them.

That difficult chapter made me think again about my story’s viewpoint. So far it’s in the first person. Most of what I read, however, is written in the third person, by a mostly omniscient narrator who describes sympathetically what each character is up to. It makes me think how difficult and limited first person can be, and I envy the comparative ease with which the writer can explain his or her characters’ innermost thoughts, and intentions.

I'm not alone in thinking this. Most writing advice counsels wariness when it comes to using the first person, like this on p.34 of the September 2011 issue of Writers' Forum:

“A really emotional story often benefits from this viewpoint. First person is more intimate – the reader gets closer to the protagonist and really feels for him. [...] On the down side, the first person is restricting. For example, if your ‘I’ person has a secret – say he’s done a murder – it will be difficult to keep it from your reader because of the more intimate viewpoint.”

Not necessarily. I’d cite Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby as an example of a first person narrative who does just that (ie keeps his part in a murder ambiguous).

There’s a lot that can be read between the lines when you write in first person, or even left out altogether. It’s just hard. It’s taken me a while to get used to what I can do or show with a first person narrative. There’s a lot of niceties of language I have to be careful with, as the tone is more like dialogue. My character wouldn’t go to the trouble of adjectives, of describing the feel of cloth or the phenomenon of morning traffic. It just wouldn’t occur to her as it might an omniscient narrator.

The first person is very claustrophobic – you’re in someone’s head, able only to see her more clearly through her own admissions, or what other people say about her, but only what she lets on they say – and requires you to ask yourself a lot of questions. How can you keep such a limited viewpoint interesting?

It’s also more direct: someone only writes or speaks in the first person narrative when they have an interlocutory, whether present, or a reader of a letter, say. Who is that person?

Why are they speaking like this?, is another question. What prompts someone to elucidate at length what’s happened to them or what’s going on in their head? Can we ever give an account of our actions and intentions with confidence?

All this makes me wonder if I’m making a mistake writing in the first person.

It’s what came naturally, I must admit. The very first account of this story – a non-fiction account, written more than a year ago – was written in the first person, as it was an account of first-hand experiences I had had. When it came to writing it as fiction, I assumed the first thing I should do is shift it to third person. Nice, detached, third person narrative.

I wrote a very dry opening scene about a camping trip going horribly wrong. This was in my let’s-not-plan, let’s-just-start-writing days; I don’t know where that idea came from (well, I do) and I fumbled around like the characters in the tent I'd written until it all ended rather drably. In my defence, I’d been reading a lot of Anita Brookner. I submitted both pieces to the writers’ meeting I go to, and everyone agreed the first was best: punchier, more lively, more exciting. They suggested I stick to first person.

So far I have. But in that one difficult chapter, where my character is grappling with her present life, memories and regrets, it rolls between the two. Sounds odd, I know. It’s a technique I thought of in the planning stages of my book, but it’s one that occurs naturally in my writing too, naturally because it fits her predicament.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Macall in To Have and Have Not

I recently read Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, after googling for novels that use both first and third person narratives for the same character. It was strange: Harry Morgan spoke for himself at first, but then the book drifted off into third person, describing him from afar and through the eyes of others. It was a disconcerting reading experience. By the time Morgan is left for dead, you’ve left him altogether. He’s no hero; he deserved it. There’s something there about the disposability of human life, and I want to read more Hemingway to get a better understanding of what he’s getting at.

What am I getting at? I don’t know. Narrative nerves, I suppose. I hear my main character talking to me, explaining herself in her own words, but sometimes I feel I'd make things easier for myself if I just told it from a third person's perspective. I wouldn't have to spend so long on all these questions, thinking myself into not only her thoughts, but her way of expressing those thoughts too.

It's just I’m not sure her story would work in the third person, it doesn’t have the required clarity. Besides, there’s too much written now that wouldn’t work in the third person. Her view of things is very important: it’s warped, but I hope it’s also captivating.

But it’s also hard to focus on the story and not on the interior when you’re in the mind of someone else. I worry it’s too hard to write in the first person.

Do many people use it for their first books? Can you think of any examples? Especially any books that move from first to third and back, whatever the technique used (a letter, diary entry, whatever)?

Word count this week: 2,806 Total word count: 48,672 First draft: 30,878